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Denim Dish: Working With the Masters … For Walley, It’s Bottoms Up … Levi Launches Upscale Retail Format in Europe

If it didn't seem the price of jeans could rise any higher, Escada is offering "Haute Couture" jeans at $7,500.

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Working With the Masters
If it didn’t seem the price of jeans could rise any higher, Escada is offering “Haute Couture” jeans at $7,500 — and that’s just for starters.

In an exclusive program with select Neiman Marcus stores, the German fashion house is designing one-of-a-kind, made-to-order jeans for women who placed orders last week at doors in Newport Beach, Calif.; Houston, and Chicago.

The bonus was personally working with Escada design director Brian Rennie in creating each pair. At their side, busily sketching away, was senior designer Karen Baker, who weighed in with suggestions for Swarovski crystals or embroidery.

“It was so fun, if not a little nerve-wracking for some of the women,” Rennie said before a flight from Houston to Chicago last week. “They could have any color, any embellishment they wanted. Once they got it, Karen was sketching like crazy.”

Rennie worked with individual clients, taking measurements and ensuring each design would be totally different.

Orders then head to the Escada design studio in Munich. Any requests for rips, shreds, fringing or other tatters are accommodated.

“Some were even asking for holes,” Rennie said. “I might do them myself in my washing machine at home.”

From there, the jeans are sent to India, where a team of 10 tailors hand-bead Swarovski crystals and semiprecious stones, and embroider the brocade patterns provided by Rennie and the client. Even with so many hands at work on each jean, the process may take as long as three weeks.

The most coveted perk, however, might be the special Escada label inside, also stitched with the client’s name.

In all, the turnaround is three-to-six months, Rennie said.

“It’s quite an undertaking,” he said. “We’ve never done anything on this scale. We’ve only done a few custom wedding dresses or party dresses, and only for very, very good customers.”

Rennie’s own uniform prompted the limited-edition program. In his personal life and at personal appearances, the designer lives in jeans, the more embellished and altered, the better.

“I’m always asked, ‘Can I have your jeans?'” said Rennie, who was seated in the airport in a pair ripped and shredded, and festooned with real turquoise and crystals.

“To make these P.A.s a little more special, I said, ‘Why don’t we offer to customize jeans for the customers?'” he continued. “It’s a one-off shot with Neiman’s, though. It’s not even for our own boutiques.”

So what was the wildest — and priciest — pair?

“A Czechoslovakian woman in Houston wanted jeans completely covered in gold embroidery and crystals,” Rennie said. The price tag: about $9,000.

“Those Houston women are normally the wildest ones,” he laughed.
— Rose Apodaca

For Walley, It’s Bottoms Up
“You want to know about the history of My Ass?” asked denim designer James Walley from his studio near Vicenza, Italy.

Walley was referring to his cheeky denim line dubbed My Ass, which is a big seller in Europe because of its flattering fits.

“I wanted to have fun with it, to do high design and laugh at the same time,” said Walley, who launched the brand in January 2004.

Trained as a sculptor, the British designer is an expert when it comes to curves.

“Denim designers today design one feature at a time, like a pocket stitch. We design with the bum and leg in mind,” said Walley, who also has studied textile design and knitwear, and has created fabrics for designer names such as Alexander McQueen, Missoni, Emanuel Ungaro and Givenchy.

Walley, however, isn’t a rookie in the denim market. He kicked off his career in the denim industry, designing knitwear for Diesel Style Lab in Italy. He is still a consultant for the group and his office is minutes away from Diesel Style Lab’s headquarters.

For My Ass jeans, Walley said fit is clearly the bottom line.

“We don’t just add a stitch to make a boring jean interesting,” he said. “We start with a concept on how the bum can best be presented and construct from there.”

That includes extensive research on which fabrics give the optimum sculpted look. The winter collection is the brand’s first full collection of 16 form-fitting jeans for women that wholesale for 50 euros, or $61 at current exchange, to 70 euros, or $85.

For next summer, Walley teamed with Japanese artist and illustrator Saburo Ito to create five new styles featuring baggier looks such as overalls inspired by old miner’s pants and denim with buttoned flaps on the bottom, inspired by 18th-century undergarments. A mini denim jacket with a Western feel rounds out the collection.

Stores such as London’s Selfridges, Rome’s Degli Effetti, Tokyo’s Ueno Shokai and Galeries Lafayette in Paris have snapped up the brand. The collection has yet to make it across the Atlantic.

Walley hasn’t been reluctant to exploit the full possibilities of his brand. Last year, the designer presented his line in a motel in Los Angeles. Upon arrival, visitors were escorted to a bed in a private room where a lap dancer presented the jeans.

“I want to entertain,” said Walley, who plans to reprise the technique in Milan this winter.

Plans also are under way for the first My Ass shop in London this winter.
— Emilie Marsh

Levi Launches Upscale Retail Format in Europe
Levi Strauss & Co. is initiating a new retail format in Europe intended to boost its profile as a premium denim brand.

With parquet floors, a long oak denim bar and black-and-white photography decorating the walls, the concept takes Levi’s to a more chic store model. A double horse insignia and a Red Tab sign mark the store outside, said Kenny Wilson, Levi’s president in Europe.

The concept is to be rolled out across Levi’s 300 franchised stores in Europe, starting with Belgium and the Netherlands. (For a look at Levi’s expansion plans in Italy, see page 19.)

A pilot unit opened this year in Brussels on Rue Neuve, a popular shopping destination. Levi’s tinkered with the format for several months to cultivate a better customer response.

“We think now customers see immediately that we are a premium denim brand,” Wilson said.

Levi’s filmed shoppers inside and outside the store over a four-month period to evaluate the format. Modifications included clearer signing, installing nonreflective-glass windows and cleaner merchandising.

Wilson said the changes increased the store’s “capture power” by 20 percent and brought down the average age of shoppers by seven years. The new format has increased sales 30 percent at the pilot store since the beginning of the year.

Wilson said the denim bar, the store’s main feature, returns Levi’s to its roots.

“It communicates service and it goes back to our heritage,” he said, referring to when the San Francisco denim giant was sold over the counter of general stores during its pioneer days.

While jeans are displayed on racks around the bar, customers must solicit sales staff to try on jeans, which are stacked in shelves behind.

Wilson said the introduction of the bar had cut the average time it takes to buy a pair of jeans to 4 minutes from 15 minutes. He attributed this to the sales staff being more involved in each purchase.

The top 10 new products are displayed on so-called “spinner” shelving units in the front of the store, while girls’ merchandise is displayed in the back of the store.

Meanwhile, Levi’s has just premiered its new advertising campaign in Europe. Directed by Stacy Wall and styled by Nancy Steiner, it features a good-looking young ice cream man playing electric guitar in his ice cream truck. A gaggle of Levi’s-clad girls are soon in tow.
— Robert Murphy

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