By  on October 15, 2007

Now several seasons into the surge of men’s premium denim, the lines between brands have become blurred. With hundreds of labels to choose from—DNR’s most recent Denim Directory listed 283—few names out there can claim a truly unique spin on Levi Strauss’s 134-year-old invention. 

Back-pocket embroidery? Heaps of denim bear the stitches. A slim silhouette? Countless lines feature the fit. But an oversized plastic pill signifies just one possible brand inside its unusual packaging.

“There are so many denim brands out there in the world right now,” explains Susan Boyle, GMM of New York streetwear boutique Michael K. “When you’re trying to establish yourself in a store with tons of denim, how do you drag the customer over to see what you’re about?”

For a few enterprising brands, the most effective guerrilla warfare lies in packaging. Amongst the standard folded stacks and aisles filled with hangers, creative brands are fighting the denim glut one giant cigarette pack—or leather briefcase or polka-dotted glass vitrine—at a time.

Young Men’s: The Package Deal 
With its fickle customers who change denim preferences as often as they change girlfriends, the young men’s market is an obvious place for a gimmick. That truth was not lost on Todd Askins, himself a young man of 26 when he launched the skate-influenced streetwear line Shmack. After experimenting with cotton-bagged T-shirts, Askins exported the concept to denim in late 2004, packaging his first style of jeans, called the “Sneaker Cut,” in a cardboard shoebox. Every pair of Shmack jeans arrived at retailers in an authentic-looking shoebox, complete with the size and wash on an exterior label. Virginia Beach–based Shmack’s newest denim style, which hit stores this fall, is called the “Shlim” and comes in an oversized cigarette box. 

While Askins doesn’t force retailers to display every jean inside its cigarette box, he does believe the packaging enhances the product’s ability to be competitive on the floor. “It’s not attached to the box,” he says and, in fact, many of Shmack’s retailers display just one or two that way, and leave the rest behind the sales counter. “But our packaging is a representation of the brand. There’s a lot of detail that goes into every aspect of the brand, from the jeans themselves to the boxes they come in.” 

Imperial Junkie, launched this fall by Ruben Campos, has an equally compelling shtick: The brand packages each of its six styles of jeans in a corresponding colored pill capsule. “How do you ship a product and include signage at the same time?” asks Campos, the denim guru behind Azzure (who is also a part owner of Shmack). “It catches the customer’s eye when he walks in the store, and when he takes it home, he can use it to store stuff. It’s great marketing.” 

For Michael K., the novel packaging is a merchandising dream come true. “The cigarette boxes or see-through plastic pills definitely catch your attention, and make you walk over to see who they are and what they are about,” says Boyle. 

Izzy Ezrailson, co-owner of the 25-door specialty shop Up Against The Wall, also praises the brands for their merchandising qualities. His chain has experimented with Imperial Junkie’s pills in the store windows, in display cases at the cash wrap and hanging from a fixture above racks of the jeans. Such packaging, he says, “can be very visual if you can figure out how to use it properly in the store.” 
But creative enclosures can cause a variety of dilemmas for a retailer who lacks the space to either display them on the sales floor or store them in a stockroom. And some shoppers would prefer to simply throw their new jeans in a shopping bag rather than carry around a bulky package. “We have a collection of pills and boxes in the back because some customers refuse to take them home,” adds Ezrailson. 

On top of that, most of the packaging, he says, is “useless,” with the exception of a leather briefcase that housed a pair of limited-edition Artful Dodger jeans. “I actually saw someone walking around town with that briefcase. It would be great if more packaging was reusable.” 

Packaging costs can be prohibitive as well. Imperial Junkie’s Campos paid $8,000 for his plastic-pill mold alone, and $12 in freight for each pill he ships. Because of the size and shape of the pills, Imperial Junkie can ship only six pairs of $150 jeans per carton. “In the long run, the customer ends up paying for it,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter. If you want the coolest clothes, you have to pay for them.” 

Shmack’s Askins adds, “There are costs to doing that kind of packaging.” But, he says of his $135 price tag, “There are so many overpriced denim brands out there. We’re just trying to give our customer more than what he expects, and do it in our own way.” 

Still, in the young men’s market, where retailers report that Levi’s 501’s—with a $45 price tag—are driving the denim business, not everyone is jumping on board. Billy Rudnick, GMM at the New York–based streetwear chain Dr. Jay’s, contends that a $100-plus-retail price can be prohibitive. “If we’re selling a jean for $60 or $70, no kid is going to want to throw in an extra $20 for packaging,” he says. “And where does the security tag go if the jeans are inside a package? We can’t have that kind of headache.”

Premium: Boxing Techniques 
For those in the premium-denim market, the packaging streets were long ago paved by Evisu, which has proven that attention to encasement can often help justify a triple-digit—or quadruple-digit—price tag. The Japanese denim brand is often credited with originating creative packaging thanks to its wooden-boxed, limited-edition jeans, launched three years back. Evisu continues to employ the boxed method, twice a year releasing $1,500 limited-edition jeans within its Deluxe line. 

“For Evisu, it’s always been about the experience,” says Chad Jackson, marketing director for the brand. “The design team ties the box in with the jean. There’s always a conceptual thread.” 

For fall ’07 the brand gave a nod to its Japanese roots with a limited-edition jean in a black-lacquered bento box and this spring customers will see a bold red box to house two high-end Deluxe styles.

In its other lines, however, Evisu has rarely favored this kind of packaging, with the exception of a limited-edition jean every few seasons within its more moderate Heritage collection. Although its lowest-priced denim starts where many denim labels top off, Jackson contends that spacing out the timing of boxed offerings, “ensures significant interest and demand.” 

Jennifer Althouse, the denim buyer at L.A.’s premium-denim emporium, American Rag, lauds Evisu’s approach, noting that the bulk of her Evisu sales are not actually the $1,500 boxed jeans—even though they often sell out. “Customers always stop at that box,” she says. “It gets them into the Evisu section and gets them to try something on. The way they do their packaging shows that the brand is putting time and care into their product.” 

Despite nearly universal acknowledgement of Evisu’s packaging success, few others in the premium market have explored similar strategies. But that’s about to change. 
With its Warhol Factory X Levi’s X Damien Hirst collection, launching in spring ’08, Levi’s will offer three styles of jeans enclosed in Plexiglas and metal “vitrine”-style cases. Denim heads shopping for the jeans at retailers like Barneys New York and Holt Renfrew can likely afford the $350 to $4,000 price tags, especially given the rare pieces of Hirst art they’ll receive with each pair. 

Meanwhile, Kurt Lester’s leather portfolio casings for his Maison Bibliotheque brand are already being extolled by retailers even before the jeans hits stores for holiday. Fred Levine, co-owner of M. Fredric, was overjoyed to find Maison Bibliotheque during spring ’08 market, thanks to its high-end leather case, designed to look like a rare book. 

“Everybody has already done their own twists on embroidery, embellishments, fit and wash,” says Levine, who picked up the line for several of his 25 southern California specialty boutiques. “Packaging could be the deciding point in a consumer’s mind on which pair of denim he should try on.”

Maison Bibliotheque offers 10 styles for now, each with its own leather packaging—a collectible item, says Lester, that its owner can either store with its counterparts in his closet or carry around like a status symbol, the way a woman will tote her lunch in a Tiffany shopping bag. 

In retailers like M. Fredric, Maison Bibliotheque’s cases will be displayed as if they were tomes in a library—optimally in a trunk that Lester offers to house the collection. “The days of putting a hangtag on [a jean] and throwing it on the floor are over,” says Lester. “You want shoppers to come into the store and say, ‘What is that?’” 

Thanks to his connections at a leather manufacturer—Maison Bibliotheque counts 15 percent of its business in leather jackets—Lester calls the incremental costs of the packaging to his $225 jeans “reasonable.” Instead of seeking to diffuse the cost, Lester hopes to eventually find partners who are interested in significantly upping the ante on his leather bindings. “I’d love to do a collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton,” he muses. “Just imagine a Louis Vuitton leather case on a great pair of jeans.” 

Still, there’s a limit to the value of inventive packaging: Even if it’s the wave of the future, no man will take home a pair of jeans that doesn’t fit. “The fluff will get people into the jeans, but the jean is the substance,” says M. Fredric’s Levine. “You’re not going to wear the packaging out to dinner on Saturday night, so the jeans have to look great.”

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