TOKYO — Japan’s jeans market has enjoyed a boom for more than three years thanks to women who took to jeans fashions in increasing numbers, with a synergetic effect on boosting men’s sales.

According to major retailers, a reversal in sales by gender occurred last year, as sales of women’s jeans surpassed those of men’s for the first time. There are no official statistics on production and sales of jeans in Japan and industry estimates vary. Sources put annual unit sales between 62 million and 65 million pairs, of which an estimated 20 million pairs are domestically produced and the remainder imported from China, Indonesia and other countries.

Industry executives have mixed views about the future of the jeans market here. On the positive side, more women and men in a wider spectrum of ages are wearing jeans in homes, streets and business offices. On the other, Japan’s population is on a decline from a lower birth rate.

For the moment, however, manufacturers and retailers are riding on the rising popularity of the jeans or denim look. Levi Strauss Japan has revised upward its estimated sales for the just-ended first half of fiscal 2003 to $108.6 million (13.03 billion yen). The latest six-month figure, according to the Japanese-incorporated subsidiary, is 10.2 percent more than what the company forecast six months ago and 17.7 percent ahead of a year-ago level of $92.3 million (11.07 billion yen).

The Tokyo-based company said it was able to exceed its initial sales goal for the period because sales of women’s and men’s tops were stronger than expected.

The brand’s core 501 jeans compose the core of its business, Levi Japan said, stressing that the company values tradition, but at the same time offers casual apparel consisting mainly of high-quality and innovative jeans. Last fall, Levi Japan launched a 501 sales campaign targeting Japanese women and offering new models tailored to their body sizes and shapes.

Edwin Co. is emphasizing fashion jeans featuring such elements as W-shaped back-yoke stitching, rich embroidery, selvage-streak denim, stretch, slash pockets and flared or bell-bottom styles. Low-rise jeans made a debut in the Japanese market about two years ago, explained Takenori Ando, an executive of sales promotion at Edwin. Ando noted new jeans styles to make legs look longer and more attractive, as well as the low-rise style, are gaining popularity among Japanese women of all ages.Edwin, a privately owned company, does not disclose business results. But industry estimates put its sales at $383 million (46 billion yen) last year, a 4.5 percent gain, making it one of the two giants in Japan’s jeans market along with Levi Japan.

Mac-House Co., Japan’s largest retail chain for jeans and casualwear, reported a double-digit year-on-year increase in sales in the first five months of this year. The company, according to Katsutoshi Kurihara, president, has adopted a new business model of face-to-face selling in which trained salespeople, who are certified as “jeans advisers,” attend to each customer. The company sold 2.6 million pairs of jeans last year.

“This way, we will be able to promote our shop name as a brand,” Kurihara said, noting that his 370-store chain now has 274 jeans advisers positioned in 207 stores. This helped the company increase sales in the last business year by 8.3 percent to $348 million (41.8 billion yen).

Mac-House, which sells Levi’s, Edwin and national brands Big John and Bobson, teamed with Russell Japan two years ago to become an exclusive sales agent in Japan to market Russell Corp.’s Discus line of sportswear, with the Mossimo Sport line added a year later. Kurihara said his company has changed its merchandise policy with more emphasis on high-branded and high value-added products and away from basic lines, which, reinforced with its visual merchandising program, helped lift the company’s profitability.

The Japanese jeans market is becoming more diverse and sophisticated, with consumers seeking new products with higher processing, according to Tetsuya Takeda, deputy general manager of sales at Jeans Mate. The 99-store chain posted pretax profit of $16.4 million (1.97 billion yen) for the year ended Feb. 28, up 58.3 percent from a year earlier, on sales of $192 million (23.05 billion yen), a 3.3 percent gain. Consumer preferences are for vintage, faded and stretch types, the Jeans Mate executive said.

Replay from Italy has switched its approach from wholesaling to selling directly into Japan’s retail market, according to Masataka Fujino, director of Hero International Co., which represents the Italian manufacturer of Replay, Fashion Box Industries.The Osaka-based agent has been wholesaling Replay jeans for three years, with sales reaching $2.5 million (300 million yen) last year. “Wholesaling involves low risk but low return,” Fujino said. “Retail means high risk but high return.”

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