LOS ANGELES — It’s fitting that the Golden State is the epicenter of the 21st-century jeans gold rush.
Bavarian Levi Strauss may not have foreseen the longevity of the denim work pants and later the riveted jean he patented in 1873, but the denim stars have been in alignment in California ever since.
From suiting up the miners and the cowboys of Hollywood to outfitting the Sixties youth movements, jeans didn’t reinvent themselves much along the way, until recently.
“Sure, it goes back to the Forty-Niner days when they needed rugged clothing, but now that same garment has turned into a fashion staple as our lives have become de-formalized,” said Kevin Jones, museum curator at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. “Levi’s is still the same jean it was 150 years ago…and it seems that every other jean is a rip-off of the original Levi 501.”
For San Francisco-based Levi’s, the hard-learned lesson is that even market leaders need to maintain constant vigilance. Still the biggest jeans brand in the world, it has ceded ground in the last decade to peppier, niche rivals, many of whom started in California and have capitalized on the casual glamour lifestyle idolized in the state and its laid-back business approach.
“Small businesses can start here out of a van or a trunk,” said Gene Montesano, co-founder of Lucky Brand Dungarees. “There’s always little contractors here and laundries who’ll help out. There’s a very laboratory, artistic vibe here. You don’t have to be in a suit to negotiate.”
Fledgling companies also find support in California retailers, who often pride themselves on cutting-edge fashions and are willing to make room on store shelves for a new product to lure customers.
“Denim is not just about denim, it’s about fashion, so there’s always room for newness like another T-shirt line or sweater line,” said Jackie Brander, owner of Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica.
The only conundrum with the product is its durability, making it harder for consumers to justify another purchase without the help of advertising boosting demand. That’s where California’s marketing machine comes in, home to Hollywood and its image-makers.For start-ups, the quickest way to ignite buzz is on the posteriors of high-profile celebs. Those who don’t have the deep pockets of Calvin Klein, who 23 years ago linked 15-year-old hottie Brooke Shields with the phrase, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins,” or Guess Inc., whose advertisements once touted German beauty Claudia Schiffer and Anna Nicole Smith, prefer plying the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Jennifer Aniston and other A-listers with their wares.
“Access to celebrities is why California is so important,” said Sue Eaves, co-owner of two-year-old Lix jeans, the jeans with the signature Western belt loop worn by Lopez on the movie set of “Gigli.” “They shop here, they work here. It just seems easier to get ahold of them and their stylists.”
When the jeans require a bigger cash outlay on the part of the customer, image is everything to the product.
“It’s become the blueprint…as soon as you move into a higher-end product, it becomes even more important because perception is a huge part of what drives the customer,” said Tadd Zarubica, spokesman for Los Angeles-based Hudson Jeans, who is also a marketing professor at Otis School of Art & Design. Zarubica said he’s currently working on celebrity partnerships for the year-old line.
However, the newer denim players don’t move the needle much in terms of market share. Most of the California upstarts have sales from under $10 million to less than $50 million, but they’ve engineered more changes in styling, washes and rises in the last several years compared to the last century, forming a radical new silhouette.
Earl Jean Inc. pioneered the low-rise, flared look in 1996 that instantly relegated its “natural waist” counterparts to Goodwill Industries for those seeking fashion credibility. New York behemoth Nautica Enterprises, which was bought by VF Corp. last week, swooped in and purchased the trendy line two years in a cash and stock transaction worth $586 million.
Four years ago, Frankie B. pushed down the fashion envelope to an itty-bitty 5-inch rise, and Blue Cult came out with its “Butt Lifter.”
Gimmicks aside, central to most of the companies’ pitches is the benefit of an American-made garment, head-to-toe from the denim mills to the sewers to the wash houses. While homegrown products generally have higher price tags, retailers appreciate the quicker turnaround available from local players.“I can use them for fast reorders,” said Randy Brewer, general manager of Villains Vault in San Francisco. “I also don’t have to worry about the fluctuating dollar against foreign currencies, like the euro. Right now, for Italian lines, prices will have to go up or they’ll start losing money.”
A majority of these upmarket players can tout the backing of experienced management, especially from those companies eager to slice off a piece of the denim pie. Young men’s sportswear brand JNCO plans to launch its contemporary line called J&CO, featuring denim, twill and athletic wear, at MAGIC International in August. The moderately priced looks feature five-pocket styles in tinted and crinkled looks, creased fronts and cargo pockets.
Co-owner Milo Revah said the market’s allure continues and thinks the moderate sector is underserved. J&CO’s wholesale price points will range from $10 to $12 for shirts, $19 to $24 for athletic separates and $27 to $37 for denim.
“The young contemporary audience is now, more than ever, open to experiment with new denim concepts, fits and washes,” he said.
Streetwear brand Kik Wear Industries in Los Angeles, which also markets juniors line Kik Girl, launched its contemporary line called Glitz last year. Slouchier trousers, flat fronts and seamed legs are the highlights of the denim that wholesales for $54 to $79. Cut-and-sew sweaters, double-waistband corduroy pants, and skirts and jackets complement the line.
Enough years of free advice prompted twin brothers Chip and Pepper Foster to launch their denim line this past March. The colorful duo behind the Golf Punk label and store on Melrose Avenue took their product directly to retailers and have opened 40 accounts. They ship in July to Rolo in San Francisco, Scoop in New York and Madison in Los Angeles.
“People used to come to us and picked our brains for designs, and we said, ‘This is stupid. We know the trends and can do this ourselves,’” said Pepper Foster, who believes authenticity sells. “This product has integrity. You’re buying into us, not some corporate giant.”
To really demonstrate the incestuous relationship of the business, Capital Tailors, a line of classically tailored clothes fused with denim that launched at the Designers & Agents Annex at the Los Angeles Fall II-Holiday Market in June, is run by Joe Krafka, former president of Earl Jean, and is financed by Red Tiger Trading Co., a holding company backed by Gene Montesano and Barry Perlman, founders of Lucky Brand Dungarees.Krafka, however, downplays the experience angle.
“Of course, it helps, but the business is always problematic,” Krafka said. “To be successful, you have to do everything right.”
Still, it’s hard to quibble with initial success. California shops Tracey Ross in West Hollywood and Stacey Todd of Studio City, along with Scoop in New York and Barneys Japan all placed orders for the 30-piece line, which crafts Japanese and Italian denims into dressier trousers, with taped seams, blind hems and curtain waistbands. Twill, herringbone and glen plaids round out the mix in skirts, blazers and constructed jackets.
Mindshare has propelled Citizens of Humanity to potential first-year sales of $20 million, according to co-owner Michael Glasser, a denim veteran who co-created Seven for All Mankind jeans three years ago and left amidst a lawsuit with partner Peter Koral.
The controversy hasn’t stopped Ron Herman/Fred Segal on Melrose, Scoop, Barneys New York, Bloomingdale’s and Harvey Nichols from picking up the new basic line of denim jeans and jackets with narrower legs and clean washes. It wholesales for between $50 and $140.
“It’s unbelievable, and we’ve done it without any advertising,” he said. “When we said we were going to launch this product, people trusted us and knew we could deliver the product. They stepped up and gave us orders. It’s all in the relationships.”
Glasser said past experience also helped develop the company strategy: limit supply to boost demand.
“We don’t want to overexpose and dilute the brand,” Glasser said.
For Anouk Guez, co-founder of five-month-old Yanuk jeans, it’s all in the family. It doesn’t hurt that her father Paul’s company, Blue Concepts, a unit of Innovo Group and producer of jeans for American Eagle Outfitters, is backing her enterprise and is producing the product.
“There are advantages and disadvantages,” she said, estimating first-year sales at $5 million. “He makes it harder on me down to the detail — right now I’m calculating thread count for each pants. But, I also know that someone here will have the answer to any of my questions.”The standouts in the contemporary collection’s denim, twill, canvas and corduroy looks are the six-pocket jean, featuring a slim bootleg and smaller layered pocket on the back, and the worker, a vintage-washed jean with a snap front and flaps on the back pockets.
Guez remains undaunted by the competition, capitalizing on women’s insatiable quests for vanity.
“There’s always room for a new denim line — if it makes her [behind] look good, she’ll buy it,” she said.
To weather the peaks and the valleys of sales, most companies go beyond offering denim. Blujeanious not only made a name for itself with its five-pocket, hand-sanded, worn-in jeans aimed at the Baby Boomer, but also with its array of colors and fabrics. One denim style features tints of charcoal, green and brown gold, and a sulfur dye gives its sateen sueded poplin pants a vintage look in shades of copper penny, slate, nickel and green gold.
“We know the customer is saturated with denim, but they love the jean silhouette, so we to try to mix in other things in the styling,” said Robin Olgin, co-founder of Blujeanious, whose 27 years in the trade include a stint at Rampage.
At the Jolna Design Group, Steven and Kerry Jolna have added two lines in the last year to their signature Bella Dahl collection to reach new customers. Bella Elemento was the second style begun in January targeting the older customer with its 8-inch and 9-inch rises that has quickly made its way to 400 accounts, including to M. Frederic stores in the Los Angeles area, Nordstrom and E Street Denim in Chicago. Bartack rolled out quietly during the June market in Los Angeles, offering a cleaner silhouette with low rises, pockets lined in red and an extra-heavy bar tack stitch on the rear pockets.
The added breadth can propel the company from revenues of $5 million just two years ago to $14 million this year, according to chief executive officer Kerry Jolna.
“In this business, you’re lucky to ride the rocket and we like to have many rockets blasting at the same time,” he said.Like microbreweries who often evolve more for the craft and cause in rebelling against industry giants, some denim players proclaim they’re not looking to ascend the throne as heir apparent to Seven or seek the corporate buyout.
“My partner and I both have full-time gigs elsewhere, but we’re having the time of our lives and are in it because we love jeans and making them,” said Greg Duzian, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Barstow Jeans.
Duzian said he limits production of his rocker-feeling jeans, with their broken twill fabric and Old English font labeling across the posterior, minus the back yoke, pockets and leg hems. Miniskirts feature zigzag stitching, extra seams and wide waistbands. Yearly sales hover at $170,000 for the 18-month-old line, which includes jacquards and dobby weaves, along with small runs sparked by creative whims.
“We’ll do creations when we’re inspired,” he said. “We’re not dictated by the seasons.”
At Farmer, an 18-month-old line offering seven styles with minimal abrasion, darker dyes and signature red tags on the pockets, co-owner Amy Gammon is still running her theater production company. The line once sold to 50 stores, but scaled back to 20 stores, including Monkie in Santa Monica, because of limited financing and resources.
“It’s been the most gratifying and painful experience of my life,” she said. “Our company focuses on dead-stock fabric with maybe only 500 yards left so that limits us to what we can do.”
Even the young minds behind Glendale, Calif.-based Saddlelites, a new line that also bowed at D&A last June, want to exercise restraint. Company duo Daniel Green, 20, and Lukus Eichmann, 19, had the good fortune of politely maneuvering their way into the show two days before it began and transforming a closet space into a industrial-looking exhibition booth.
They may have received $250,000 in orders at the show for their ultra high-end jeans blending Western and futuristic themes in Japanese speckled denim with quadruple stitching on the leg seams, double-sided denim, a curved lower leg seam and perimeter pocket embroidery, but they’re not likely to fill them all. They plan to ship mid-September to 12 accounts, including Barneys New York, Colette in Paris and Ron Herman/Fred Segal on Melrose.“We don’t want to expand prematurely,” said Eichmann, who projects $1.5 million in first-year sales. “We’re new to fashion and want to check out the stores and get to know them before we sell to them.”
As small as these neophytes are, more established brands, such as Guess Inc. and Lucky, can’t afford to ignore their presence.
Guess, which began in 1981 with its three-zip, figure-hugging Marilyn jean, launched its G-Brand higher-priced brand about three years ago, selling the line exclusively at its own stores. Those 180 stores also give it a merchandising edge that smaller brands can’t emulate.
“The Guess retail stores are extremely important because we can control every aspect of them,” said Nancy Shachtman, Guess president of wholesale. “In a way, our Guess stores are our largest form of advertising because we can really show the customer what we are about.”
With the help of parent Liz Claiborne Inc., Lucky has grown its chain from eight units when it was purchased in 1999 to 80 by the end of this year.
“I liken it to Ralph Lauren before he opened up his store — his customers had no idea about the culture and the image, they just thought of it as a ties and khakis company,” Montesano said. “Our retail stores are our best example of what we do and customers don’t just shop there, they get inspired.”
With about 1,050 wholesale department store and specialty accounts at Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and the Buckle, Montesano and Perlman feel they’ve tapped out of the U.S. market and are expanding to Europe.
There’s also a chance that denim will be a smaller part of the business. Right now, it accounts for 70 percent of sales and that number may shrink to 50 percent.
These moves could only come about with the help of the firm’s new parent, he said. The venture didn’t hurt them personally either, netting them $85 million in cash and a $25 million contingent payout awarded this past March.
“I went bald and gray,” said Montesano of the deal, noting he and Perlman are involved full-time in the business. “We were a small company then and didn’t have the disciplines that we needed. Liz helped us develop those disciplines.”
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