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NEW YORK — While the slow ringing of cash registers this summer may have sounded off-tempo to some retail executives, back-to-school sales in the jeans and denim categories were upbeat, retailers reported.

This story first appeared in the September 5, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Shoppers have been snapping up jeans in distressed washes in every shade of blue, retailers said. Consumers were also reacting well to the black denim that many lines have included in their fall offerings, they noted. Novelty styles with included belts, center seams down the leg, or details including jewels and patchwork all performed well with junior shopps.

While low-rise remains the silhouette of choice for female shoppers, merchants said consumers are differing by age on how to interpret the trend. Junior shoppers still want very low rises, unlike older shoppers, who have begun to opt for waistbands that sit an inch or two below the navel.

Denim jackets with fur trim and corduroy jeans have also been hot this season.

Students across most of the U.S. have returned to their classrooms by now, but that does not mean the b-t-s season is completely over. In some warmer climates, teens wear shorts and T-shirts for the first weeks of their academic year, and across the country more teens are holding off on their major b-t-s buying until they’ve gotten back to school to see what their peers are wearing.

Still, denim sales have been so strong that buyers are optimistic its success will continue through the holidays, especially since new styles with embroidery and suede trim are beginning to land in stores.

“Business has been good,” said John Tighe, buyer of junior denim at J.C. Penney Co. “We are going to beat plan in August coming off a monster year, so we are very happy.”

B-t-s sales started a bit later than Plano, Tex.-based Penney’s had expected, Tighe said. He attributed that to unusually warm weather nationwide.

“True fall kicked in about week three in August, and is maintaining momentum very well,” he said. “Belted styles continue to be terrific. As far as rises, it’s still as low as you can go. Black has been good and is growing in importance, and it’s still distressed and beat up like everything else.”

Penney’s key labels are LEI, Mudd and Angels, he added.

At Belk Inc., junior sales have shown double-digit increases for the past three months, according to Steve Pernotto, executive vice president, human resources at the Charlotte, N.C.-based chain.

B-t-s was a success for junior shoppers and girls, while boys’ business has been more of a struggle, he said. The junior category has been item-driven, with novelty denim bottoms doing “great,” he said.

“We’re also chasing the tops business, which has also done great,” he added.

At the Proffitt’s and McRae’s division of Saks Inc., of Birmingham, Ala., moderate denim was the strongest category for b-t-s retailing, especially at the $29.99 price point, according to a spokeswoman. Low-rise silhouettes were important, in worn-looking fabrics, and with dirty tints and cross-hatched fabrics.

“Slubbed” looks — which use uneven yarns to create a rough surface on the fabric, in imitation of a common manufacturing problem — have caught on with shoppers, she said, adding that belted looks have also sold well for fall. Peasant blouses continue as bestsellers, especially in printed georgette with three-quarter flutter sleeves.

“Everybody wants a great pair of jeans,” said Caren Watson, who stocks 25 brands of denim at her Dallas store, Jean Connection. “Sales are up 27 percent in August, and we get a second wind for back-to-school in October, when it starts getting a little cooler and people get back in the mood.”

Dallas residents still want darker washes with a worn look in low-waist boot cuts or flares, she observed, and soft, stretchy, comfortable fabrics have been key. Her leading labels are Diesel, Miss Sixty, Red Engine, Buffalo, Seven and A.G., a new brand that sold out in two weeks. Along with jeans, the store sold a lot of soft blouses in sheer, peasant, ruffled and bohemian styles by Johnny Cotton and Buffalo.

“I don’t think the denim business has peaked yet” said Terri Reynolds, contemporary and bridge sportswear buyer for Halls, a specialty retailer with two stores in Kansas City, Mo. “We haven’t been heavily into denim in the past and I’m surprised how well it’s doing.”

Vintage-look, distressed and colored washes are driving a 15 percent increase in denim sales at Halls, where Seven and Diesel have been popular with schoolkids, she said. She added that denim jackets with fur trim also moved fast.

Neiman Marcus had expected denim sales to fall off a bit in the summer months and was pleasantly surprised that instead they gained.

“Denim business, whether it is back-to-school or not, has been amazing,” a spokesman for the Dallas-based retailer said. “Low-rise jeans with or without a belt have sold well. Bootlegs are the majority of sales along with flares. All washes have performed well except for black, which we did not expect to sell in late spring/summer. Black will probably pick up in September.”

Denim sales shot up 80 percent in July and about 30 percent in August at Tootsies, a Houston-based specialty retailer with four stores in major Texas cities and Atlanta.

“One of our best classifications has been denim, and I brought in a lot more this year than last year,” said Carrie Peters, buyer.

Top brands at Tootsies this season have been Juicy Jeans and Seven, while newcomer Joe’s Jeans has shown strength, she said. The retailer also excelled with jeans embellished with turquoise and patchwork from Sharagano and Allen B., as well as cleaner styles by Moschino and D&G. Long denim jackets that cover the hip and waist-length styles with fur trim are also big.

Seven, one of the most popular brands, has suffered from inconsistent shipping, two retailers complained.

“I could have done four times the business with Seven if I would have gotten more stock,” Peters lamented.

Most schools across the Southeast started in the middle of August, signaling the end of the first wave of b-t-s business.

B-t-s business came early for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Goody’s Family Clothing, with strong sales, especially in denim, according to a spokeswoman. Particularly strong were more traditional cuts, slightly subdued five-pocket looks, spiced up with textures and finishes, including cross-hatched denim and dirty washes and tints.

Belts, including rawhide ties or ones with whimsical buckles, were also hot items. In tops, peasant looks continue to complement denim, she noted. LEI and Mudd, always bestsellers at the chain, were stronger than usual this season, with Bongo and Squeeze also performing well. Bongo’s stretch french terry five-pocket look is hot this season, in black, khaki and blue, she said.

Levi’s has made a good comeback, she added, attributing the change to the brand’s marketing and updated looks.

Believing that b-t-s denim sales bode well for the remainder of the year, Goody’s plans to be aggressive with junior denim into the fourth quarter.

Goody’s is also testing extended size jeans, now offering sizes up to 17 in juniors with positive results.

Early school openings hurt b-t-s business for The Big Store, a 10,000-square-foot specialty department store in Tifton, Ga. While August temperatures in the Nineties hardly put customers in the mood to buy fall clothes, some school dress codes banned tank tops and shorts, which helped jeans business. According to Lynette Perlis, co-owner of the family business, whiskered, stone-washed and belted jeans sold well, along with peasant tops, turquoise jewelry and athletic footwear. Calvin Klein and Levi’s were best-selling jeans resources, she added.

At New York-based specialty chain Scoop, denim has been a strong-selling fabric for b-t-s. The company last month opened Scoop Street, which offers both women’s and men’s denim and denim-driven items. According to owner Stefani Greenfield, Seven; Paper, Denim and Cloth; Earl Jean, and Juicy Couture are all consistently fast-selling brands.

“The new denim line Habitual and Henry Duarte are doing really well with us,” Greenfield said.

Overall, Greenfield said the b-t-s season at Scoop has been better than expected.

“I didn’t realize what a great b-t-s business we had,” she said. “But we were successful because we brought product in early and Labor Day weekend was cooler, so people were shopping for fall.”

Greenfield said that while she is sure denim will continue as a wardrobe staple, as the season moves into winter, she predicted corduroy sales would start to eat into its sales.

“Cords from Joie, Seven and Juicy are already selling,” she said.

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