LONDON — New denim boutiques here are seeking to offer their premium customers a high-end shopping experience, guiding them through the mind-boggling array of brands, fits, washes and silhouettes.
Denim boutiques Trilogy and Donna Ida opened in London's Chelsea late last year, following the path of Start, a contemporary and denim shop located across town in Shoreditch, East London.
While Start's denim selection is sold alongside designer sportswear and accessories, Brix Smith-Start, the owner, has offered a denim fitting and advice service since the store opened in 2002.
"[Denim] is a great way for customers to access designer brands," said James Leslie, one of the owners of Trilogy, which is in the Duke of York's Square, a shopping area off King's Road in Chelsea. "We wanted the customer to feel special about that entry into designer product."
So Leslie, with his business partners Lesley Torson and Mark Cocozza, created a 900-square-foot store with crystal chandeliers and black lacquered points, with an additional 450-square-foot basement area dedicated to fitting rooms. The store, which carries brands such as J Brand, Sass & Bide, Ksubi, Citizens of Humanity and Juicy Couture, offers customers advice on denim fits and a denim alteration service. The owners said the store was partly inspired by the level of service they experienced at visits to boutiques such as Scoop and Intermix on trips to the U.S.
"In the U.K., when you go to a department store to choose jeans, [there is normally] no service and no advice," Torson said. "We wanted to [let consumers know] about the latest jean, but also about the perfect fit."
Donna Thornton, a former marketing executive for Lowe & Partners, opened her 650-square-foot boutique, Donna Ida, on Draycott Avenue in Chelsea in October. Thornton agreed that the experience of buying jeans at department stores had also prompted her to try to improve the denim shopping experience.
"I went to one store and tried on a pair of Sass & Bide's Moscow Nights," said Thornton, whose store carries lines ranging from Lee to Rock & Republic. "I wish the assistant had told me ‘These jeans will make you kill yourself.' There is definitely a market for helping people find the right jeans."The market has been strong enough to spur Thornton and the Trilogy owners to set their sights on expansion, opening more stores in London. The owners of Trilogy declined to comment on first-year sales, but Leslie said Trilogy had "traded ahead of budget." Thornton estimated Donna Ida would reach sales of $1.2 million in its first year. Trilogy will launch a transactional Web site in September and plans to create a private label collection.
All three stores said that their sales came from a repeat customer base of women who they'd helped find denim brands and fits that flatter them.
"Every jeans size has different fit problems….I'm like a psychoanalyst for denim," said Smith-Start, whose store displays one model of every fit the store carries, including brands such as Acne, PRPS, Citizens of Humanity and Superfine.
The unit's spacious changing area features decorated patterned wallpaper, flattering lighting and photos of the store's resident pugs.
"Everyone has a part of their body they hate, and I always wanted to be able look at someone's body and guide them [to what jeans suit them]," Smith-Start said.
Torson is applying a similar strategy at Trilogy. The store carries sizes 23 to 34, arranged by leg shape rather than brand.
"We don't cater to one type of person," she said. "When we're buying, we make sure there's a cross section of choice."
At Donna Ida, Thornton also offers a service for pregnant women that allows them to have their regular jeans converted into a pair of maternity jeans. The process involves stitching a piece of jersey around a reworked waistband.
While all the stores do carry differing levels of contemporary collections along with denim, the owners said that they didn't feel that the rising popularity of dresses and the lack of a strong trend to supplant the skinny jean signaled a down trend in the denim market.
"The denim market is growing [in the U.K.]," Leslie said.
A Mintel International Group research report published in June said spending on jeans in the U.K. was expected to reach 1.51 billion pounds, or $3 billion at current exchange, by the end of 2007, an increase of 4 percent compared with last year."[The market] is a lot broader," Torson said. "Whether it's skinny or high-waisted, denim is what people wear. Trends will come and go, but the basics will stay."
Torson noted that fashion-forward customers tend to test a new style, such as high-waisted jeans, while buying regular-fit jeans, too.
"The volume of denim is maybe not quite the same as when [consumers] had to have a certain brand of denim," Smith-Start said. "However, now it's more understated, subtle denim that people want. It's a staple."
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