NEW YORK — The question on the minds of most jeans executives these days is how much longer the category can continue its strong run without fraying.

Rather like the durable bottoms they hawk, jeans companies have held up to the bumps and shocks the U.S. economy has suffered through over the past year without showing major signs of wear. Even through the first half of 2002, which has generally been a lackluster period for apparel sales, jeans sales have held up better than many other categories.

"The apparel business is still in an inconsistent time. You have good weeks and bad weeks," said Mackey McDonald, chairman and chief executive officer of Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp., which produces jeans brands including Wrangler and Lee. "But jeans have been stronger than the overall apparel category."

The fashion spotlight has been shining on the jeans market for more than two years, helping women’s sales for the sector reach the $4.8 billion mark last year, an increase of 6.4 percent from 2000, according to Chicago-based market researchers Mintel International Group Ltd.

Designers have consistently managed to churn out new trends to catch consumers’ eyes by lowering rises, weathering jeans and using lighter-weight fabrics. Yet with the passing of each season, executives acknowledged, it becomes more of a question of whether they’ll be able to come up with a new reason for shoppers to run out and buy another pair of jeans.

"It’s getting harder and harder," to come up with new ideas each season, acknowledged Andreas Kurz, president of New York-based Diesel USA Inc.

For now, consumers have continued to open their wallets in response to new styles, and comforted by that fact, as well as historic trends that show that while the growth of the jeans market waxes and wanes, demand for denim rarely dries up completely, jeans businesses are continuing to push ahead into the second quarter and are expecting at least modest growth.

As for whether the length of denim’s run in the limelight would leave consumers bored with the category, John Kourakos, president of sportswear at the New York-based Warnaco Group Inc., which produces the Calvin Klein jeans line, said, "There is always that concern, but the fact of the matter is that we are certainly in a denim cycle and that covers some ills."Regardless of whether we’re in a denim cycle or not, though, if you have great product out there and give a consumer a reason to buy that doesn’t compete with the 12 pairs of jeans they already have, they’re always willing to part with some money."

While fabric and wash remain key elements, vendor executives said consumers are showing interest in a wider variety of silhouettes. That has firms tweaking their fits and shipping a wider assortment of cuts for this fall than they have for previous seasons.

Los Angeles-based Guess Inc. is rolling out three new fits specially designed to work with stretch fabrics, which have become a key aspect of jeans merchandising. Maurice Marciano, co-chairman and co-chief executive officer at the company, said the first fit is a low-waisted, boot-cut style with no waistband and curved hem; the second is a low rise five-pocket flare with a high knee break, and third is a low-rise three-pocket flare with no back pockets.

"The key elements of our fits are low-waisted, flare and boot-cut openings, stretch and sexy," Marciano said. "Key details are seen through the washes, where they will be tinted, blasted and whiskered. They basically have an overall rustic and aged feel through pocketing, seaming and stitching details."

The company is also resuming its aggressive retail rollout, planning to open another 19 stores before the close of the year, which would boost its store count to around 250. In terms of advertising, the company plans to concentrate print ads heavily on denim and leather pieces to be placed in Vogue, Marie Claire, W, In Style, Interview, Jane and Vanity Fair magazines. It also plans to run a series of outdoor ads in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Todd Howard, president of New York-based Tommy Jeans, agreed that having a wider variety of cuts compared with recent seasons will likely be important for fall and holiday.

"For us, the message has been the breadth of the offering and not the depth," he said. "It used to be about depth."

The brand’s second-half lineup includes low-rise styles, flared looks and jeans with wide waistbands, in a variety of fabrics.Several executives said that after seeing a heavy emphasis on sandblasted and whiskered styles in recent seasons, which are meant to evoke a well-worn pair of jeans, they expect cleaner looks to be key for fall and holiday.

"It’s just a little more dressed up and sophisticated. Maybe we’re moving out of the Seventies and into the Eighties," said Susan Davidson, president of DKNY Jeans, produced under license by New York-based Liz Claiborne Inc., referring to the company’s holiday line. "We’re starting to move away from the whiskers and blasting."

Some of the tweaks to DKNY Jeans’ offerings for the second half include the addition of lighter-weight denims — down to five-ounce fabrics — and clean-front jeans made without belt loops or a heavy fly tab. The line also plans to emphasize black denim for holiday retailing.

DKNY Jeans isn’t alone in banging the black-denim drum. Diesel also plans to make a heavy push for the fabric for fall, said Kurz. As reported, starting next month, windows at the company’s 19 U.S. stores will be decked out in a "Blackmail" theme.

"For the first time, we will just feature a certain style of denim," said Kurz. "Black is going to be out in many variations. We think it will be very strong for fall and continue for spring next year."

Diesel, continuing its retail expansion, plans to open another two to three stores this year, targeting California. Kurz added that the company’s sales rose by double-digit percentages through the first half and that he expects to maintain that growth rate for the rest of the year.

The overall strength of demand for denim has some jeans companies that had broadened their sportswear offerings into other fabrics looking to move their focus back to denim.

"We’ve increased our penetration of denim this fall and holiday," said Sandra Campos, senior vice president of women’s at Nautica Jeans Co. here. "Last year, we had been at 10 to 12 percent, now in total about 40 percent of the line is denim-related bottoms."

In addition to pulling back from non-denim pants, that’s meant increasing Nautica’s offering of denim skirts and dresses, she added.Unionbay, a division of Seattle-based Seattle Pacific Industries, has also stepped up its emphasis on denim, offering a wider assortment of denim skirts in lengths from 22 inches to 37 inches, said vice president of sales Connie Maynard.

"I always get afraid if we plan any [fabric] bigger than denim," she said.

In the junior area, companies including Bongo and Paris Blues are refining their marketing strategies.

New York-based Bongo, a division of New Rochelle, N.Y.-based Candie’s Inc., plans to continue its aggressive consumer and trade advertising.

"This double approach seems to be successfully creating demand at both levels and is part of the reason Bongo doubled in volume this year," said Gary Bader, president of Bongo. The company said its annual volume is around $100 million.

"Having Willa wear out hot items has been very powerful at both the wholesale level and retail consumer level," he said, adding that the company has recently launched plus-size junior jeans.

Lisa Engelman, president of sales at Paris Blues, said her Los Angeles-based firm plans to introduce a new logo in the second half. Engelman said the company has decided to get rid of its current logo, which shows a few cartoon girls wearing Paris Blues jeans, and adopt a cleaner, more sophisticated logo.

"The girls were good, but it is just time to get rid of them," she said. "They were a bit young looking and I think our customer is more sophisticated these days."

Paris Blues will move away from heavy sandblasting and whiskering and toward a simpler, vintage-inspired look.

Phil Marineau, president and ceo of San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. said his firm, which expects to report its sixth straight year of sales declines this year, but aims to return to growth in 2003, is expecting the business to remain unsteady through the second half.

The firm’s first-half sales were off 8.9 percent, to $1.86 billion. That decline, as well as restructuring costs related to plant closings, drove the company $37.4 million into the red, compared with net income of $73 million a year earlier.Calling the outlook "murky," he said, "There is a great cautiousness on the part of the consumer relative to spending and that will prevail for the near future."

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