NEW YORK — With its new DNA, Paper Denim & Cloth is evolving into a full sportswear collection.

When the company was founded in 1999, the focus was on creating premium denim for hip women and men. In early 2003, the brand dabbled in sportswear by releasing a few vintage-inspired Ts, but a full collection never emerged. Now, under new leadership, the company plans to launch an entire sportswear collection for women and men for fall 2005 retailing.

Over the past several months, Paper Denim & Cloth experienced some key personnel shifts. Chris Gilbert, the 28-year-old president of Paper Denim & Cloth, bought the company from his father, Dick Gilbert (who’s also president of Mudd Inc.), in May. Earlier in the year, Scott Morrison, co-founder with Alex Gaines (Chris’ sister) and former vice president of the company, resigned to start his own premium denim line, Earnest Sewn. Ken Girouard, previously of the Gap and Cone Mills, came on as creative director, and Carla Knapp, 25, joined in May as sportswear designer. Alex Gaines left to start her own line under her own name.

“Right now we have a perfect synergy,” said Chris Gilbert in an interview at the Paper Denim & Cloth showroom here. “The goal is to do a very highly developed sportswear collection. I see it as part of the evolution of the brand.”

Gilbert said he and Girouard searched for someone who understood exactly what they wanted to achieve with the collection, which is to create pieces that have a vintage aesthetic, namely ones that are detail-oriented.

“Ken and I share similar tastes with Carla when it comes to sportswear,” Gilbert explained. “She bases her inspiration in vintage; in fact, she has a reservoir of vintage pieces.”

Knapp, it turns out, is an avid collector of clothing and jewelry from the Twenties and the Edwardian and Victorian periods, which she frequently references when combining vintage details with modern designs. “The premium denim has always been huge for this company,” Knapp said. “But sportswear has always been an afterthought. It’s a little daunting, but I like a good challenge,” she added. The collection, which wholesales between $30 and $200, will be sold at department and specialty stores.Gilbert said his biggest goal is to create a nondenim line that can stand by itself. “Right now we have the financial freedom to create this line. Our philosophy is to bring maturity into sportswear,” he said.

The collection will include pieces like nondenim pants, woven shirts, T-shirts, polo and rugby shirts and blazers. “We’re creating pieces that feel like you’ve owned them since you were 15 years old,” said Knapp. “All the pieces work together, making them great for layering. That’s how I work. The nondenim pant,” she admitted, “fits just as well as your jeans.”

Most recently, Knapp was part of the Jill Stuart design team working on the sportswear, shoes and handbag collections. Knapp reports directly to Gilbert.

For 2005, Paper Denim & Cloth expects to generate about $30 million in wholesale volume from denim, and $10 million from the sportswear collection.

Now that Gilbert is expanding the Paper Denim & Cloth brand, he’s considering options that he never had before. “We might start doing runway shows and a full accessories line including bags, belts and scarves. We may even start advertising,” said Gilbert. The brand has had no ad campaigns to date. “I’m still going back and forth on that one. We’ve done fine without it so far.” — Lauren DeCarlo

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