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Paying A Premium

NEW YORK — Premium jeans are here to stay.<br><br>That’s the word from retailers who keep stocking up on denim from tried-and-true brands like Paper Denim & Cloth and Diesel to smaller labels from the West Coast like Saddlelites, Yanuk and...

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NEW YORK — Premium jeans are here to stay.

This story first appeared in the July 17, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That’s the word from retailers who keep stocking up on denim from tried-and-true brands like Paper Denim & Cloth and Diesel to smaller labels from the West Coast like Saddlelites, Yanuk and Oliver Twist.

Over the last three years, the mania for premium jeans has gone through an evolution. What began with brands such as Earl and Frankie B., and reached a fever pitch with Seven for All Mankind, now marches on with the emergence of nascent cult labels like Rogan and Chip and Pepper.

As demand for denim endures, so does the call for a broader range of styles and fabrics. Yet both established and newly minted brands are eschewing super-low-rise styles and heavily distressed washes with whiskering and sandblasting in favor of sleeker, more sophisticated looks in darker denims and with less abrasions.

In order to stay on the denim pulse, stores on both Coasts have tweaked their denim mixes. They are still buying up loads of Seven for All Mankind and Paper Denim & Cloth, yet are also making sure to carry a small sampling of underground labels.

Despite the saturation of the category, with new brands popping up with increasing frequency, stores are anxious to create a rounded assortment. While some are scavenging through the market for the next must-have label, others are refining their offerings.

“It’s an already crowded field, so you have to take your customer into consideration,” said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager at Henri Bendel. “Some of the new denim lines fit into our profile, some don’t. Our girl still wants something that’s sexy that they can go out in. They want a jean that is of the moment, they want a fabric that molds to the body better and they want the updated wash. If you’re very focused and very edited on who your customer is, you won’t become over-assorted.”

Some of Bendel’s best-selling denim lines include Paper Denim & Cloth, Oliver Twist and Rock & Republic.

The impact of new labels on the market is significant. Avid shoppers are always after the must-have jean and that type of hype is usually associated with new names. These lines tend to break out thanks to word of mouth, successful selling tests in stores, editorial placement and paparazzi shots of celebrities sporting them.

“It’s all buzz-y. All these hot brands have come out of California, like Chip and Pepper,” said Burstell. “All of it’s really quick, though, and not all of them have a lot of longevity.”

Yet a brand’s continued success, manufacturing and distribution travails aside, boils down to the fit.

“We’ll try a new line in a small way, in a handful of doors and see what the response is,” said Colleen Sherin, fashion market director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “If it explodes, then we’ll put it in maybe 30 or 40 doors, but in the end its success is really all about the fit.”

That is what in part has fostered Seven for All Mankind’s success since it was founded three years ago. However, now that Seven’s partner and designer, Jerome Dahan, has left the company and created another denim line called Citizens of Humanity, retailers have been supportive in picking up the line and report that demand for Citizens has been booming.

“I create the style, the look and choose the fabrics and washes, but I really work on the fit,” said Dahan. “I want it to be perfect, so that when a girl who wears a 28 goes shopping for jeans, she can always pick that size up without having to try it on. It gives me the advantage because I can make a sale faster. Plus, it creates a trust with a customer.”

Yet with the increasing competition offered by newer labels, more established brands have had to keep designing fresh styles and product offerings in order to keep their market share.

“The better brands try to offer different rises and cuts so that they can have women with all different body types wearing their jeans,” said Sherin. “Also, they’ll offer them with or without stretch because there is a need for both. The smarter ones will offer more options for customers, so that they can really capture the market.”

Barneys New York, which was a strong advocate of Seven for All Mankind from the start, is also carrying Citizens of Humanity and hot New York-based jean line Rogan.

“Seven is still going strong,” said Terence Bogan, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for Barneys Co-op. “These other brands haven’t cut into their business at all. As long as brands keep offering consumers new products, they can hold onto their market share. But they can’t just rest on what they’ve done, what’s worked before; they have to take that to the next level.”

There’s also the issue of trend-driven shoppers who are always on the hunt for the next hot thing and tend to discard jeans once they go mainstream. Such fashion haughtiness tends to spur on the creation of smaller, more exclusive jean labels.

“Sometimes the fact that a jean is not everywhere makes it more appealing,” said Sherin. “When it becomes too broadly distributed it loses its appeal. I think that’s why we keep seeing so many new ones popping up.”

Even though trend prophets have been forecasting the demise of the premium jean for some time now, retailers are still seeing consumer demand for it.

“It’s not going out, it keeps going,” said Sherin. “Companies are coming out with new rinses and modifying their silhouettes. They received a lot of competition when the sweat trend exploded. Customers really want both for casualwear, but sweats can’t fill their need for an item to go out at night.”

Burstell said, “It’s a category that everyone says is going to be declining, but it just doesn’t. There is every indication that it’s going to be hot for fall.”

Women’s magazines jumped on the denim bandwagon for fall, too. Marie Claire, Glamour and Lucky all had extensive jean and denim coverage in their August issues.

“I was one of those people who thought denim was going to go out,” said Alonzo Ester, owner and buyer of Hollywood Trading Co. at Fred Segal, Santa Monica. “But we still haven’t seen a slowdown in denim.”

Ester also pointed to the resurgence of denim, Western wear and Americana themes in the recent men’s wear collections in Europe and anticipates that they will lock in the product category for seasons to come.

Part of denim’s longevity among the fashion set is based on the ubiquitous slim jean and stiletto pairing for evening that has become de rigueur for celebrities, socialites and avid shoppers.

“The denim jean has become a must-have for women,” said Roopal Patel, women’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “It’s all about the jean itself, about what you can wear it with and whether it will work for day or evening. It has also become a status thing. Women are pairing them with everything from Diane Von Furstenberg print blouses to Dolce & Gabbana fitted blazers. It’s not just a look for young women, but for everyone.”

But when it comes to sussing out new denim lines, retailers are on the prowl for those that are offering something new, fresh and different.

“To get in with us, a [denim line] has to be new and different,” said Stephanie Seeley, the denim buyer for American Rag in Los Angeles. “Otherwise, it just gets lost with everybody else.”

Seeley noted such originality from lines like Oliver Twist and Ubi jeans.

Rogan, which is a favorite at Barneys Co-op and Hollywood Trading Co. at Fred Segal, is an innovator in the category.

“It’s our second season with Rogan and that’s a very different thing because it’s not as sexy, it’s more raw,” said Bogan. “But there’s a certain customer for it. I think it’s more about a denim connoisseur.”

“Rogan definitely has its roots in a kind of workwear feeling in terms of detailing and ideas, but at the same time it’s something we haven’t really seen,” said Hollywood Trading Co.’s Ester. “Other designers may parcel from vintage, whereas Rogan has a love for what has gone on in the past, but designs something new.”

For fall, retailers have ordered denim styles that skew toward cleaner lines and rinses, and darker washes, with less whiskering, abrasions and sanding at the seams.

“Bergdorf’s is going with jeans that are staying true to classic rinses and washes,” said Patel. “We’re also looking for jeans that make women look good and have the shape and silhouette that they want.”

Top sellers at Bergdorf’s include Paper Denim & Cloth, Blue Cult and Adriano Goldschmied.

In the end, as Burstell observed, “Women are going to buy whatever jeans that make them look the thinnest.”

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