The breadth of denim has evolved to transcend cultural boundaries, and has reached the widest range of prices, rises and washes the market has ever seen.

Consumers show no signs of slowing down their denim desires, especially when it comes to snatching up the hottest looks for spring, even as premium prices reach new heights.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is the most important time in the denim market since the Seventies,” said Brian Kaneda, denim co-buyer for Ron Herman, which operates five locations in Los Angeles.

Kaneda, who said the store has seen high-double-digit increases in denim sales since last year, said he fields at least 10 calls daily from new denim lines and doesn’t see the bubble bursting any time soon. “I think it’s only going to get bigger.”

Ron Herman has been doing well with lines such as True Religion, and with newcomers, including Stitches and Tsubi, from Australia.

“Denim business keeps getting stronger,” said Courtney Graham, manager at Armhole, a women’s and men’s denim store in the Lakewood Shopping Center in Dallas that attracts a young urban crowd because of its location near downtown and its mix of edgy merchandise.

“Women especially realize that, to look good, you sometimes have to make an investment, and so they’re not holding back on spending over $150 on a pair of denim jeans, especially a style that they’ll continue to wear a lot. I think, overall, customers are getting used to the concept of rising denim prices — I mean who’s going to stop wearing denim?”

Sales at Armhole have risen by high-single digits despite a surge in jean prices.

Specialty independent retailers in L.A. said denim is the only thing on shoppers’ minds and they’re willing to pay any price for it.

“We’re meeting no price resistance whatsoever because it’s such a way of life now,” said Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition, the trendy West Los Angeles boutique and online emporium. “Once you’re over $250, it really doesn’t matter.”

Lines such as Stitches, retailing for $265, and Antik, at $275, are among her hot new brands, which she said customers are snapping up.True Religion continues to be a staple, as well, said Hersh. She acknowledged that not all women can wear such low-rise styles and that there’s a need for styles to fit a range of figures.

Hersh has been surprised at the success she’s found with L.A.-based denim line David Kahn, $138 at retail, which offers a higher rise.

“It’s really for the carpool mom,” she said.

Denim sales, driven mostly by higher price points, are up slightly this spring, said Barb Schrantz, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of ready-to-wear at Proffitt’s/McRae’s, based in Birmingham, Ala. While the stores don’t carry premium denim, Proffitt’s/McRae’s has seen greater response to higher price points in denim areas.

“We’re seeing customers trade up to get the wash and the fit they want,” Schrantz said.

A spokeswoman for Macy’s Central reported that denim sales across the board continue to increase, even at premium denim price points. Denim is replacing khakis and chinos for casualwear and the basic black pant for dressier applications, she said.

Maxine Decker, owner of Alene’s Women’s Boutique in Plantation, Fla., recently moved to a larger store to accommodate more denim lines, and reported a 75 percent increases in sales. Rising premium denim price points, as much as $500, have met with little resistance.

“People will complain a little, but then rationalize” the purchase of the more expensive jeans, buying the same body in new, lighter washes, Decker said. Popular brands in the newly expanded denim section include True Religion, AG, Blue Cult and Great China Wall.

Business at Atrium in New York has increased about 40 percent since 2003, said Jennifer Scott, assistant women’s buyer.

“America is finally catching up to Europe as far as styles are concerned,” Scott said. “Everyone is past the flare and looking into skinny jeans.”

Scott said labels such as Nudie Jeans, Taverniti So Jeans and London-based All Saints offer good slim-leg styles.

“Straight leg is the fashion silhouette right now,” said Schrantz of Proffitt’s/McRae’s. “The denim market is responding to newness very well.”For spring, Armhole is sellings lots of ultrastraight-leg or cigarette-leg jeans, boot-cut and flair silhouettes in both dark and light rinses.

“The lighter washes in straighter styles are definitely more directional,” Graham said. “But there’s also still a big following for the darker washes such as indigo. We’re not getting a lot of requests for the destroyed or ripped styles like we had expected. Customers still want a finish that’s pretty clean.”

Denim bestsellers at Armhole include Rock & Republic’s “Roth” jeans, at $140 retail, which have a slim, boot-cut leg offered in light and dark washes, and a range of styles from Miss Sixty, French Connection, Ella Moss, Energie and Blue Marlin.

Boot-cut jeans remain a staple, said the spokeswoman for Macy’s Central, but knee-length skirts and culottes show promise for spring as well as cropped and cuffed lengths, with body-hugging jackets making the transition to warmer weather. Finishes range from completely destroyed to repaired and distressed in lighter washes and bleaching.

Leonard Rothschild, president of Chicago-based Lark Stores, said consumers are spending an average of between $50 and $100 on jeans.

“Embellished jeans and capris are doing great for us, but that look can be interpreted at different price points,” he said.

Rothschild predicts business will increase by “double digits” in 2005.

In addition to the slimmer-styled jeans, capris and gauchos are getting lots of play.

“The gaucho is the main body for spring 2005,” Scott said of Atrium.

Longer shirts are influencing the denim consumer. Attention has moved away from the waistband to the wash, which Schrantz of Proffitt’s/McRae’s said is much lighter with a subtly destructed finish.

The color white also figures prominently for spring, as does colorful patchwork. Scott said colorful patchwork gives destroyed styles a boost.

“Destroyed is still a big look,” she said, “but you can’t have 10 destroyed washes in your closet.”

“It’s really about whatever fits your style,” said Fraser Ross, owner of Kitson, the L.A. boutique and celebrity mecca.Ross, who carried only three denim lines last year, now carries about a dozen, and said sales have increased 150 percent. “Eight out of every 10 pants we sell are denim,” he said.

Embroidery and embellishment are the hottest tickets at his store, particularly from Antik and Seven For All Mankind. But with the “Dukes of Hazzard” movie starring Jessica Simpson set to come out this summer, he anticipates a clamor for short-shorts.

“Britney Spears bought a pair of very short shorts from La Rok the other day and wore them out of the store,” Ross said. “But let’s face it, there will always be a denim du jour.”

— Lauren DeCarlo, New York; Caperton Gillett, Atlanta; Michelle Dalton Tyree, Los Angeles, and Rusty Williamson, Dallas

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