The jeans category had a strong run in the fashion spotlight through the first two years of the new century, with dozens of new companies jumping into the denim game, often with high-end and high-priced products. But the constant glare of attention has lowered the demand for denim, and some in the fashion flock are starting to scramble to other fabrics.

Yet when one talks to the executives at the top of the nation’s largest jeans companies, they show little concern about whether denim is hot or not.

Their reason for confidence is clear when one turns to a ranking of the 10 most-recognized jeans brands, which contains few if any surprises.

Despite more than five years of sales declines, sesquicentenarian Levi Strauss remains the most-recognized brand in the category, a distinction that only seems fair for the company that invented blue jeans. The brand’s recognition is likely to grow even further starting this summer, when a spin-off label called “Levi Strauss Signature” makes its debut in Wal-Mart’s 2,800 U.S. doors.

A long but recently ended sales slump didn’t much affect Gap’s recognition level with consumers either, as the brand settled in at fifth place.

Exactly what causes consumers to remember a brand can be unclear, but Lee’s appearance in the second spot suggests that people remember seeing dolls explode. The brand, part of the VF Corp. stable, has prominently featured its Buddy Lee character in ads in recent years, though it has also started to tweak its campaigns to be more product-focused. A prime example is last fall’s spots introducing the stain-resistant Lee Performance Khakis, which featured a woman pouring red wine onto her pants.

The average price paid for a pair of women’s jeans in the U.S. is about $23, which helps explain how Gap Inc.’s moderately priced Old Navy chain weighs in at third place. It illustrates the point that for every one shopper who’s ready to drop $150 on a handsanded, low-rise pair of jeans to wear to the clubs, there are dozens of women looking for an inexpensive, comfortable choice to wear on Saturday mornings.

Similarly, Wrangler, VF’s largest mass-market offering, is placed solidly in fourth place.While comfort may drive a lot of jeans-buying decisions, clearly sex still sells as well. Case in point: Guess Inc. While the company has experienced tough going in its wholesale business over the past year, its retail chain continues to grow. The company also continues to focus its advertising campaigns on concise, sexy images.

J.C. Penney Co. executives said when they decided to cut back on the number of categories in which they used their Arizona Jean Co. brand, their aim was to increase fashion interest and inventory turnover, even if it meant sacrificing some volume. The move appears to have increased the brand’s standing among consumers as well, as Arizona took seventh place.

The lesson in Jordache’s placement in the top 10 appears to be that if a brand is going to tie its fortunes to a single account, it doesn’t hurt for that account to be the world’s largest retailer. Jordache Enterprises over the past year has pulled back on an effort to extend its flagship name into higher-priced retailers, changing the name of the Jordache Originals line to Vintage 79, with “By Jordache” appearing in small type on the buttons. Still, the flagship junior line, sold only at Wal-Mart, placed a solid eighth.

Tommy Jeans is the sole designer name on the category list, which is dominated by more historic jeanswear names. Tommy’s presence on the list suggests that the heavy promotional and image-building activities of modern designers can clearly overcome the power of history.



1. Levi’s

2. Lee

3. Old Navy

4. Wrangler

5. Gap

6. Guess

7. Arizona Jean Co.

8. Jordache

9. Tommy Jeans

10. Bugle Boy

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