By  on August 21, 2008

MONTREAL — French Dressing Jeans is getting a second chance at life.

As the label approached its 100th anniversary last year, management was busy contemplating the pending bankruptcy of parent company FDJ Monde Inc. rather than planning a celebration of its history. In December, the company filed for bankruptcy protection, throwing the future of the line in doubt.

Six months later in June, a group of local apparel industry executives picked up the brand for an undisclosed amount and formed a new company, dubbed FDJ French Dressing Inc. The group was headed by Canadian apparel conglomerate Groupe Corwik Inc. and claims annual revenues of more than $100 million. With new management in place and a return to a focus on denim product, the company is in the midst of relaunching French Dressing Jeans for fall.

“One of the main reasons we bought the company was the strength of the brand and it also complements our existing lines,” said Noah Stern, president of Levy Canada Fashion, who rescued FDJ along with Corwik and its senior managers.

Levy and Corwik are the Canadian licensees for a number of lines, including Liz Claiborne, Betsey Johnson, Perry Ellis, Dalia, Boca Authentic and Studio London.

FDJ started in 1908 as Keystone Overall & Pants Manufacturing Ltd. and gradually added jeans and jackets. The company did well from the Seventies through the Nineties, but efforts to expand beyond core denim offerings into sportswear were rushed and coincided with a declining economy in the U.S.

“It’s a more focused line now than in the past,” said Len Miller, former president of FDJ Monde, who briefly retired from the company before the new partners installed him as president of the renamed FDJ French Dressing Inc. “We got lost by going casual and adding dressy bottoms, then tops. We’re now taking a rifle approach rather than a shotgun approach.”

FDJ targets the 35-plus age group through about 2,000 boutiques and specialty stores throughout Canada and the United States. The 10-oz. jeans are made from 96 percent denim and 4 percent Lycra. Retail prices range from $79 to $89.

The jeans come in four styles according to body type. The Peggy is a regular rise with a waistband that sits at the body’s natural waistline. The Olivia, a midrise style, sits an inch below the body’s natural waistline. The Suzanne features a regular rise with tailored hips and slimmer thighs, while the Kylie is a lower rise jean with a waistband that sits two inches below the body’s natural waistline.

“When we were doing our due diligence, we visited customers and they all told us to go back to doing what we do best, which is to make denim for a 40-year-old body and not for a 40-year-old trying to fit into jeans made for an 18-year-old,” explained Stern. “And once a woman knows what style is right for her, she knows it will fit her season after season.”

Early response from customers has been positive.

“Once you know your style, the jeans fit every season,” said Janice Burns, who has been carrying the line for the last 10 years at her 3 Generations boutique in Simpsonville, S.C. “It’s a good seller and the only jean line we carry.”

Clarice Holden of Island Breeze in Sunset Beach, N.C., has also been carrying the line for about 10 years. According to Holden, the line “fits everyone’s purse and their body.”

Beyond the product, Holden also praised the company’s long-standing involvement with charitable causes.

“We had an event called Cure by Design, which raised over $140,000 for breast cancer and they were a major sponsor,” said Holden.

Michelle Kesten of Casual Way in Toronto has been a long-time customer because she said FDJ “make a great pair of pants that really fit women. Now we carry tops and jackets to complement the line.”

“Once you know you’re a Suzanne or a Kylie, you know the jeans will always fit,” she added. “I also like the company’s community involvement with breast cancer.”

As part of a marketing program designed by Precision Advertising & Promotions, FDJ donates $1 to breast cancer research every time a person tries on a pair of their jeans.

“As part of our co-op advertising program, we also send a CD to retailers containing visuals to use in-store or to put in their local newspaper. All they have to do is drop in the store’s name in the ad,” said Precision president Glen Eisenberg.

Island Breeze has used the material from FDJ for print ads, billboards and a newsletter, according to Holden.

The new owners plan to spend $2 million on marketing and promotional initiatives this year to put the focus back on FDJ’s roots.

FDJ only sells to boutiques and specialty stores, said Stern. He said the company has been approached by department stores, but won’t go that route.

“We don’t want to play the high-low promotion game. It’s part of our four pillars of success — fit, quality, customer service and a commitment to the independent or specialty store market.”

Stern noted that 89 percent of merchandise in Canada was sold on sale last year. But boutiques are built on service and usually only go on sale at the end of the season.

Ayal Twik, vice president of FDJ, said bookings for spring are 25 percent ahead of last year, while repeats for fall are also up.

“The number-one reason is the strength of the brand,” said Twik. “It has a cult following.”

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