By  on February 3, 2009

The rise of the so-called “premium” market, with its $100 embellished T-shirts and whiskered jeans often retailing at car-payment price points, is clearly one of the decade’s biggest men’s apparel phenomena — and in recent seasons, an unavoidable staple at Project.

Perhaps too much of a staple, show organizers have realized.

As Project Las Vegas decamps for Mandalay Bay with a smaller trade show footprint, many brands popular with department stores and youth-oriented retailers such as Metropark will be absorbed into the MAGIC floor. Meet Premium at MAGIC.

As part of a larger initiative to revive the gray lady of Vegas apparel shows, Premium at MAGIC will replace the men’s Designer and Contemporary area. It focuses instead on a contingent of men’s and women’s embellished lines, fashion underwear brands, luxe jeans and young men’s sportswear brands aimed at better boutiques and mall-based specialty chains.

MAGIC International president Chris DeMoulin said the aim is to help “reinvent the look, feel, flow, and dare I say ‘vibe’ of the show,” while refocusing Project as home for more fashion-forward sportswear.

“This was driven by the retailers, it’s about making their lives easier,” DeMoulin said of the new section, which he estimates will be about 60,000 square feet. “The bulk of the brands [at Premium] had migrated to Project in the last three or four years. These are great brands, but they’re not directional and advanced.”

In recent years, many sportswear brands and premium denim titans have left MAGIC for Project, from Ben Sherman and Victorinox to Seven For All Mankind. Some, like French Connection men’s wear, will be returning to MAGIC in the new Premium section, according to show officials, while others, like Lucky Brand Jeans, have opted not to attend the Las Vegas shows, a Lucky Brand spokesman said.

Moreover, not all brands in the debut of Premium are embellished lines. Classic sportswear from labels like DKNY, Nicole Farhi and Original Penguin will be among the mix.

Among the largest vendors slated to exhibit at Premium as of press time are Levi Strauss & Co. and English Laundry, with premium denim from Silver Jeans, LTB Jeans and Do Denim. Joe’s Jeans, True Religion Brand Jeans, Paige and other luxury denim leaders will remain at Project Las Vegas.

The new section also appears to be price conscious, or at least relatively so: None of the brands interviewed will be showing triple-digit retail price tags for premium T-shirts that have propelled much of the young men’s market in recent years (Ed Hardy, anyone?). “If you can get an outfit now for $75, you’re rockin’ in the right place,” said Leila Ross, whose Los Angeles showroom carries Anama, a Miami-based sportswear line with men’s premium T-shirts and denim slated for exhibition at the new MAGIC show.

English Laundry creative director Christopher Wicks, who’s been a vocal advocate for MAGIC while other brands have publicly scowled at the show’s direction, predicted Premium “will be shopped by better boutiques and department stores, but it’s not the place for Barneys, for Maxfield.”

At his company, Defiance USA Inc., Wicks continues to roll out new lines and product categories, building on the success of the embroidered shirts he asserts spawned a cottage industry of competitors (“I’m appalled by the knock-off brands I see along Melrose,” he quipped during a recent interview at his downtown Los Angeles headquarters). In addition to fashion watches and a midtier collaboration line with Hot Rod Magazine, he’s launching a collection of formal wovens with vintage-inspired fabric from the Sixties — a nod to his design beginnings at Hillingdon Shirt Co. in Manchester, England. Retailing from $95 to $150, the button-front shirts sport attached cuff links, taping at the neck and cleaner embroidery hits.

Creating an eye-catching woven shirt while eschewing embroidery is also a focus for 191 Limited. Founded in 2002 by Parth Sharma and Girish Karnani after a lucky casino trip turned their $191 into a down payment for their line, the duo has turned to screen-printing or subtle details like contrast cuffs, flocking and epaulets to replace florid thread patterns. “It was a good run while it lasted, but we felt it was time to reduce the amount of embroidery we do,” Sharma said of the wovens, which retail for about $64 to $74 and have been sold in Nordstrom, The Buckle and M. Fredric. The brand is expanding its corduroy blazer offerings for fall, among other pieces.

Though the move to MAGIC was not his decision, Sharma said he received a discount of “about 15 percent” to exhibit in the new section. “I’m not sure what to expect, but I think it should be pretty good for us, and it could mean better international exposure and a different class of buyers.”

Other standout brands at Premium include Projek Raw, a Montreal-based label with extensive international distribution, but a small stateside presence. Outerwear is its bread-and-butter: co-founder Dov Cohen said the line’s double-breasted peacoats with oversize buttons and slim, $140 nylon jackets that approximate Moncler pieces are among the most popular, due to a price in-step with its current U.S. retailers like Metropark and The Buckle.

For denim, Projek Raw expects to show 30 to 40 styles at the show, most retailing for $88 with new details like three-dimensional whiskering on heavy Japanese fabrics. “We’re at a good price, but we’re not Wal-Mart. We’re for a premium boutique,” Cohen said. “Now’s a great opportunity to offer good value fashion for the mainstream. You don’t see that too often.”

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