By  on September 25, 2013

Chip & Pepper, a big player in the premium denim sector years ago, is back as an exclusive at Belk Inc.

Belk today will disclose a partnership with Chip and Pepper Foster, the twin brothers from Canada who founded the brand, to launch Chip & Pepper California at 100 of Belk’s 301 stores and on

Despite Belk’s marketing thrust and its motto — Southern. Modern. Style. — the management of Belk and the twins believe Chip & Pepper’s Southern California image is a good fit. They also said the new private brand represents premium denim that’s priced 50 to 60 percent below the norm for the category.

“This collection expands our denim offering to include premium fit and styles at affordable prices,” said Kathryn Bufano, president and chief merchandising officer at Belk.

Chip & Pepper California will offer men’s and women’s merchandise, with denim styles starting at $68 and priced up to $78 depending on the style and wash. The initial assortment also has men’s T-shirts, priced at $32, and women’s long-sleeve knit tops, at $38. On the drawing board are shoes, dresses and possibly kids.

“The plan is to build this out to a full lifestyle brand,” said John Thomas, executive vice president of Belk’s $1 billion private-brand program, which has been revving up its offerings, recently launching Cynthia Cynthia Rowley and Made Cam Newton, endorsed by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Belk, which is seeking to hit $6 billion in sales in the next five years, had revenues last year of $3.96 billion.

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Thomas explained why he thinks the laid-back California attitude can work at Belk. “If you think about our footprint, 60 percent of our stores are in a short proximity of either the coast of the Atlantic or the Gulf Coast,” Thomas said, implying that it’s therefore not a stretch to bring the California coast lifestyle to Belk. “There’s this very contemporary, modern casual lifestyle associated with California, and candidly, it works in the South very well.”

Thomas also said Chip & Pepper California is “a huge opportunity to get into premium denim. Chip and Pepper are denim experts. They have been part of the whole premium denim revolution that started in California.”

Belk officials said denim is already one of the best-selling categories at the store and the twins will help keep the momentum going by touring several Belk units, stopping in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Nashville later this month, to promote the line and help customers find their proper fit. Among the women’s options are the Syd skinny fit, the Syd Curvy skinny fit with a curvaceous attitude and the Jesse straight-leg. In men’s, fits include the Ike Nifus skinny, straight-leg and the Pickle Wagon straight-leg.

While some of the denim has already hit the selling floors, Chip & Pepper California men’s and women’s shops will start appearing in early October, and range from 200 to 750 square feet, depending on the store size. The label is targeting those in their late teens to those in their 30s and 40s, and is part of Belk’s drive to better cater to Millennials.

Chip Foster said the same quality, fit, fabrics and workmanship historically used in their premium products are in the Belk line. “You can’t even tell the difference from our premiums,” Foster said.

Prior to this project, which has been a year and a half in the making, Foster said he and his brother have been “frustrated designers in a holding pattern,” adding, “You know to get the distribution you need a strategic partner.” He suggested that Belk, being a private company, was a good route to take and that past deals were less palatable. Chip & Pepper launched a private sportswear line at J.C. Penney in 2007 called C7P, but that deal ended last year.

Chip & Pepper products continue to be sold on and at a seasonal store in Canada. As far as selling at other retailers, “We’re in a holding pattern,” Foster said. “We want to do this first [with Belk] and not extend the brand anywhere else,” until possibly when Belk gets in high gear with Chip & Pepper California. He did mention that he is discussing an arrangement with a Canadian retailer, and that he could continue to sell to boutiques though “they are not on top of the food chain for me. I want to take care of my baby for Belk. This is a full-time gig.”

Chip & Pepper peaked in 2005 and 2006 and then lost ground when the market got oversaturated with labels. “Buyers were not loyal to any one brand,” Foster said. “The market was polluted with so much denim. Now there is a regrouping of denim.”

The Belk deal, he said, is like “a sequel” or the next chapter to the Chip & Pepper story. The brothers have been involved in a range of projects from clothing lines and music videos to barbecue sauce, cartoons, university T-shirts, leather goods and maternity. Their licensing business, Venice Intelligence, is no longer active.

They also served as fashion correspondents for “Extra.” “We’re Canadian by birth, America by choice and Southern California by the grace of God,” said Foster.

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