By  on January 17, 2012

True Religion Apparel Inc. is telling an increasingly American story to an increasingly global audience.

The Vernon, Calif.-based marketer of American-made premium jeans ended 2011 by opening its first store in China, in Shengyang, lifting its store count to 126 from 101 at the end of 2010 and its international retail roster to 17 from seven a year earlier. Jeffrey Lubell, chairman and chief executive officer, told WWD that the firm expects to open 25 stores this year, about 10 of them overseas, and is negotiating to enter additional markets in Europe and Asia. Details are being worked out for more stores in China, including one in Shanghai, that should be in place by midyear. The company’s first store in Spain, in Madrid, and its first in Morocco will open later this month.

The stores in China are being managed through a five-year distribution agreement, reached in October, with Envols International Trading Co. Ltd.

“Even with the state of affairs in Europe, I see opportunity for our brand in markets all around the world,” Lubell said. “We’re moving ahead based on our performance and not focusing on macroeconomic troubles.”

The growth of its retail operations has helped True Religion outperform many of its premium denim competitors without resorting to price-cutting. Through the first nine months of 2011, net income was up 10.1 percent, to $30.5 million, and sales advanced 18.8 percent to $300.4 million. It registered the second best performance of the apparel and retail stocks tracked by WWD last year, with a 55.3 percent increase that lifted shares to a yearend mark of $34.58. “Underpromise and overachieve,” Lubell said in summarizing the stock’s track record.

True Religion will speak with a markedly American accent as it fans out over the globe. Its new marketing campaign, which includes the relaunch Tuesday of its Web site at truereligionbrandjeans.com, is built on four distinctly American personalities — The Bohemian, The Wanderer, The Maverick and, for men’s, The Rebel, portrayed by Tallulah Morton, Alicia Rountree, Julia Dunstall and Brad Kroenig, respectively, in photos by Alexi Lubomirski. Its home page will be headlined “The True American” and each component of the line, still dominated by jeans and denim sportswear, will fit into one of the four archetypes. Otherwise black and white, the imagery features subtle spot coloring, as one might expect, in red, white and blue.

“‘Made in the USA’ is an important concept behind this brand,” Lubell said. “I’d rather move up the price and stay in America wherever commodities like cotton and oil may go. I’m not buckling to the ‘you have to have a $100 jean’ pressure. I look for a certain margin. That dictates the price of the product.”

In the third quarter, the average price of jeans in its own stores was $240 versus $241 in the 2010 quarter. Lubell, who says his wholesale business is weak on the women’s side and healthy in men’s, faults U.S. stores for “teaching the consumer to buy on sale and cannibalizing their own businesses.”

ModCo Creative, the firm’s new agency, handled the multiplatform marketing campaign, which includes streamlined browsing and navigational features on the Web site and, next month, an inaugural foray into digital advertising with nytimes.com. In the past, True Religion ads had featured Gisele Bündchen, Tori Praver and Gabriel Aubry.

In addition to its 109 U.S. stores and single unit in China, True Religion finished 2011 with five stores in the U.K., four in Germany, three in Canada, three in Japan and one in the Netherlands.

“I always wanted to be a retailer and control my own destiny,” Lubell pointed out. “It’s easier to collect money from yourself.”

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