Jeff Rudes: J Brand Stays Cool, Builds Buzz

Brand is planning a sportswear line for spring 2012.

Jeff Rudes

At J Brand’s Los Angeles offices, there are signs on people’s computers: “Ship Ron first,” said Jeff Rudes, chief executive officer.

This story first appeared in the May 18, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The jeanswear company, founded in 2004, began as an exclusive line at Ron Herman’s Melrose jeans bar in spring 2005 and became an immediate success. It is now sold in over 2,000 specialty stores and luxury retailers in over 20 countries, but Rudes never forgets his roots.

“We’re about product,” said Rudes.

For five years, the company had no product extensions and focused entirely on its popular jeans brand. Now, J Brand’s management is looking to launch a sportswear line that goes beyond jeans, so the woman can create an outfit around it. The aesthetic will be “simplistic minimalist with great fabrics and fit.” The plan is to sell 100 stores worldwide. It’s a separate team and it’s being treated like a separate company.

“It’s the first important extension of the brand,” said Rudes.

In addition to fit, what helped propel J Brand was its celebrity clientele. Research has shown that 74 percent of women will buy something they see on a celebrity, said Rudes. If the customer sees a photo of a celebrity in Los Angeles or Moscow wearing J Brand, she instantly responds. “It’s important for us to create a buzz and a cool factor,” he said.

“Denim is becoming more fashionable and more accepted as casual-to-chic dressing every day,” he said. “Denim in fashion is evolving. The customer wants to be a part of it, and you need to give her what’s new and what’s exciting.”

Over the past several years, the trends have moved from bootleg and straight leg, to skinny, wide leg, leggings, superstretch, power stretch, nondenim and now colored jeans.

He sees a lot of fashion being interpreted in denim, and the customer demands it. “She always wants it now. You have to have it as fast as you can and you have to respond to that. That’s our job. Women are passionate about their jeans. It’s very personal and there’s an emotional side to denim. If you can feel and look great [in a pair of jeans], why not?”

He said a woman goes into a store, tries on jeans, looks in a mirror and, if she likes what she sees when she turns around, the sale is made.

“The product delivers that. Denim is a very special piece in a woman’s closet,” said Rudes.

Next to intimate apparel and swimwear, denim has the most specific fits, he noted. He feels it’s imperative to educate the sales help in stores on the various fits so a customer can come in and the salesperson can quickly figure out which fit would look best on them. That helps create multiple sales and brand loyalty and applies to all brands.

“It’s not just a J Brand conversation,” the executive said.

Rudes sees an upswing in the premium denim market: “The marketplace was flat the last few years because of product. There was a decline in premium denim in certain retail levels. Right now there’s a resurgence in new talent, people paying more attention to product, and the market is stronger again. Denim as a fabric is doing well.”

He said he’s looking for denim areas to pulsate and attract more customers, which will help everybody’s business. “There are some great new talents in the marketplace. Now we have to roll up our sleeves. Someone wants to come and eat our lunch. They want our market share. But there’s a big enough market for everyone to share. It makes us work harder,” he added.

Building a fashion image has been a critical aspect of J Brand’s strategy. The image of the ad campaign and the Web site has to speak to the DNA of what the company is all about. He said consumers like to communicate with the company via the Web, which gives J Brand more information. The company has gotten involved in philanthropic activities with the entertainment industry and sponsored the MAC & Milk fashion shows during New York show week.

Based on both retail and customer demand, J Brand will make exclusive product for some stores. It has done seasonal denim collaborations with Hussein Chalayan and Proenza Schouler and has partnered with five U.K.-based designers — Christopher Kane, Erdem, Richard Nicoll, Meadham Kirchhoff and Peter Pilotto — to create five limited edition styles in a collaboration called 5×5.

“Stores are demanding more exclusives,” he said, noting some 20 percent of stores’ open-to-buy is now exclusives. “It’s to give something special. There’s a customer who wants to say, ‘I got one of those first 500 units they made.’”

He believes in using social media to let people know what the company is up to. “We shout it out with social media,” he said.

Rudes recalled that he launched J. Brand at Ron Herman with a dark flare-leg jean. Henry Lehr’s wife, Toni, told him he had to go downtown in New York and see straight-leg jeans. He was sitting in a NoLIta cafe and two British women walked by wearing straight-leg jeans.

“We were cutting flare legs,” he said.

He called his office, which was immersed in the production of flares, and told them to shave the ends and make them straight legs. “Three weeks later they were in Ron Herman’s store,” he said.