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Men'sWeek issue 10/03/2013

The air at the top of the men’s denim market is getting thinner, pushing fashion vendors to both keep a close eye on their prices and offer more bang for the premium buck.

This story first appeared in the October 3, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Retailers and brands looking down the road to 2014 are working harder to make sure that anything billing itself as “premium” can justify that designation. They’re pricing their products more competitively in light of heavy promotions leading up to and since last year’s discount-driven holiday season, moderation in the price of cotton and a trend towards trousers among fashion customers.

That doesn’t translate into an exodus from higher-end products. But in both men’s and women’s apparel, companies are taking note of a new level of discretion among consumers about their fashion purchases as spending has shifted in favor of higher-ticket items and durable goods.

“In general, men are wanting fewer, better things,” said Matt Baldwin, chief executive officer of Baldwin Denim in Kansas City, Mo., who operates both wholesale and retail businesses for the brand as well as two retail stores under the Standard Style moniker. “If you’re going to pay top dollar for a jean, or any fashion product, it’s got to have something very special to justify it.”

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Although obviously invested in his own brand at Standard Style, he’s stocked plenty of other lines. “But in recent seasons, I’ve brought the number of jeans brands down from something like 30 to about three. Just like the customer, it’s been a story of fewer, better lines. Specialty stores are trying to slim down their assortments because they don’t want to cannibalize their sales.”

Men’s jeans sales in the U.S. grew slowly in the 12 months ended in August, adding just 0.8 percent in dollar terms to reach $5.8 billion from $5.75 billion in the comparable prior-year period, according to figures provided by The NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. And the growth came exclusively from higher average prices, which expanded 2 percent to $26.64, as units declined 1.1 percent to 217.8 million from 220.2 million.

All the growth came from jeans priced between $25 and $75, NPD’s data show. Jeans in the $25 to $49.99 category were not only the largest segment covered by NPD, but also showed the highest level of growth by far, advancing 6.4 percent to $2.51 billion, while jeans in the $50 to $74.99 bracket picked up 1 percent to hit $840.4 million.

Jeans under $25 declined 1.1 percent to $2.06 billion, while those at the highest level monitored by NPD, $75 and above, contracted dramatically, shedding 19 percent to $381.9 million.

The shifts in pricing are supported by those in distribution channels: Specialty stores continued to lead in men’s denim market share, with 27.6 percent, but, like department stores, national chains and especially manufacturer-owned stores saw declines in their shares during the 12 months that ended in August. Only two channels saw increases — off-price stores and mass merchants, which grew 1.4 and 0.6 points, respectively, to 10.6 and 16.7 percent of the market.

Much of the higher-end men’s fashion market is moving towards jeans that are ripped, torn, destroyed and otherwise distressed, essentially reviving grunge-rock influences of a generation ago. But that’s at odds with another, longer-term trend in the men’s market, that of the multipurpose, day-into-night “neat jean” that can be either dressed down with a knit or chambray top or dressed up with a sport coat and well-pressed broadcloth shirt.

Baldwin Denim’s Baldwin, among last year’s class of GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers and now involved in a limited-edition collection with Gap, believes that the market has moved past its former focus on “fashion-y, heavily branded pocket” jeans into a phase when, at a variety of price points, “customers are looking at the quality of the textile and the fit, the quintessential platforms right now.”

Baldwin’s men’s jeans assortment is available in four fits — slim, straight, a hybrid of the two and a straight leg with a drop yoke. “We haven’t seen much of a shift in fit,” he said, “but we do see that guys want softer jeans. They’re tired of breaking down their jeans forever.”

In addition to a men’s assortment within its Mavi collection, Mavi U.S. offers 34 Heritage, which is specifically geared to a more mature customer with distribution focused on specialty stores. The brand is carried in 530 specialty store doors and is available in the U.S. and Canada only.

“You won’t see ripped and distressed jeans in 34 Heritage like you would in Mavi, and there’s less whiskering,” said Ardie Ulukaya, senior vice president of Mavi U.S. “We’ve positioned ourselves to be the ‘denim solution for the discerning man’ and say that our jeans go on when the suit comes off.”

For spring, the line is moving toward lighter fabrics to emphasize comfort, with virtually all fabrics in the line weighing in at 10 ounces or less and virtually every jean in the line made with stretch.

Still, Ulukaya has seen the older customer gravitating towards a slimmer fit, even as younger men have more enthusiastically embraced looser ones. The trend can be seen in the mix between 34 Heritage’s Charisma model, with an 18-inch leg and an 18.5-inch knee, and its more tapered Courage silhouette, which sports a 16-inch leg and 18-inch knee.

“Courage was 10 to 15 percent of the business and is now up to between 30 and 35,” he said. “Within two years, I’m pretty sure Courage will be bigger than Charisma.”

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