Breaking through the denim wall at retail is a difficult proposition.

This story first appeared in the April 17, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As denim players seek growth and push beyond jeans, they’re calling on their American retail partners to embrace their transformations from jeans resources to full-fledged fashion brands by not isolating them to denim departments.

While U.S. retailers are willing to experiment by sprinkling jeans in with contemporary and designer collections and non-jeans items in with denim, domestic shoppers won’t see a complete reinvention of the denim brand shopping experience until denim brands prove convincingly they can perform beyond the boundaries of jeans.

Bloomingdale’s has been at the forefront of evolving — not revolutionizing — the approach to denim. The department store has been on board with J Brand’s move from denim to collection sportswear and has made a statement on the floor to show its support. Within its store on 59th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York, J Brand’s merchandise is displayed at two different locations, sportswear and denim, in a rare feat for a brand born into denim.

“We believe in the brand overall and we want to make sure it has a presentation in sportswear,” said Rosalia Bucaro, divisional merchandise manager for contemporary collections at Bloomingdale’s. “We also want to make sure it has a strong denim assortment, and we bring elements of the sportswear into denim to create a well-rounded assortment and let the customer know there is more.”

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At Saks Fifth Avenue, senior fashion director Colleen Sherin said there are select occasions when placing merchandise from denim brands in the contemporary or advanced contemporary sections on the floor makes sense. She noted denim brands with offshoots outside of denim that aren’t mere footnotes to their jeans offerings — her examples were Rag & Bone, J Brand and Current/Elliott, especially with items from its collaborations, notably the one with Mary Katrantzou — justify their existence beyond the denim department.

“Sometimes, when the denim is housed within the collection as just a component of the collection, it does have a lifestyle, sophisticated feel to it,” she said. “It feels like less of a commodity business, where it is just about getting a pair of jeans.”

Market sources said that Nordstrom Inc. is working toward a reconfiguration of its handling of denim and contemporary assortments, but the store declined to comment on its plans.

Boutiques with a smaller array of denim brands and less space at their disposal are much more likely to merchandise jeans alongside contemporary or designer brands. At the store Beckley in Los Angeles, owner Melissa Akkaway is comfortable hanging Citizens of Humanity jeans on racks next to clothes from the likes of 10 Crosby by Derek Lam, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Ohne Titel. In the past, she’s tried separating denim from the rest of the store’s merchandise, but feels integrating denim gives shoppers good ideas for outfits.

“I didn’t feel like there was really a difference in terms of sales having it together in its own area versus having it merchandised in with the clothing,” said Akkaway. “What I like to do is create the outfit and, because I like to shop like that, I merchandised [denim] within the collections.”

The realities of the modern jeans market have positioned premium denim brands to be considered part of the broader fashion mix. Many brands, including J Brand and Current/Elliott, have led the fashion charge on trends such as colored denim or the boyfriend jean that have given them design credibility generally unheard of when jeans were viewed simply as casual staples. That credibility, as well as their longevity in a market that has its share of flameouts, has also inspired trust and desire in retailers and consumers who are willing to try them as they venture into non-denim territory.

Although the core of the denim business remains blue jeans, Bloomingdale’s Bucaro pointed out that the popularity of prints in denim have helped blur the lines between denim brands and their contemporary apparel counterparts.

“There is a lot of fashion in the marketplace out there today and denim fashion will continue to evolve and be an important part of the business,” she said. “I don’t think denim fashion is going way. The denim customer is very fashionable today.”

Saks’ Sherin suggested that the introduction of denim from designer brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, Stella McCartney and Dsquared has also elevated jeans to a higher status. For those designer brands, Saks incorporates the denim items within their collections, rather than segregate them into the denim section on the floor. The designer denim can be priced from $500 to $600, as compared to most denim at Saks that’s in the more typical premium range of $225 to $325, estimated Sherin.

“[Designer brands] are realizing that it is just the way that women want to dress now. We are seeing a movement toward a more casual lifestyle in wanting to feel comfortable, but still wanting to feel pulled together and polished at the same time,” she said. “It is more acceptable to wear your tailored jacket with a pair of jeans, even in the workplace. Even at Saks Fifth Avenue we wear denim on Fridays, but you want to make sure it is polished, put together and appropriate.”

Denim may be more fashionable, but that doesn’t mean every denim brand will be able to pull off the transition from denim specialist to esteemed fashion label. Sherin said expansion from the mainstay denim business “is not for everyone.”

“There are certain brands where it does make more sense,” she said. “I don’t think every denim brand needs to think they have to design a full collection.” Instead of J Brand, Akkaway said, “If it were a random denim brand and they started to do an rtw collection, it wouldn’t have the same impact. People are less hesitant to go out of their comfort zone if it is a brand they have heard of.”

It’s a struggle for denim brands to dive into sportswear because sportswear is already a crowded field with its own set of experts.

“The most important thing is that the product stands up to the others with competency in the marketplace,” said Bucaro.

At Tootsies, a retailer with locations in Atlanta, Houston and Dallas, denim buyer Tanya Khalaf said, “We have been hesitant with some of the denim vendors going into contemporary because we want to make sure that the quality is up to the standard of the other brands we have on the floor.”

Retailers that are dabbling into offerings from denim brands that aren’t bottoms will first test pieces that have clear links to denim like denim shirts, jackets and vests. And, as they stretch further into denim brands’ non-denim repertoire, they still expect the clothes to work well with denim.

J Brand runs its rtw and denim divisions separately, but Elyse Walker, owner of a namesake boutique in Pacific Palisades, Calif., where J Brand’s motorcycle jacket has been a bestseller, said, “Obviously, they work together…when they do the ready-to-wear, they have some of the denim that they paired with it. I preferred the edited denim collection shown with the ready-to-wear.”

Walker declared it was too soon to tell if J Brand’s rtw undertaking is going to thrive, but she and Bucaro sense its strategy will be replicated.

“More and more vendors are looking to create a lifestyle approach across the board in denim,” said Bucaro.

At the same time, Walker contended that apparel brands heading into denim, such as Rag & Bone, could be just as big a phenomenon as denim brands heading into sportswear.

“It is really hard thing to do to show rtw and then blow up in denim,” she said. “I think you are going to see more brands try to do that.”

In denim and sportswear, those brands that make promising crossovers may find themselves living in more spots on retail floors, but denim will probably always have a home in distinct denim departments at U.S. department stores.

Speaking for Saks, Sherin concluded, “I don’t think we are going to see a movement of incorporating denim into collections in general. I think there is always going to be a need for us to have a separate denim department with the denim brands merchandised in a way that is very clear to the customer who is shopping for a pair of jeans.”