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Beyond Denim

A crop of L.A. denim companies venture into the sportswear fray to strengthen their brand identities.

No shirts? No service. With that in mind, a crop of L.A. denim companies venture into the sportswear fray to strengthen their brand identities.

LOS ANGELES — Jason Ferro always knew he wanted an empire. A denim designer with 12 years of experience, he cut his teeth creating jeans in the apparel fiefdoms of others—Michael Jeffries’ Abercrombie and Marciano’s Guess, where Ferro created L.A. Denim Atelier, the boutique brand that recently bowed out of the premium market. Last year, Ferro went on to launch Bread Denim, an emerging line predicated on the notion that expert vintage washes and all-American branding will weather any economic recession or pendulum shift in prevailing trends. 

Perhaps that was the easy part. Bread, like many L.A. denim companies, is now stepping beyond the bounds of denim to launch non-denim sportswear, a feat that many brands attempt and at which few truly succeed. “It’s definitely difficult to create a lifestyle brand, but all the great brands in the early ’80s, like a Ralph or a Guess, all started with a denim program,” Ferro says. 

Bread’s first collection of $95 classic oxfords and other wovens launches at Project Las Vegas this week, with a line of textured knits also planned for fall 2008 and leather jackets slated for holiday. 

“In my experience, it can be difficult for denim people who are specialists in fits and washes to design other pieces. Sometimes they’re just not as talented,” says Karen Meena, vice-president of buying and merchandising for Ron Robinson at Fred Segal in Los Angeles. “But it can happen. L.A. Denim was one of those brands that, when I first bought it, I bought it as a collection. The wovens and T-shirts did really well.” 

Many of Ferro’s larger denim competitors in town have a head start, of course. With an expanding direct retail presence that now includes 15 doors, True Religion Brand Jeans of Vernon, Calif., has aggressively broadened its casual collection of washed leather jackets, garment-dyed polos and $240 fleece hoodies to fill its own shelves. Culver City–based Rock & Republic recently staged its latest Bryant Park extravaganza at New York Fashion Week, complete with an orchestra, a raucous crowd (New York magazine wondered aloud if the show is “the new Heatherette”) and a collection that was notably devoid of the denim that still commands significant space in major department stores like Nordstrom. 

Of the industry’s power brands, 7 For All Mankind is the latest to launch sportswear, now entering its second season. Where True Religion zigs casual and Rock & Republic zags edgy, 7’s look embodies a classic preppy aesthetic. Or, as company vice-president of merchandising and design Rosella Giuliani describes it, “gentleman street.” 

“We have a really strong sportswear theme for fall,” Giuliani says of the line, which boasts natty button-front vests, V-neck sweaters and $145 woven shirts, among other offerings. “It takes what we do in our core denim and completes the look in a sophisticated way, whether it’s a tailored shirt or a tailored jacket.” 

To showcase its collection, 7 plans to expand its own branded retail operation to 12 stores by year’s end. The company, which was acquired by VF Corp. last year, currently operates stores in Los Angeles and Dallas. 

Some of fall 2008’s most notable sportswear and outerwear offerings from L.A. denim companies, however, are from brands with modest visibility. Crate, the $1.2 million-a-year brand founded in 2003 by former Nixon watch designer Chad Hilton, has refined its collection of outerwear and work shirts, which it manufactures in the same local factory near downtown L.A. that produces its vintage-fabric raw denim. The line is a hit with retailers like Barneys New York, Fred Segal and The Tannery in Boston. 

“We always knew we wanted to do more than denim, once we were good at doing denim, that is,” says Hilton, who designs Crate and runs the Secret Service L.A. men’s boutique with Crate marketing coordinator Nate White. “L.A. factories are famous for having a pretty heavy hand, so we knew we wouldn’t be doing a lot of delicate shirting and jackets like Rag & Bone. We also wanted to make clothes that play on our blue-collar roots, but clothes with good cuts.” 

Building on the success of the $270 Rallye denim jacket with cotton/cashmere hood and pockets, Crate is launching such styles as the Helm, a Super 120s wool, plaid jacket with wood buttons that retails for $180; the September Shirt, a cotton/cashmere work shirt; and a canvas half-trench with tucked-in pocket storm flaps. The lightweight fabric used in Crate outerwear reflects the fact that L.A. hasn’t seen measurable snow since 1949. “We design for people in Los Angeles, for sure,” Hilton says. “A lot of other brands make these beautiful, heavy peacoats and trenches, but we can only wear them, like, three days out of the year. In L.A., the Helm is a jacket that you could wear even though it’s 70 degrees outside.” 

Corpus, a bona-fide L.A. cult brand, got its start several years ago with skinny-fit denim. Now, co-designers Keith Richardson and Jerrod Cornish have embarked on their most ambitious sportswear collection to date while simultaneously paring down denim to 10 to 12 styles, compared with the usual 35 or so styles in past seasons. 

“I don’t think we’re a denim line. We have a foundation and a following in denim because that’s what we did from the beginning,” Richardson says. “But with our [sportswear], we’re at a place where the line is more mature without trying to take it too refined.” 

Like that of 7, Corpus’s sportswear is rooted in a preppy aesthetic, though the line adds its own twist on details and has proved highly successful with Barneys (as has its moderate price point). High points of the fall 2008 line include a triple-weave, cashmere blend sweater with an allover Navajo pattern (retail is $595). Last season, the duo created a tuxedo-collar woven shirt with an attachable tie cut from the same cloth, and continue in the same vein for fall with a new woven, complete with detachable collar. 

Outerwear pieces include a suede bomber and a washed leather jacket made of lambskin. 

With a complete collection and a devoted following now under their belts, Richardson and Cornish are looking to venture into direct retail themselves, given the difficulty of appropriately merchandising a brand that has roots in denim but is not yet widely recognized. “I want to build an A.P.C. model for the brand,” Richardson says. “With A.P.C., everyone has it and knows it, but it’s still under the radar. Nice and nonthreatening.” 

Like Bread Denim, Takumi has recently entered the premium woven market. Known for his $300 selvedge jeans made of Japanese denim and sold in specialty stores like Soho’s Blue in Green, founder and creative director Luis Pedroza has created a small, limited-edition line of french cuff and barrel cuff shirts with hand-rolled collars that retail for $225. The modified spread collars, Pedroza says, “are modeled after the collars that J.F.K. used to wear. I always thought he had a classic look, that bespoke tailoring. This is the way your father’s shirts were made.” 

Sparking retailer interest in the handmade shirts hasn’t always been easy, Pedroza adds, though the line currently sells in stores like Garys in Newport Beach and in select Nordstrom doors starting this month. “At first, I was hoping there would be more synergies with a lot of stores that specialize in denim but don’t specialize in wovens, or vice versa. But it seems like more and more stores are interested in carrying both, so maybe that’s changing.”