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J Brand founder and chief executive officer Jeff Rudes married longtime girlfriend Terre Jacobs on May 19 at the Hotel Bel-Air. The following Monday, Rudes was back at work at J Brand headquarters in an industrial area of downtown Los Angeles to check up on issues before departing for his honeymoon in Africa the next day.
That doesn’t surprise Ron Herman, who attended the nuptials and was J Brand’s first customer when it launched in December 2004. “All great companies have a great personality behind them. And Jeff’s greatest attribute is his passion and focus and dedication to his company,” says Herman. “If you engage Jeff in a conversation about cooking—he loves wine and food—a moment later he’ll somehow be talking about his jeans.”
Apart from getting hitched, it’s already been a big year for Rudes. This spring, J Brand launched its first women’s ready-to-wear collection. The upscale line of lambskin bomber jackets, drapy Modal T-shirts and hand-knit bolero sweaters, priced from $200 to $1,500, hit 200 stores globally, including Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Harrods and Holt Renfrew. The initiative cements Rudes’ conviction that J Brand can become a full-fledged fashion player rather than remain a niche denim maker.
“Today, we are shifting the perception that we’re a jean company to being a fashion company,” says Rudes, 58, during an interview at Soho House in New York. “Our roots will always be in denim, but it’s become the platform to build beyond that.”
It’s a sturdy platform. J Brand is now distributed in 1,500 U.S. stores and 1,000 international stores, ranging from Selfridges in London to Tsum in Moscow and Isetan in Tokyo. Sources estimate that J Brand’s 2011 sales were well over $100 million, and Rudes expects to post double-digit sales gains this year.
The women’s ready-to-wear is overseen by designer Donald Oliver, who was previously at Calvin Klein, Gap International and Vera Wang. He has built a separate team of 12 people to work on the collection, including design assistants, patternmakers and a sourcing team, who work independently of the jeans division. “The integrity of the ready-to-wear would not have the right purity if the denim team had anything to do with it,” explains Rudes. “We’re doing something completely different. It has its own point of view.”
The nondenim business could become 50 percent or more of the total J Brand business within three to five years, Rudes believes. He is aiming to launch a men’s ready-to-wear business within two years. “The stores are already asking for it,” he notes.
Rudes prefers to call the new line ready-to-wear, rather than mere sportswear, to connote the fashion direction and high-end aspirations of the offerings. “Our aesthetic is clean, timeless, sophisticated and rich in fabric and look. It’s well made and it’s quality,” he says of the collection—all descriptors that could be used for J Brand jeans as well. Indeed, it’s that understated, upscale approach to denim that has set J Brand apart from its peers and created one of the premium denim boom’s biggest success stories.
He founded J Brand with creative director Susie Crippen, who was his girlfriend at the time but who exited the company in 2010. From the start, the duo believed there was something missing from the denim landscape: a clean jean with a great fit. “There was a great fashion jean that was minimalist that was missing,” Rudes recalls. “When we started, everything was mid-washed and destructed with holes and with overt identity and back-pocket treatments—Rock & Republic, for example.”
Rudes introduced J Brand—which stands for “Jeff,” although Rudes prefers not to emphasize that—at Ron Herman. While the brand is closely identified with skinny jeans and the “jeggings” look, it actually began with a flare leg before quickly transitioning to its signature body-hugging fit. “We launched with one style in black and the other in dark blue,” says Rudes. “We started with 300 pairs of jeans, and then 600, and then 3,000, and then it took off.”
Top retailers around the world—such as Atrium in New York, Matches in London, Biffi in Milan and L’Eclaireur in Paris—began carrying the brand. At Intermix, Rudes remembers selling 80 pairs of jeans from a single shipment of 120 over a single weekend. “That sell-through rate is like a grand slam in baseball,” he crows.
Herman recalls seeing the potential in J Brand from the outset. “If you think of J Brand, one of the first things you think of is simplicity. It’s comfortable and easy to understand. I thought the simplicity of the jean was so fantastic,” says Herman, who today counts J Brand as his top-selling women’s brand in his four stores, with men’s rapidly growing. “My love for denim as a way of life was mirrored by Jeff. It’s rare that you meet someone and you know you’re both on the same journey.”
Rudes’ journey started in New York: Born in Manhattan in 1958, he was raised in Old Westbury, Long Island. His father was in the textiles business, and his mother was a homemaker—“a common profession at the time,” Rudes is careful to note with filial devotion. Inspired by the French denim brand MacKeen, a pioneer of the designer-jeans trend of the time, Rudes decided to skip college and start his own jeans line straight out of Westbury High School. “I still have an original pair of MacKeen jeans in my office today. I bought them for $72 back then, which would probably be equivalent to $400 today,” says Rudes. “I thought to myself, ‘There’s got to be a way to make these in America for half the price.’”
He called his new line Paris 2000, which he launched at the age of 18 with some help from an uncle, who was a manufacturer of low-cost blouses in New York. “I started with a small office in his place. I already knew about patterns and samples, but there were some things I had to learn,” says Rudes. “I found a fabric resource and used a factory in Mississippi that I was introduced to. At the time, all jeans were made in the South.”
Interestingly, the Paris 2000 concept was similar to J Brand’s today, with an emphasis on fit and understated details. “J Brand is really a remake of what I did back then,” Rudes explains. “It’s about the woman, not the jean. It’s a canvas that she can dress herself on, either very chic or casual.”
Paris 2000 grew into a $30 million business, selling in retailers such as Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and the now-defunct mall chains Merry-Go-Round and Contempo Casuals. In 1984, Rudes decided to sell the brand to a license partner and moved to Los Angeles to launch a new juniors knits brand called Area Code. “There was a body-conscious trend in the Eighties, and we made Lycra knits,” says Rudes, who ran the business until 1993. He then got back into the denim business, working with partners Ron Herman and Adriano Goldschmied on an advanced denim line called A Gold E, which lasted until 1996.
After developing ultra-high-end denim with A Gold E, Rudes went for volume, producing private-label jeans with factories in Los Angeles and Mexico for clients such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Express from 1998 to 2002. He then started work in 2004 on the concept that would become J Brand, shipping his first jeans to Ron Herman at the end of 2004.
J Brand’s bread-and-butter look has been the clean, skinny stretch jean for women in an ever-widening array of colors. However, the brand has become elastic enough for its bell-bottom Love Story style to be a hit for the company in 2006 as well. And in 2010 a military-style cargo trouser called the Houlihan became a retail sensation. “People thought this company could be a one-hit wonder and that the skinny wouldn’t last,” says Rudes. “When people reacted to the Love Story, I kind of knew that we were here to stay.”
Fit has always been a hallmark for J Brand, but Rudes says there’s no magic to the company’s silhouettes, sizing and seaming. “We use the human body. It’s about having great patternmakers and having the knowledge of what you want to do with the fit,” he says. “There are certain things you do technically to a jean to make the bum look better and lift and shape it. It’s trial and error.”
International markets account for 35 percent of overall sales, and Rudes is aiming to boost that figure. Currently, J Brand has only a small presence in a few stores in fast-growing markets like China, India and Brazil. “The tariffs in Brazil make it difficult to sell. They really discourage imports,” notes Rudes. “But we know that it has huge potential.”
The men’s business has been a similarly tough nut to crack for J Brand, and it currently accounts for less than 15 percent of total sales. Rudes would like to see that figure grow to 30 to 35 percent of sales and believes that in Europe it could become half of total sales.
J Brand first launched men’s at the Project show in New York in July 2006, under the J Brand Denim Co. moniker to give it a more masculine edge. However, the line has since been rebranded as just J Brand and a new designer, Matthew Saam, took the creative reins in 2010 to give it a makeover for the spring 2011 season.
“Men are very brand loyal, and we have to invite them to try something new while they’re brand loyal to something else,” says Rudes of the challenge in men’s. “Men’s has to stand on its own and not just ride the coattails of women’s. Now it’s thriving and growing, and the potential for men’s is huge.”
In 2010, Rudes sold a majority stake of J Brand to Star Avenue Capital LLC, a group that includes Irving Place Capital and powerhouse talent agency CAA. More recently, Coach chairman and ceo Lew Frankfort made an investment in J Brand. However, Rudes retains a significant minority stake and remains the company’s largest single individual owner. “Sometimes you have to give to get,” he says of giving up controlling ownership of the brand he founded.
Unlike competitors such as Seven For All Mankind, PPD, True Religion and AG Adriano Goldschmied, J Brand has not opened its own stores or struck any licensing deals for additional categories. Rudes has preferred to maintain a firm focus on one growth avenue at a time.
“It’s down the road,” says Rudes of those expansion opportunities. “Our ready-to-wear took six years, even though a lot of people wanted us to do it earlier. We were growing a thriving jeans business, with double-digit growth every year. Why take your eye off the ball?” he reasons. “At some point, we’ll have retail, but it’s not something we need tomorrow. And when we feel it’s appropriate, we’ll look at license categories. But we’re not having any of those discussions now.”
It’s that kind of focus that has helped keep J Brand on top of the denim heap as other start-ups fell by the wayside. “He has more options today, and the choices can be seductive. I think the important thing for him to do is remain true to the DNA of the brand and the core values of its mission. I think that will give him a greater chance at longevity,” says Herman—who knows a thing or two about the topic, having founded his first store 36 years ago.
Asked what defines Rudes’ management style, several members of the J Brand marketing team point to his calm and collected demeanor. “I tell the team, unless the building is on fire, no panicking. Let’s assess the damage and come up with a solution,” Rudes says of issues like bad production runs and temperamental wash cycles.
When he’s off the clock, Rudes enjoys golf—he’s a 12 handicap—and rides one of his three Harley-Davidson motorcycles. “I’m a biker at heart,” he says. “But for me it’s not about riding fast. I like to ride in the mountains, where it’s about the fresh air and the scenery. It’s very soothing when you’re spending most of your time grinding in the boiler room of making garments.”