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The diametrically opposed trends of fashion-forward colored denim versus a return to classic, authentic washes will dominate the men’s jeans market this spring.
This story first appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In color, retailers have stocked up on a range of hues, including vivid brights, dusty tonal colors and even pale pastels, while offering a heritage counterpart in vintage, Americana-inflected indigo with fading, whiskering and rips and repairs.
Also central to the season will be the continued popularity of nondenim five-pockets, which gives wearers the familiarity of a jean with the novelty of twill, moleskin or lightweight corduroy. Fits continue to evolve towards slim and skinny across the board, even among heartland shoppers who have up until now remained loyal to boot cuts.
“Going into early spring we definitely feel the idea of rip and repair coming back strong, with more wash details, with lighter-weight denim and lighter washes,” said Durand Guion, vice president and men’s fashion director at Macy’s.
At the same time, the department store, which operated 799 units as of August, has posted a strong year in colored chinos and colored denim. “Deep reds, cranberries and burgundies have been the most important, followed by a range of blue hues,” said Guion. “For spring, the idea of color will intensify and we will see double and triple color wash, with rinses in several colors that add dimensional finishes to the denim. It allows you to get ranges of purples and greens and blues on a single jean.”
Back-to-school men’s denim sales have been strong at Macy’s stores, said Guion. The retailer saw robust sales this season with its Levi’s, American Rag, INC, Hudson, True Religion, Armani Jeans and G-Star businesses. Slim fits are growing in popularity at Macy’s in all areas of the country, at the expense of boot fits, added Guion.
In total, U.S. men’s jeans sales climbed 3.3 percent to $5.61 billion, up from $5.43 billion, in the 12 months ended in August, according to figures from the The NPD Group. Higher price points outpaced lower price points, with sales of jeans at $50 or higher increasing 37.1 percent to $1.28 billion, while sales of jeans priced under $50 decreased 3.7 percent to $4.34 billion.
Guion pointed to a measure of price fatigue at the very top of the premium sector, as high-end looks have become attainable at a range of price points, particularly in clean styles that have few discernible points of differentiation. “A lot of premium details, fits and washes are available in so many different brands,” observed Guion. “Pricing has become a lot more democratic and we’ve seen a leveling of pricing at the high end. There are very few brands that can command a big premium. The high end isn’t as high as it was three or five years ago.”
Nondenim offerings have overshadowed denim this year, particularly in light of the dress-up trend shaping men’s wear, said Cristiano Quieti, chief executive officer of Diesel USA. “There’s definitely a general feeling in the market of a slowdown in the cycle of denim. I hear this from the key department stores and from competitors. Denim has its peaks and valleys and I think we are going through a valley,” he noted. “There’s more tailoring so that calls for chinos or colored bottoms with that kind of outfit. For us, we’ve been doing chinos and nondenim well, so we’ve covered those bases, as well.”
Men’s denim sales at Diesel have been increasing in the high single digits to low double digits this year, depending on the month, said Quieti. The five-pocket category comprises 43 to 44 percent of total Diesel sales.
In the denim segment, it’s the high-end offerings at Diesel, in the $230 to $350 range, that have led sales. “Consumers are ready to spend a little more on something that is extremely different from what they already have in their wardrobes, from herringbone denim to vintage slub textures. Where we’ve seen the slowdown is in basic styles, where there’s more competition, and everyone already has two or three pairs in their closets,” said Quieti.
Following a period of retrenchment, Diesel is launching a retail expansion in 2013, with new leases inked for King of Prussia, Pa., Salt Lake City and Orlando for the first quarter. Additional locations are being sought for later in 2013 and the company will also relocate some existing mall locations to bigger spaces. Diesel currently operates 40 full-price and 11 outlet stores in the U.S.
Seven For All Mankind is also boosting its store count. Next month, the VF Corp.-owned brand will open locations in Somerset, Mich., Valley Fair, Calif., and Livermore, Calif., bringing its total store count to 45 in the U.S. and Canada. “We entered the men’s business very early and developed and held on to a very loyal customer,” said Barry Miguel, president of the VF Corp.-owned brand, where men’s comprises 40 percent of total sales.
At Seven For All Mankind, colored bottoms have reached 20 percent of total sales, with 80 percent still in indigo. While color remains a much smaller percentage than traditional blue, it’s added excitement to the category as a whole, driving sales across the board, noted Miguel. “There’s so much diversity and choice now in color and fabrics, and there’s more reason for customers to spend their dollars in the premium denim world,” he explained. “We’ve become experts in bottoms and we’ve grown a really nice twill, corduroy and chino business. They’re good extensions for us.”
Color will be key at Guess, where stores this spring will highlight themes of orange, soft green and light blue in February, moving into cobalt blue and yellow for March and then teal and red in April. These color themes encompass denim, twill bottoms and other sportswear offerings. The retailer plans to make pairings of casual jeanswear with colorful structured blazers in teal and red as well as printed wovens and stretch poplin shirts a centerpiece of stores this spring.
While color reaps lots of attention, Lucky Brand is betting on vintage worn-in and washed denim styles in heritage blue for spring. “We think that there will be a return to authentic washes in true blue indigo as colorful denim starts to downtrend,” said Michael Griffin, executive vice president of product at Lucky Brand. “We’re planning on introducing light and medium washes to gain momentum, but believe that dark washes will continue to perform best. Color still has a presence, but remains small. We’re also investing in lighter fabrications.”
Lucky Brand added 100 new doors this year at key department store partners, including Nordstrom, Macy’s, Dillard’s, Belk, Von Maur and Lord & Taylor, bringing its wholesale distribution in that channel to 600 points of sale. The Fifth & Pacific Cos. Inc.-owned brand also operates 171 Lucky Brand retail stores.
The company has a considerable collaboration program this spring, with co-branded product from Riviera Club, SeaVees, Triumph motorcycles, Indian motorcycles, Martin Guitar, Fender, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, among others.
Citizens of Humanity is also seeing a resurgence of interest in true denim washes. “A year ago it was about clean and dark but now we’re seeing more interest in abrasion and whiskering,” said Amy Williams, president of Citizens of Humanity, where men’s comprises a hefty 40 percent of total sales. “We haven’t had a denim wash cycle in so long, so people are buying what’s new.”
This summer, Citizens of Humanity acquired its own production facility in Huntington Park, Calif., one block from its Los Angeles headquarters, adding to a separate laundry facility it previously owned. The purchase has given the company increased flexibility and control over manufacturing timelines, forecasting requirements and inventory management. “We can prioritize what we cut and have better control over availability for customer reorders, which is so important today,” said Williams.
Reorders are an essential part of the season as Citizens of Humanity prefers to take a conservative tack on initial orders to improve sell-through ratios. “Our philosophy has always been to take smaller orders up front and let the market pull us rather than have too much product in the market. We’d rather get the reorders later in the season and have great end-of-season margins and sell-throughs, rather than too much stock at retail,” explained Williams.
With the purchase of the manufacturing facility, Citizens of Humanity has also invested in acquiring pricy laser finishing machines, which it uses to create innovative vintage effects.
A focus on fabric technology is central to Turkey’s Mavi brand, where “ultramercerized” cotton is created using a process it’s dubbed Alchemy One. This washing process is eco-friendly, with almost 100 percent of the processing liquids used in a closed circuit, producing very little water waste. The result is denim with increased strength and recovery properties, in addition to a lustrous look and feel. The fabric also lends itself to a deeper saturation of dyes during the coloring process.
This year, Paige has reaped the benefits of a re-branding program that modernized the look of the Los Angeles-based brand and unified men’s and women’s under the single Paige label. Men’s sales tripled this year, outpacing growth in women’s. In July, San Francisco-based TSG Consumer Partners took what is believed to be a majority stake in the brand.
A syrah color has been the top seller this fall at Paige and the company expects a range of Hi-Liter-like shades to drive sales in the spring, including bold hues like canary yellow, watermelon and a vivid blue. Offsetting that fashion product are classic, faded washes. “We have some really amazing washes with great highs and lows. They look like your best friend that you pulled out of the bottom drawer,” said Paige Adams-Geller, founder and creative director at Paige.
The Normandie slim-straight fit has been the brand’s biggest seller in men’s, but Adams-Geller expects the even slimmer Federal fit, which has a leg opening an inch smaller than the Normandie, to become more popular heading into spring. “Even in the slim fit, guys increasingly want that tapered look down to the ankle — but not a painted-on look,” explained Adams-Geller.
At Hudson Jeans, colored bottoms now make up about 25 percent of sales, with blue and black at 75 percent. “I think the color trend is here to stay and will become almost like a basic,” said Peter Kim, ceo of the Los Angeles-based company.
Men’s sales expanded about 85 percent this year at Hudson and the company is forecasting to double business in 2013. The company has narrowed its assortments and focused on key styles, including the Byron slim-straight fit. “We found a fit that is working across the board and have developed around it with colors, fabrics and washes,” explained Kim.
The unpredictable retail climate has Hudson focused on business fundamentals, emphasized Kim. “With the uncertainty around the election, the European crisis and the slowdown in China growth, it’s a pretty scary time from one perspective. But we are tightening every nut and bolt to make sure we are running an extremely efficient operation,” said Kim. “We are pushing our creativity and not resting on our laurels.”
Men’s now comprises 15 percent of total sales at Hudson and Kim is aiming to reach 35 percent within two years, which he believes is a healthy ratio. “I just got out of a board meeting last week and everyone is pumped and excited going forward,” he noted when asked about a potential sale of the brand by investors Fireman Capital Partners and Webster Capital.
In 2013, J Brand forecasts that men’s will make up 15 percent of total sales. Slimmer fits and color — including two-tone effects — will lead the way in denim, while tailored chinos, with cuffed and cropped options, complement the jeans offerings. “We are the fastest growing brand in most of our major stores. We feel ecstatic about our men’s business. It’s like when our women’s business was growing,” said Jeff Rudes, ceo of J Brand, which is carried in about 800 doors globally. “It’s all about quality of our customer base. We are expanding specialty stores and doors, and expanding doors each season at our majors. And we are expanding our presentation space in key major doors.”