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WWD Milestones: Denim Key to Southpole Growth

The brand's denim styles might be slimming down, but sales show no sign of diminishing.

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Southpole’s denim business might be slimming down, but it’s hardly getting smaller.

Denim remains the biggest single contributor to the company’s sales, accounting for about 40 percent of the total of about $1 billion, and shows no signs of diminishing. But the look of the line, which was totally dominated by baggy silhouettes in the early years of its existence, has slimmed down considerably.

The company introduced slim and skinny fits into its young men’s mix in 2008. The styles have become increasingly important, even as the brand has been working to come up with the appropriate successor to the ultrabaggy silhouette that was integral to the growth of the business — especially in young men’s — and the overall enterprise.

“Our original young men’s baggy fit was one of the most important items in the history of our business,” said John Kim, head merchandiser for Southpole’s young men’s division. “Before 2008, the baggy fit was 100 percent of our denim business. It’s downtrending now, but it’s still running at about 40 percent of total denim business, and we expect it to constitute 20 to 25 percent in the future.”

The “slim straight fit” has become a staple in the line, while Kim and his merchandising colleagues “keep working to make the ‘right baggy fit’ by trimming down our original specs.”

Although a key component of the business today, denim was hardly the company’s founding fabric. A key player in outerwear, one of Southpole’s first big hits was the puffy jacket. But, as happens to so many companies seeking a foothold in the young men’s business, jeans were practically a prerequisite to be taken seriously in the marketplace.

Southpole answered the call early on but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that it began to grow into the staple it’s become today. “We’re a young men’s-driven brand, and it took off first in young men’s, then in juniors and finally in children’s,” Kim said.

The timing was right. Not only had Southpole built up the fiscal, merchandising and marketing muscle to meet — and to a degree anticipate — demand, but the baggy silhouette, especially in the young men’s market, translated into an opportunity to give teen and young adult consumers something they didn’t already have in their closets — a loose-fitting silhouette easily lending itself to design modifications, as well as occasional parental disapproval.

The emergence of the silhouette and maturing of the company helped make it an important denim-based “urban lifestyle” brand for stores ranging from midtier giants like J.C. Penney and Sears to fashion specialty stores like Dr. Jays, and even a smattering of sporting goods chains, which liked the way it worked with their footwear assortments.

By 2010, Southpole’s denim business had ballooned into one of the top men’s jeans brands, coming in at fifth — behind only Levi’s, Wrangler, Lee and Calvin Klein — in sales that year, according to research by The NPD Group of Port Washington, N.Y.

The success of denim hasn’t always translated into success above the waist. “We have introduced a denim jacket every season, but it is a fashion item based on seasonal trends,” said Kim. “Likewise, denim woven shirts are fashion items. Top pieces are more trend-driven and don’t drive as much volume as bottoms.”

However commercially viable they might or might not be, the merchandising of the tops is always coordinated with that of the bottoms, the executive pointed out.

Denim accounts for about 40 percent of the company’s young men’s business, plus or minus 5 percent, depending on the season. Figures in the kids’ portion of the business are similar although, with a wider range of items from which to choose, denim’s share of the juniors business is about 30 percent.

Kim allows that the market is moving toward “cleaner” denim finishes and less finishing in general. Yet, demand for sandblasted denim is “still strong.” He noted that the trend toward colored denim has been apparent in both young men’s and juniors.

“Many of our customers, such as Penney’s and Sears, have enjoyed success with our colored denim. It’s very much on trend now,” he said.

Even with the persistent demand for sandblast, Southpole is initiating moves to embrace a more eco-friendly approach to denim, in its embrace of both cleaner finishes and raw denim.

Southpole continues to rely on overseas suppliers for its denim and jeans, with Pakistan, Bangladesh and China cited as the three most important markets. Many of its producers have been affiliated with the company for more than a decade.

While trends within the jeans category are certain to change with the passage of time, denim’s importance has been consistent.

“Denim is always the most important and biggest category in street- and sportswear,” said Kim. “Of course, denim fluctuates from season to season, but it is a core element of the business.”

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