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Denim Retailer Not Crying the Blues

Leave it to a former schoolteacher raised in Louisiana to teach a lesson on how to sell designer dungarees at the beach.

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Leave it to a former schoolteacher raised in Louisiana to teach a lesson on how to sell designer dungarees at the beach.

After 13 years of teaching, Tiffany Mesko opened Manhattan Denim here last year. Although she lacked experience in the fashion industry, Mesko saw a need for a store stocking a variety of denim brands, including nine women’s lines such as Chip & Pepper, People’s Liberation and Joe’s Jeans.

Price doesn’t seem an issue for this affluent oceanfront community almost 30 miles from Los Angeles. “Once you cross over $150, people see the same price; $150 to $220 is pretty much the same to them,” said Mesko, 37, who owns the shop with her entrepreneur husband, Jon. “They look at what looks best on them.”

The shop sits on a prime stretch two blocks west of Manhattan Beach Boulevard, the main thoroughfare where, on a recent picture-perfect Sunday afternoon, young parents pushed strollers past Girl Scouts selling cookies. Lucky Brand Jeans and True Religion run their own shops not far away. Next door to Manhattan Denim is Mona, a bohemian boutique with denim offerings limited to Frankie B., Taverniti So and Monarchy.

In Manhattan Denim, dark wood tables and taupe-colored walls are festooned with photos of celebrities looking like longtime chums who happen to wear cool clothes sold in the store. While a Seven For All Mankind-clad Jennifer Garner pushes her daughter on a swing, pro-wrestler-cum-TV dance contestant Stacy Keibler poses on the red carpet in Kasil and Jessica Alba runs errands in a Linq tank top.

From the pages of Teen Vogue, a profile on Justin Timberlake burnishes the pop star’s denim line, William Rast, one of the store’s top three brands.

Spotting William Rast jeans on celebrities such as Jessica Simpson convinced Catherine Sheekey to recently try a pair. With her sandy blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, baseball T-shirt and well-worn Joe’s Jeans rolled inches above her flip-flops, the 25-year-old ad sales coordinator was the epitome of the casual Californian. Owning as many as 20 pairs of jeans, she used to buy new ones every two weeks. But her visit to Manhattan Denim marked the first time she added to her jeans closet in two years.

“Usually when I shop for jeans, it’s something I can wear to work or wear out at night,” Sheekey said. Pleased with the color of the William Rast boot cuts, she bought them for $200. “I have nothing else like them,” she said.

Manhattan Denim’s variety also attracted Victoria Liddy. A tanned Baby Boomer, she drove from Palm Springs to shop in the neighborhood. “They have a really great selection of brands and styles,” she said.

With denim brands, it seems more is better. Fraser Ross, the veteran retailer who owns Kitson on Los Angeles’ Robertson Boulevard, said it is crucial to carry multiple brands. Unlike a few years ago during the surge in the premium denim market, savvy customers are no longer loyal to a specific label. Ross stocks 15 jeans lines, including J Brand, Robin’s Jeans and Genetic. “Women want to buy denim that looks great on their body,” he said. “They don’t buy because of the brand anymore.”

Shoppers also appreciate customer service. Mesko said that, before opening in October, she organized a focus group — fashion designers, retailers and a manager of a clothing store — to help pinpoint what makes the best customer service. She places special orders for shoppers who can’t find their sizes, opens the store outside of daily hours and will arrange to hand-deliver purchases. She also serves complimentary beer, wine and lemonade to customers who can rest on leather club chairs as they watch the sunset over the beach.

“We just want to make them feel at home,” Mesko said.

Indeed, Mesko’s store manager, Christina Day, said buying jeans can be as daunting for some women as buying a bra. “A lot of people get scared of them,” she said.

Though Mesko didn’t disclose sales, she said the business is profitable.

“When I buy for the store, I focus on what I believe my customers will love,” Mesko said. “If this is a bad time [for the economy], it’s good for us.”