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Junior denim vendors are being challenged more than ever to entice customers because of major shifts in the business landscape.

Teens are heading to the contemporary departments for their jeans, the U.S. economy is weakened and there is heightened competition on the selling floor. Even the roster of the top three junior denim brands in the sector — Mudd, Paris Blues and L.E.I. — has been shaken up by Jones Apparel Group’s decision in February to move L.E.I. into Wal-Mart for the back-to-school season after almost five years of falling sales.

That shift will create more room in department and specialty stores, which vendors said gives them a chance to showcase some of what they have to offer to attract teens to the junior floor.

“The junior customer generally looks to the contemporary market for direction and inspiration,” said Kevin Monogue, president of DKNY Jeans. “That is the aspirational point, so creating an assortment that reflects those trends and that quality while maintaining your brand identity and a great price is important. It cannot just be any one thing anymore. The brand has to mean something, the clothes have to be right, the price has to be competitive.”

To help propel that vision, DKNY Jeans will launch a brand for fall under the design direction of actress Rachel Bilson. The line, Edie Rose for DKNY Jeans, will offer the junior customer the same quality that DKNY Jeans offers, but with a more fashion-forward edge.

“The customer and the environment do not allow you to play it safe,” Monogue said. “We must constantly innovate, create ways of connecting to her lifestyle, where she lives, what she loves, what she listens to, etc. Our customer looks to [Rachel] for inspiration and she is providing it through the lens of our brand. It is also in limited edition, which inspires the customer because she wants something special that cannot be had by all.”

Jack Gross, chief executive officer of Jones’ denim and junior businesses, was responsible for overhauling L.E.I. for the 2007 b-t-s season, but a difficult juniors retail environment hampered sales, which eventually opened up the company to a relationship with Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer.

This story first appeared in the April 10, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Business overall is very challenging,” Gross said. “The reason for this is because of the economy, but it’s also a series of other factors. Our seasonal items in stores are not selling because of the cold spring weather, and research has shown that the customer already has between seven and nine pairs of jeans in her wardrobe. If she will buy, she needs a good reason.”

Gross said his brands, including Glo Jeans, sold in national specialty stores, and Grane, featured in major department stores, are “holding their own at retail.” He said the lines are succeeding with long bottoms — capris are not selling well — featuring grinding, tearing or hand-sanding treatments, especially on the skinny fitted styles.

Alden Halpern, ceo of Tyte, said his business, which brings in more than $100 million in annual sales, is thriving.

“When business is bad, it’s not always because of the economy, it’s because there is nothing new in the market to stimulate the growth,” Halpern said. “The secret is to keep giving these teens something new, something to excite them. If you can do that, they will keep coming back for more.”

Halpern said he makes an effort to bring a high-fashion product to the moderate market, which he is able to do by being a partner with factories in countries such as China, Pakistan, Cambodia and Vietnam. He cited denim leggings and skinny jeans as strong sellers in soft fabrics and light washes.

“We make a huge effort to offer value to the customer,” he said. “Because of our close relationships with our factories overseas, we are able to sell our fashion-driven product for the prices that other junior denim companies are selling their basics at.”

Deke Jamieson, senior vice president of marketing and licensing at Dollhouse, said there are other issues facing the junior market, which overall makes it a tough time for the junior denim area.

“Retailers are having a hard time determining who is shopping in the junior department,” he said. “The teen isn’t the only customer on the floor, there’s her 45-year-old mother, too, who is buying those clothes for herself as well as for her daughters.”

Jamieson said Dollhouse has managed to offer a young contemporary look, while still being able to wholesale the jeans between $12 and $15. Because of that, the brand is selling well at retail, he said.

“The level of quality is so important to this customer,” Jamieson said. “They want one good pair of jeans for a great price, but they will buy a million different tops to change up their look. So, if you are making jeans, the quality, value and fit have to be perfect.”

At Vanilla Star, Mark Levy, partner and president of the firm, said he is booking his bio-washed (looks similar to an acid wash) denim for b-t-s and is confident this wash could drive his business for the season.

“We started shipping this wash back in January and there was not one store who hasn’t reordered,” he said.

Levy said he is doing well with the wash on skinny styles. Going forward, he will offer 15 varieties of this wash.

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