LONDON — American jeans brands may have been the first to stake their claim on denim and to have persuaded consumers to spend hundreds of dollars on premium lines, but in recent years, hip brands from Sweden, Britain, France and Italy have been lassoing European customers with their trendy takes on design, favoring clean washes and skinny fits.
While some U.S. brands are tailoring their offers to compete with the growing number of European denim lines, others say their differences from European brands are part of their appeal in the market.
For the premium market, it seems U.S. brands’ focus on fit shields them from fluctuations in trends across Europe.
“We do really well with U.S. brands, as the fit doesn’t change,” said Aimee Brown, denim buyer at London department store Selfridges. “Half the time, regular customers don’t even have to try on the jeans. Even if the leg is different, the top half stays the same.”
Brown said bestsellers for U.S. brands on their home turf also sell well in London, with Seven For All Mankind’s boot cut one of Selfridges’ top-selling jeans.
“They produce a lot of volume in that jean in the U.S., which means we, in turn, can sell a good volume here,” Brown added.
Andrea Bernholtz, co-owner of Rock & Republic, agreed that the U.S. and the U.K. denim markets for her brand were similar, although there is demand for different fits and embellishments across other European countries.
“The U.K. is the most similar market, style-wise and buying-wise, to the U.S.,” said Bernholtz, who added that 38 percent of Rock & Republic’s sales are generated in Europe. “There’s a variety there. We’re still selling a flared leg in the U.K., but we’re doing a skinny leg, too.”
While Brown cited the publicity for Victoria Beckham’s collection for Rock & Republic as a driving force behind the label’s three-fold growth in sales since it launched at the store, Bernholtz said the brand already had a significant profile in Europe.
“We created a buzz through word of mouth and through consumers seeing our products on celebrities,” said Bernholtz, adding that prices at Selfridges range from $367 to $611 for the Victoria Beckham line. “The collaboration [with Beckham] was more important in Europe than the U.S., but it isn’t a huge percentage of our business.”
Bernholtz also said countries such as Italy and France were still demanding heavy crystal embellishments on denim, while the brand’s design had moved on.
“Sometimes I wish we could keep on producing those jeans, but we’re steering those markets slowly away from that, with more subtle details like metallic embroidery instead,” said Bernholtz.
While U.S. premium brands are often synonymous with superior fit and design, midpriced U.S. brands such as Lee, Wrangler and Levi’s may have a more difficult time squaring their heritage with emerging trends, while catering to a diverse customer base, according to branding experts.
“[U.S.] jeans brands such as Levi’s want to keep their authenticity without jeopardizing their core users,” said Rita Clifton, chairman of brand valuation firm Interbrand.
Clifton applauded Levi’s lower-priced Signature line, which is sold in the U.K. at Wal-Mart-owned Asda, for allowing Levi’s to cater to a mass market customer while developing its higher-end image.
“You can market the top-end lines in the right way, as long as there is a cordon sanitaire between those brands and the lower-end brands that won’t affect the top-end brands adversely,” said Clifton.
However, Andy Knowles, managing director for the U.K. and Ireland at Lee, said Lee’s Western heritage was a selling point among European consumers.
“Anyone can start a brand with a cool, sexy, funky name,” said Wallace. “We have 100 years of expertise and craftsmanship behind us, which retailers appreciate, that is complemented by a strong design influence.”
Lee, which has its European design team based in Belgium, also has diversified its brand styling and last year launched its higher-end Gold Label collection, which retails for $165 to $366 and sits alongside brands such as Diesel and G-Star in stores such as Selfridges.
“The Gold label customer will be a different customer to our Lee jeans customer, with different expectations,” said Knowles.
George Wallace, chief executive officer of retail consultants Management Horizons Europe, said U.S. brands’ marketing budgets and name recognition also can provide a point of difference. Wallace cited Guess, which returned to the U.K. with a store in Covent Garden last year, and opened a store in Dublin in June.
“It’s attractive to consumers, as it’s a young offer, but it’s still a brand,” he said. “By using great photography and visual merchandising, U.S. brands such as Guess are very good at creating an aspirational lifestyle image.”