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Denim is not like those other classifications.

This story first appeared in the April 18, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

 

Elsewhere in the apparel industry, people move among various classifications and price points with ease. But indigo tends to work its way into the blood of the marketers and merchants who work in the jeans field, and they’re equally protective of the enterprises in which they work, nearly always making it clear that, regardless of which colors, prints or silhouettes work their way into their lines, or how much nondenim may contribute to their sales or future prospects, jeans are in their genes and denim is in their DNA. Even as their businesses diversify beyond denim, most are proud to identify it as their core competency.

 

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Like many Baby Boomers, Renzo Rosso, founder and chairman of Diesel and its parent, Only the Brave Srl, equated jeans with freedom and rebellion, leading him to start a jeans brand that embraced values such as “individuality, irreverence, bravery and freedom,” he said. “And these values translated very soon into a lifestyle. We were pioneers in this — we had to fight at the beginning — but today it sounds quite normal. When lifestyle is authentic, it can be applied to many categories, starting from a full nondenim apparel collection, to accessories, to fragrances and so on.”

As he’s expanded the Diesel concept, he’s come to use quality and creativity as his brand checkpoints.
“I am never satisfied,” he said. “I am always looking into the next project and every single product we create deserves a massive dose of the Diesel DNA.”

Johan Lindeberg, a Diesel veteran, works off similar instincts in his latest venture, BLK DNM.

“I like denim to be about half of what’s in the line,” he said. “I do a lot of collection pieces, but they all have to play back into the core of denim. Even going into fragrances and sunglasses, I work very much by intuition, whether or not something ‘feels’ like the brand to me. It’s got to feel right.”

He’s not apologetic about his subjectivity either. He’s worked leathers and tailored pieces for women and men into his line, but has stayed away from one of the denim market’s frequent go-to categories: “I don’t do chinos because I don’t like chinos.”

Even as it marks its 30th anniversary at retail with sub-brands such as Guess by Marciano and G by Guess, as well as a plethora of categories including shoes, watches and handbags that befit a lifestyle brand, Guess Inc. still regards itself as a denim company, first and foremost.

“Denim is what drives our innovation and grounds us in our 30 years of heritage,” said Nancy Shachtman, president of North America at Los Angeles-based Guess. “As our business has grown and as we’ve expanded into other categories — a process that began early in our evolution — we’ve remained continually focused on how all of our categories reinforce denim as the heart and soul of our brand.”

Jeff Rudes, chief executive officer of J Brand, noted that denim — “a dark, clean jean” — was the company’s starting point, but never its intended destination.

“Ready-to-wear was in our plans from the very beginning,” he said. “We knew the jean would help build the brand and, even though denim was a big part of our heritage as a brand, the intention was to build a fashion brand based on a great jean.”

The firm took a major step in that direction with the introduction of its women’s collection, which hit about 140 upscale stores, about twice the original projection, this spring. Rudes said the assortment was never meant as simply an add-on to its denim efforts.

“We didn’t want to put it in the denim space,” he said. “We placed it in contemporary areas in fine specialty stores and we made a big investment to get it right, with its own design team, led by Donald Oliver. We didn’t rush it. We gave it time to make sure we’d built loyalty to the brand with the customer, and nine months so that nothing we offered did anything but enhance the brand.”

“We’ve always had collection pieces, but denim is our base and everything we do ties back to denim, which is about 40 percent of our business,” said Stuart Millar, ceo, North America, for Amsterdam-based G-Star Raw. “We offered a collection very early and have developed strength in jackets and outershirts, which have grown every year.”

It continues to generate about two-thirds of its volume in men’s, with the goal of a 50-50 split between men’s and women’s. Four years ago, it introduced collections in women’s and, starting with a base of about 10 percent of that business, is now up to about 35 percent.

“Everything’s about longevity with us,” Millar said. “There’s a lot of potential in the U.S. for fashion brands, but there are so many ways to get it wrong.”

The plan to move beyond blue jeans has been in the works at Joe’s Jeans since 2003. That year, the City of Commerce, Calif.-based company began selling jackets, knits and shorts. By 2007, six years after its founding, it was a fully developed lifestyle collection for men, women and kids. Today, its offerings include footwear, handbags and accessories.

“The goal was always to have a contemporary sportswear lifestyle brand,” said Joe’s Jeans ceo Marc Crossman. “As we open more stores, we are able to showcase more of our collection in order to align the consumer’s perception of the brand with ours…With department stores, we work to develop shop-in-shops wherever possible. We also have retail specialists that travel the country training retail sales staff about the brand and our product offering.”

Last year, AG Adriano Goldschmied partnered with the former founders of T Los Angeles to introduce knit tops. The knits were the latest category in the South Gate, Calif.-based brand’s expansion to encompass khaki, corduroy and twill bottoms, denim shorts and cropped jeans. As such, blue indigo denim now makes up 65 percent of the business, compared to more than 90 percent when AG started in 2001.

“At AG, we are committed to creating a lifestyle brand that is focused around chic, classic and sophisticated denim,” said Sam Ku, vice president and creative director at AG Adriano Goldschmied. “As long as the products in other categories go with the AG brand identity, we are not worried about creating any confusion. It is logical that we would design product that is meant to go with our jeans.”

 

For Seven For All Mankind, the DNA of the brand resides in a modern California lifestyle, which helped it progress with brand extensions and new products.

“Expanding our assortment to incorporate other sportswear pieces that pair back to denim was a natural progression for our brand,” said Barry Miguel, president of Los Angeles-based Seven. “Our sportswear line is very cohesive with our denim and we feel very strongly about making sure the collection tells a clear lifestyle message.”

That message is reiterated through high-profile ad campaigns, including the spring promotion that was shot and directed by “127 Hours” actor James Franco. At retail, all Seven products are currently merchandised in the denim department, Miguel said.

“Based on our assortment, this is the right positioning for the brand,” he said. “As our sportswear business continues to grow and the collection continues to develop, we may have visibility in the collection area, as well.”

Hudson Jeans, also based in City of Commerce, has always featured nondenim fabrics and alternatives to five-pocket jeans in its lineup. Peter Kim, Hudson’s ceo, said nondenim fabrics and weaves such as twill, corduroy and velvet, come into play throughout the year, whereas shorts are strong for spring and summer, and denim jackets are a year-round staple. Still, he said the company will always be grounded in denim.

“We believe that denim is the perfect representation of the brand ethos and message,” Kim said. “That is our core competency and what we do really well and how we have developed our relationship with our customers.”

Hudson has worked extensively with ISKO, the Turkish mill that’s the world’s largest denim producer and a unit of Sanko Holding, on fabric innovations such as the so-called “F&F” technology that gives woven denim many of the performance characteristics of a knit. For spring, Hudson and ISKO are launching Turbotech, a new denim technology which allows the wearer to customize and accelerate the evolution of jeans “from raw to vintage” through various cleaning and wearing regimens.

Another ISKO collaborator, Sweden’s Nudie Jeans remains heavily focused on denim, but has branched out into a khaki collection that accounts for about 5 percent of its bottoms sales as it’s worked on building its organic cotton business in collaboration with ISKO.

 

“As we expanded into khakis, the perception of the brand has remained the same — Nudie Jeans is a denim brand with its roots firmly set,” said Andreas Ahrman, sales and marketing director. “Our khaki line isn’t so much a competitor to our denim, but more of an accessory” with similar heritage, durability and originality. “Nudie Jeans will always stay true to denim; khaki just helps to tell the story in another accent, like Swedish heritage with a twist.”

Like many denim firms, Nudie has actively pursued a two-fold approach to sustainability, both in its treatment of the environment and the treatment of workers throughout its supply chain. For fall, ISKO worked with Nudie to realize a dream of its founders, Palle Stenberg and Maria Erixon Levin, of an all-organic denim line.

Despite its name, Denham the Jeanmaker views denim as its base rather than sole jurisdiction.

“Our concept since Day One has been to create a brand with a mixed assortment of exciting denim and sportswear products,” said Jason Denham, founder of the Amsterdam-based company. “This was our vision four years ago when we created the brand. My background and the experience of our team has always been involved in this mix of products.”

With high-end denim business pressured in recent seasons, there’s a dichotomy between companies focused on denim and those who are after nondenim fabrics and novelty silhouettes. Novelty fashion makes up 75 percent of the lineup at Rich & Skinny, according to Michael Glasser, ceo of the Vernon, Calif.-based firm and a co-founder of Seven For All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity.

“The excitement in the marketplace, without question, is the novelty part of the business, which in my mind allows the jean business to keep going,” Glasser said. “It gives the department a freshness that we never had before. [In the past] it was a blue jean or nothing. You get stale after a while.”

However, blue and black denim makes up as much as 75 percent of Earnest Sewn’s fall line.

“I think everyone is going to have their prints and patterns and be over it very quickly,” said Benjamin Talley Smith, creative director of the New York-based firm. “The thing we do is about wash technique and wash process.”

The line does include camouflage and cotton candy prints, sometimes employing various pigments and laser technology to apply and remove layers of color.

“It still feels like our brand DNA,” Smith said. “We’re selling ourselves as a denim brand.”

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