The global economy may still be singing the blues, but heritage denim brands—especially in Europe—are humming an altogether more optimistic tune.
This story first appeared in the January 14, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
With cash-strapped consumers lacking the inclination and the disposable income to experiment with their wardrobes, old-school and hard-wearing denim is seeing a resurgence in popularity.
Retailers are noticing increasing demand for classic denim brands, from stalwarts such as Lee, Lee Cooper, Levi’s and Wrangler; workwear labels like Carhartt, Dickies and OshKosh B’Gosh, and even the pioneers of high-fashion jeans such as Calvin Klein and Polo Ralph Lauren.
“There is a growing movement toward iconic brands and styles. Customers are looking for time-tested authenticity,” says Ed Burstell, buying director at Liberty.
“We are seeing a return to the classic denim brands. Customers want trustworthy labels and unquestionable value,” agrees Tancrède de Lalun, general merchandise manager of women’s apparel for Printemps.
According to de Lalun, Levi’s refitted 501 is a bestseller at the store. “It is a modern and eternal basic that evolves all the time,” he says.
Thomas George, owner of the E Street Denim stores in Highland Park, Ill., and Lake Geneva, Wis., says the quest for Americana is especially strong outside the U.S. “Europe is a different market. Europeans and Asians hold the iconic status of American-made products, be it jeans or cars, in great esteem…there is somewhat of an irreverence to it here,” he observes.
The European divisions of Wrangler, Lee and Levi’s each boast a “spectacular” product range, according to George, while their U.S. counterparts have gone more mass market.
Meanwhile, George says while the iconic styles—often made with raw fabrics and no spandex—were a harder sell for the body-conscious American consumer, they have set off trends across all denim categories and are helping customers accept looser shapes.
Liberty’s Burstell concurs, adding denim styles today are less “extreme,” with more relaxed looks such as the boot cut, skinny boot and straight leg.
“[The demand for authentic denim] translates to a bigger interest in dry and raw denim—not artificially distressed—as well as selvage with its inherent superior quality,” he says.
“Even recent denim labels are borrowing elements from the heritage brands, such as raw denim and selvage seams, to make it look like it stepped out of the archive,” says Printemps’ de Lalun.
Wrangler International president Dieter Jacobfeuerborn notes consumers are ready for simpler styling, quality construction and “garments with soul.”
“There’s that ‘It’s a crazy world’ feeling today, which makes people crave familiarity and reliability in their brands,” Jacobfeuerborn offers.
Lee International’s Johan De Niel agrees, adding that, when it comes to denim, consumers are comforted by tried-and-tested labels.
“During difficult economic conditions, consumers tend to go back to classic brands and products because these offer you a stamp of quality and value, plus you can wear these at many different occasions and the life cycle of the product is much longer,” he says.
Heritage-inspired limited editions of Levi’s classics, including the 501 cut, which launched in 1890, along with denim shirts and denim jackets, all have been phenomenally successful over the last couple of seasons, according to Levi’s.
“In times of uncertainty, people want to feel reassured, even when it comes to their clothing. Consumers are turning to brands that project authenticity married to a very high degree of honesty,” says Armin Broger, president of Levi Strauss Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Denim makers agree that focusing on core products, rather than attempting a transformation into a lifestyle or fashion brand, has its advantages.
“Wrangler is the original American outdoor denim brand—and that in itself represents a lifestyle. But we are not stamping our brand on candy and coffee pots, which is where lifestyle branding becomes dangerous,” warns
“Levi’s has always been true to itself. It is precisely at times like these that integrity of this kind is rewarded,”
The 501, for example, has transcended time, fashion, culture, class and gender differences, as has been proven with the recent “boyfriend” jeans trend. “The 501 jean is one of our greatest icons, like the Ray-Ban aviators or the Louis Vuitton travel trunk,” Broger asserts.
But executives agree cherishing the past does not exclude embracing the future of denim. Levi’s creative studio in Amsterdam, for example, is working on a new global collection of premium Levi’s clothing, which draws from its heritage to create what it is touting as the “future of jeanswear.” The collection, for men and women, will launch in the fall.
Meanwhile, Lee is set to revive one of its most iconic styles for men—the 101 slim fit with zip fly from the Forties—for fall.
“We’re bringing it back…as the trend is increasing from an authenticity point of view and slimmer silhouettes,” De Niel says.
The same is true for the Lee slim denim jacket for women,which always has been part of the Lee collection, but is continuously updated “to assure it stays trend relevant,” according to De Niel.
Wrangler’s Jacobfeuerborn agrees on the importance of innovation: “People don’t want the old classics exactly as they were. They don’t want reproductions of the past. They want the best of it—the quality fabrics, for example, but they want to keep the innovations, too: stretch denim, stonewash softness and modern fit. They want new takes on the old classics.”
Last fall, Wrangler relaunched the Blue Bell brand as a premium men’s denim collection, taking key Wrangler elements and favorite fabrics such as “broken twill” and updating them into more “modern-fitting garments,” says Jacobfeuerborn. “The Blue Bell collection is better than replicas, with a look very close to vintage. You can see Wrangler classics in there, but the cut, styling and finish are very modern.”
Wrangler also offers authentic classic denim styles: the 11MWZ jean, the 11MJ jacket and the 27MW shirt, which were introduced for men in 1948 and still boast original features such as offcenter buttons on shirt pockets to facilitate access and fastenings on back pockets to protect wallets.
Meanwhile, patches, fully felled-out seams, flat rivets, watch pockets and rope logos all can be traced back to the postwar era.
Authenticity also will be parlayed in marketing and on the retail floor. “Our key brand and product messages for 2010 all revolve around true product stories from the past reinterpreted in a contemporary way,” says De Niel, adding the brand’s heritage and DNA will have “strong retail floor support and communications strategies for spring.”
“People today are savvier than ever. Google and Twitter make information available to anybody, anywhere, at any time,” says Broger. “They want authenticity. The same authenticity you meet on the street is the authenticity you need to bring to the product and the retail experience.”
Brands also agree that more than a century’s experience working with the nuts and bolts of the denim business also has helped them to weather the storm.
“We have a long-lasting relationship with our retailers, some dating over 30 years,” says Emilie Trujas, global marketing coordinator for Lee Cooper, which was founded in London in 1908. “Many retailers were tempted by new denim brands, but were disappointed when logistic, quality and replenishment problems surfaced.”
Levi’s Broger says of the 157-year-old brand: “We have the longest experience in the jeans business. We’ve seen many difficult economic times throughout history, but we understand who we are and what we need to accomplish.”