LOS ANGELES — When at first you don’t succeed, relaunch or hire a new designer.

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

That appears to be the motto of several women’s denim brands that are revamping their designs, personnel and even business models as they strive to stand out in the ultracompetitive jeans market. The changes are all undertaken to support a single premise: Keep the brand alive.

“The brand is more important than the designer,” said Lauren Barnes, denim buyer for Cerritos, Calif.-based online retailer Revolve Clothing, which carries 28 women’s jeans brands, including Seven For All Mankind, J Brand and Current/Elliott. “I feel that if something is on trend and in style, customers are going to gravitate toward it, whether it’s me designing it or someone well-known.”

 

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Michael Glasser learned that lesson after co-founding designer Joie Rucker left Rich & Skinny in January 2011. While usually entrenched in sales and marketing at the six-year-old company based in Vernon, Calif., he jumped into designing the line himself to avoid relinquishing the brand.

“There’s still a lot in Rich & Skinny that is good,” Glasser said.

Some of the new trends Glasser injected into the line were colored denim and waxed jeans. In February, he hired Terrill Wick, who previously worked at Paige Denim and ran her own jeans line called Proportion of Blu, as the new designer, who’ll balance his proclivity for novelty treatments with her strength in pure indigo denim.

“We’re going to reinvent ourselves,” Wick said. “Just trying to get better at what we do and get more inventive.”

For James Hammonds, the buyer for American Rag Cie’s four denim stores, it’s refreshing to see denim brands actually design based on their own point of view.

“A lot of the guys copy each other and try to be everything to everybody,” said Hammonds, noting that the downward spiral is an unfortunate result of jeans makers chasing trends instead of creating them.

There are some brands that Hammonds commends for their design integrity. Rag & Bone, for instance, “wasn’t copying other people, they were following fashion,” he said. He also liked the concept behind Koral Los Angeles, the new label that Seven For All Mankind co-founder Peter Koral is launching this fall, despite the overwhelming size of its debut collection. Earnest Sewn and Mother are helmed respectively by Benjamin Talley Smith and Tim Kaeding, who both know denim inside and out, he said.

In the case of Earnest Sewn, it’s Smith’s second turn at the New York-based company. He was the first designer there from 2005 to 2009 and then returned last September as creative director. One of his goals is to increase the women’s business to make up half of the company’s sales. Although at one time the women’s category grew to 60 percent of sales, it now accounts for only 30 percent. He also has been on a mission to fix the late shipping problems that tainted the label’s relationships with retailers such as Revolve Clothing. He said his team is now making some deliveries three weeks early.

“The struggle is regaining everybody’s confidence with new styling and innovation,” he said. “I tried to take it in a totally different direction and modernize it and update it.”

Time will tell for other relaunches.

Frankie B., of Glendale, Calif., landed in stores such as American Rag, Sharon Segal at Fred Segal and Revolve Clothing for fall after taking a season off. Even with a celebrity boost from co-founder Justin Timberlake, William Rast switched to a licensing business model after its parent company, People’s Liberation Inc., raised as much as $14.5 million from Tengram Capital Partners in February. People’s Liberation, which owns another brand of the same name, changed its corporate name to Sequential Brands Group Inc. in March. The company now plans to take its brands into categories including apparel, home furnishings, sporting goods, electronics, packaged goods, food and beverages.

Denimocracy is trying to ignite interest with Janine Shaw, who came from William Rast. But the Los Angeles-based brand faces a tough audience in retailers such as Hammonds, who barely registers it on his radar, and Barnes, who never stocked the line at Revolve Clothing.

“It’s just not super relevant to our customer at this time,” Barnes said.

The downside of playing musical chairs in the design department is a lack of consistency. One reason AG Adriano Goldschmied has been able to grow every year for the past five years is because the women’s denim designer, Catherine Ryu, has worked side by side with creative director Sam Ku the entire time.

Much time has passed since Dittos made its debut in 1972. Now owned by New York’s Jordache Enterprises, it is targeting young contemporary customers between the ages of 18 and 35, many of whom weren’t born when the brand had its heyday. Dittos initiated its first relaunch in 2007 as a premium denim line made under license by Frankie B.’s Daniella Clarke. After the license ended in 2010, Jordache partnered with China’s Golden Win Group Ltd. to manufacture the jeans retailing for less than $100. Relaunched for a second time this spring with its signature Seventies style that is popular again, Dittos has been picked up by Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, Madison, urbanoutfitters.com, Fred Segal Girl, Karmaloop and Nasty Gal.

“It represented color, and it represented the Seventies’ trends of flares and higher rises,” said Liz Berlinger, president of Jordache.

To ensure that Dittos isn’t a one-hit wonder, the company expanded its offerings for fall. Merryl Centeno, Dittos’ vice president, said the forthcoming collection’s focus lies in the skinny fit, with slim silhouettes in colored twills, shiny Tencel, prints and coatings.

“We made sure our line was diversified enough so that we weren’t tied to a trend living and dying,” Berlinger said. “We don’t want Dittos to be one-dimensional.”

Among the makeovers:

BRAND: Earnest Sewn

New Designer: Earnest Sewn’s first designer from 2005 to 2009, Benjamin Talley Smith, went on to work at a number of brands, including Rag & Bone, Helmut Lang, 3×1 and Juicy Couture, before rejoining Earnest Sewn last September as creative director.

New Look: Smith is experimenting with washes, for instance dyeing skinny jeans in three different tones of green and a pink tint, which are then lasered off for a cotton candy effect. In the women’s fall collection, he incorporated rigid jeans, high-rise straight legs in a vintage wash and jeans that were coated only in the front.

BRAND: Rich & Skinny

New Designer: Terrill Wick joined Rich & Skinny in February from Paige Denim and previously had her own jeans brand called Proportion of Blu.

New Look: Wick’s debut collection for spring 2013 will show a return to pure indigo in fashion silhouettes such as cropped drainpipes, high-waisted looks and a variety of wide-leg styles.

BRAND: Frankie B.

Designer: Daniella Clarke started the brand in 1999 and relaunched it for fall 2012 after taking a season off.

New Look Clarke, who is married to former Guns N Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke, dug into her rocker roots for star-print jeans and colored denim covered with a snake print and accentuated by rubber tuxedo stripes.

BRAND: Dittos


New Designer:
Christina Yang


New Look:
Dittos did its first relaunch in 2007 as a premium denim brand designed under license by Frankie B.’s Daniella Clarke. It did another revamp for the spring 2012 season. With jeans retailing for less than $100, the fall collection features the color for which Dittos had been known historically, as well as skinny silhouettes and novelty finishes like shine, prints and coatings.

 

BRAND: Denimocracy


New Designer:
Janine Shaw jumped ship from William Rast, which is now pursuing a licensing business model.

New Look: Started three years ago, Denimocracy hopes to catch people’s attention with jeans that have been coated in wax and then subjected to a heat transfer of colored pixels.

BRAND: William Rast


New Business Model:
William Rast, which was co-founded by Justin Timberlake, switched to a licensing business model that will take the brand into categories such as apparel, home furnishing, sporting goods, electronics, packaged goods, food and beverages.

New Look: Sequential Brands, the new name of William Rast’s parent company, hasn’t unveiled a fall collection for William Rast. Moreover, William Rast hasn’t discussed its changes with retailers such as Revolve Clothing, which is selling its current spring collection but won’t carry the line for fall 2012.

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