U.S. denim brands are taking a crash course in Chinese geography.

This story first appeared in the June 10, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

As activewear accelerates its encroachment on U.S. denim sales and the weakening euro challenges business on the other side of the Atlantic, the burgeoning middle class in the world’s most populous country — and second biggest economy — represents millions of potential new customers for makers of pricy jeans. So while brands know Paris, Tokyo and London very well, they’ve been rapidly boning up on Nanjing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Chongqing as well.

McKinsey & Co. predicted China’s upper middle class — which claims annual income ranging from $16,000 to $34,000 — will balloon to 54 percent of the population in 2022 from 14 percent in 2012. Within that socioeconomic strata, according to McKinsey, the generation born after the mid-Eighties will grow to be almost three times as numerous as the Baby Boomers who have driven the consumer economy in the U.S.

Euromonitor expected brick-and-mortar retailers in China to strengthen their advantages — multinational brands and private label — to remain competitive with e-commerce sites.

Los Angeles-based American Rag Cie aims to open its first freestanding store in Shanghai in July as part of 40 planned across China over the next three years. AG, from South Gate, Calif., is jumping across the Pacific Ocean with the help of Skinmint, which is targeting some 50 in-store shops in high-end department stores owned by its parent company, Golden Eagle Retail Group, by 2020. RtA, also from Los Angeles, is building a blueprint to secure space in Lane Crawford’s stores located in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu.

“There’s a core of people who appreciate global fashion trends,” said Peter Caplowe, chief executive officer of American Rag Cie’s China business.

Eli Azran, who founded RtA with David Rimokh, added: “The consumer needs different ways to spend that income. They’re learning and growing and understanding different trends.”

Foreign brands may have gotten a boost from China’s Ministry of Finance, which as of June 1 halved tariffs for imports on clothing, shoes and skin-care products to spur consumer spending. Annual economic growth in China slowed to a six-year low of 7 percent in the first quarter, growth in retail sales declined to 10 percent in April from 10.2 percent in March, and imports fell 16.2 percent from a year ago.

The fortunes of Chinese retailers reflected the same dips. Golden Eagle said its annual profit fell 12 percent to 1.08 billion yuan, or $177 million, last year from a year ago. In 2014, its revenue decreased to 3.63 billion yuan, or $592 million, as gross sales proceeds declined to 15.84 billion yuan, or $2.59 billion. A year earlier, its revenue totaled 3.66 billion yuan, or $597 million, and gross sales proceeds reached a five-year high of 16.83 billion yuan, or $2.75 billion.

A sales slowdown didn’t deter Robert Brown when he visited Golden Eagle’s flagship in Nanjing’s Xinjiekou commercial center to scout the location for AG’s first store in China.

“The way they are viewing the market is different from most other brands,” said Brown, AG’s senior vice president of international sales. “They’re not targeting the luxury consumer. They’re looking at a lifestyle-aspirational consumer. It’s something that really appealed to us.”

Golden Eagle and Skinmint are polishing the look of AG’s 1,600-square-foot shop in Xinjiekou, where the brand’s main line will hang along with certain pieces from its collaboration with Alexa Chung.

“In the U.S., premium denim is something very common and we’re used to that sensibility,” said Skinmint president Paul Diamond. “Our challenge is really communicating to the [Chinese] market the elevated nature of premium denim.”

AG’s second store will open in Shanghai around the end of the year. In 2018, Skinmint plans to expand AG’s retail reach to Golden Eagle’s other department store, Parkson.

“American contemporary brands are realizing we are late in the game,” said Betty Hsu, ceo of Pasadena, Calif.-based Skinmint.

While it’s common for American brands to launch simultaneously Stateside and in Europe and Japan, they’ve often delayed the move into China due to lack of access. The Mother brand, which joined American Rag’s roster of premium denim labels in China after it sold in the store’s outposts in Turkey and Japan, until now only had one store in China.

Lela Rose Becker, cofounder and president of sales at Mother, said, “It’s a hugely important market, so now it’s our next focus.”

The risk of having designs copied doesn’t stop Eric Goldstein, founder and president of New York’s The Jean Shop, from offering his made-in-China selvedge jeans that retail for $195 at American Rag Cie in Shanghai.

“That happens all over, not just in China anymore,” he added.