LOS ANGELES — As the high-end denim trend has sizzled through the last few years, consumers have grown increasingly comfortable with the idea of spending $120 to $170 on a pair of jeans with expensive fabrics, hand-sanded details and resin coatings.
Now, as that price range has become accepted among wealthy, fashion-driven customers, designers and jeans enthusiasts who have a desire to stand out even more in a crowd have turned their attention to jeans that sell for $200 and up. Joe’s Premium, Serfontaine’s Reclaim and Joie’s Future Vintage are among the companies selling the pricier jeans.
It’s a small niche, but at Hollywood Trading Co. in Fred Segal Santa Monica, it represents 50 percent of sales, according to co-owner and buyer Alonzo Ester.
“The customer is sophisticated — checking resources online, going to stores, reading magazines — so they want to see something others aren’t wearing,” Ester said.
But there are few shoppers who are so passionate about their jeans. Research firms said the market for jeans above $100 is so small that it’s impossible to accurately measure. According to STS Market Research, jeans priced above $50 represented only 2.6 percent of the $5.6 billion women’s jeans market last year.
With such a small market, the question becomes whether selling jeans at above $200 is a way to make money. According to industry executives, the answer is “not exactly,” though they can be a good way to promote the money-making parts of a jeans business.
“For the manufacturer, it’s a way to showcase and create a signature piece for the brand,” said Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at market research firm The NPD Group. “It’s all part of the marketing budget…and for retailers, it’s great window dressing. They all want to catch lightning in a bottle — a hot brand at a hot price point.”
Joe Dahan, the designer behind Los Angeles-based Joe’s Jeans, predicted his new line of Joe’s Premium, shipping for fall and retailing for $250, will represent 10 percent of his overall business of $2 million to $3 million. The denim hails from Spain, and the product features hand-stitching, hefty hand-abraded back pockets, floral embroidery and special rivets.
“I consider this my advertising dollars — and as a designer, it’s fun, because I have no limits,” Dahan said.
Manufacturers claimed they create these pieces more for passion than for profit. Pasadena, Calif.–based Saddlelites, started by Daniel Green and Lukus Eichmann, sells its limited runs of high-end jeans to 10 accounts, including Barneys New York, Maxfield in West Hollywood, Steinberg & Sons in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles and Colette in Paris.
“We want a 50 percent margin, but sometimes we’re only getting a 30 percent markup, because we don’t want retailers — who typically mark up the product 2.3 to 2.4 times — to be thrown by the price,” said Green, whose fall pieces will retail for $280 to $300.
The company is unveiling a trouser-style pair of jeans for fall featuring a speckled dark indigo with olive tint, coated in resin, baked, dyed, then baked again. It also will introduce a brown twill pair of pants inspired by 18th century British cavalry uniforms, in gradated tones, as if splattered by mud while astride a horse.
Another line pursuing high prices is Earnest Sewn, a New York-based jeans brand that launched during market week in Los Angeles last month. It takes inspiration from the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi,” which refers to the beauty of the imperfect, with single-needle stitching that can lead to crooked or broken stitches. Under the direction of Scott Morrison, formerly vice president at Paper Denim & Cloth, Earnest Sewn jeans will retail for $182 to $240.
“We’re not trying to reach a broad audience with this,” he said. “It’s about a small niche and someone who understands quality.”
Serfontaine co-owner Mik Serfontaine calls his new quest a “labor of love.” His fledgling fall line of jeans called Reclaim uses Cone Mills’ White Oak label of denim. It is made on the company’s historic 29-inch-wide looms, which produce the white-woven edge of selvage that disappeared when the mills switched to more efficient 58-inch looms in the Eighties. Serfontaine plans to heavily process the denim for a chipped color effect.
“We’ll probably only do it once a year, only do 99 pieces per cut and sell it to our top 10 customers — I won’t be making any money on this,” said Serfontaine, who expects to sell Reclaim jeans for $250-plus per pair compared with the $180 he gets for his current line.
He said the new line will represent only a fraction of his $7 million in annual sales.
Serfontaine is among the dozen companies who have access to the White Oak denim, according to Tom McKenna, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing at Greensboro, N.C.-based Cone, which is part of International Textile Group. He said capacity of the looms limits product availability. He added that in the next six to nine months, the company plans to add more contemporary equipment to expand its output of this grade of fabric.
“This will create a halo effect around the balance of our products,” McKenna said. “We’re very well grounded in the contemporary market — with firms such as Serfontaine, Yanük, Hudson Jeans and Chip & Pepper — and this is another weapon to build share in the category.”
High-end fabric and complicated washes are not makers’ only justification for top-of-the-line prices. At Allen B. by Allen Schwartz, embellished jeans retail from $210 to $265 for stretch to rigid product. Schwartz adds razzle-dazzle with caviar beading, rhinestones, faux fur trims, grommets and brooches. One example is a style of jeans that has buckles on the two front belt loops, as well as at the top and bottom of the pink satin lace-up legs.
“We think there’s a huge saturation of the same product out there, and we don’t think customers will just pay for a wash, but for something special,” said Schwartz, noting that the high-end product accounts for 50 percent of his $10 million to $12 million denim business.
Going a little wilder is also the tactic favored by Los Angeles companies Von Dutch Originals and True Religion, which have sprinkled their existing lines with a dose of high-wattage jeans. Von Dutch launched its Signature Lowride style last season. The $250 jeans feature different color screenprints of the Von Dutch logo on the front, with no two alike, according to sales representative Jennifer Mumford.
“I believe the designer is working on more pieces like this, and we see it becoming a bigger part of our business,” Mumford said.
True Religion will ship for fall jeans carrying a jaw-dropping $395 price tag. They are crafted in a patchwork style on distressed denim with twisted seam details.
“I’m very surprised at the positive reaction we’ve received, since these are very expensive jeans,” said Jeff Lubell, co-owner of True Religion, who has picked up orders from Neiman Marcus and Atrium in New York.
One of the limits to the price inflation is retailers. While some buyers say they’ll pay what it takes, others balk at putting out jeans with price tags much higher than $300, claiming it crosses over into the designer category.
“I think it’s nuts, “said Randy Brewer, general manager of Villains Vault in San Francisco, which carries Diesel, Paper Denim & Cloth and Chip & Pepper. “I appreciate it, but so far it hasn’t sold much here on Haight Street. At this point, if it’s at $300 retail, I can practically get Gucci for that.”
Another concern among specialty retailers is that they could buy the high-priced jeans and suddenly find the same styles on sale at a department store or Web site. A recent check of Bluefly.com showed one Dolce & Gabbana pair of jeans on sale for $149.99, down from $420, and a Marc Jacobs red denim pair of pants priced down from $355 to $94.99.
“It’s not that we can’t sell it, because we were selling Replay and Diesel from Europe in the Nineties and they were landing on these shores at $65 wholesale, but we won’t put it on sale,” said Thomas George, owner of E Street Denim in Highland Park, Ill., which carries 60 brands of denim, about four of which fall into the super-premium denim category. “For us, it’s not about the money, but about the story and how long is the exclusive.”