Byline: Miles Socha

NEW YORK — Bring on the floods. Bring on the dirt.
Jeanswear firms are banking on new fashion styles — led by flood and HotPants styles, as well as tinted “dirty” washes — to lift their fortunes in the first half of 2000.
Citing a slight slowdown in the overall jeans business over the past six to nine months, makers are also jazzing up retail presentations of these new looks to boost demand at a time when high tech products like DVD and MP3 players are distracting the attention of young shoppers.
“Consumers are spending more on small electronics and other products,” said John P. Schamberger, head of VF Corp.’s Jeanswear Coalition, expressing a theory put forth by other jeanswear executives to account for the recent dip in demand: In this buoyant economy, big-ticket items are attracting attention.
But, Schamberger pointed out, there have been bright spots such as VF’s Wrangler, Rustler and Lee brands, particularly when fashion styles like stretch jeans, cargo pants and carpenter jeans were given a strong presentation at retail.
“You really have to come up with new and differentiated product,” he said. “You’ve got to have something that looks visually different to the consumer, and something that looks good from 10 to 12 feet away.”
VF expects Lee’s new “Metro” denim — a range of jeans based on dirty washes in black, blue and asphalt colors — will do just that when they hit the sales floor early next year. “We’ll have it in five-pocket, cargo, carpenter and logger jeans in men’s, women’s and youthwear,” Schamberger said. “Techno” fabrics, including ripstop, polyester and cotton blends and coated fabrics are also a new focus for the Lee brand. Overall, VF is projecting unit sales to grow about 2 to 4 percent in the first half.
According to Cotton Inc., unit sales of denim bottoms rose 3.1 percent in the third quarter of 1999 versus a year ago.
Doug Schneider, vice president of denim at Gitano, said he expects overall market growth of 3 to 5 percent next year, although sales growth for the brand is expected to exceed that thanks to new product introductions, including the BeMe junior line, five-pocket relaxed jeans in Tencel denim, embellished flares and carpenter shorts.
“The right brand, style-right products and the right retail price have driven success in 1999,” he said. “The key is to anticipate key consumer trends and capitalize on them.”
Schneider noted that the mass market channel in which Gitano competes “continues to be very competitive,” but said, “We don’t have to provide a revolution in silhouettes to drive business, just an evolution to give consumers a reason to add product to their wardrobe.”
Levi Strauss & Co., which has been struggling with weak demand for Levi’s brand jeans, is optimistic about the first half, citing a recent uptick in consumer demand for basic jeans, its forte, as a good omen.
“Obviously, that plays nicely into where our brand is positioned,” said Sean Dee, Levi’s brand director.
Although the privately held jeanswear giant is expected to declare another sales decline when it reports 1999 sales in February, it’s anticipating strong consumer reaction to several product initiatives for spring, including frayed “hippie” jeans, embellished styles and a strong statement with shorts.
“The outlook for us is quite good,” Dee said. “We’re looking to firm up the business and maintain our share.”
In support of its jeans with frayed details, Levi’s plans to start airing a television commercial in March in which an overheated woman takes off her jeans and lays them in the path of an approaching locomotive to make them into cutoff shorts.
Dee noted that Levi’s also plans to build sales by boosting its presence in the specialty store channel, from which it has been absent in recent years. “We have to continually challenge ourselves to be where the consumer shops,” he said. “We need to be very flexible.”
Los Angeles-based Guess Inc. is forecasting sales growth in excess of 25 to 30 percent next season.
“The first half looks very good for us,” said Maurice Marciano, Guess’s co-chairman and co-chief executive officer. “Our backlog is up substantially, anywhere from 60 to 70 percent, so that’s a good omen.”
Marciano credited the fashion cycle in jeanswear, which he’s convinced is just entering high gear, for fueling “double-digit” increases at its retail stores and driving wholesale bookings. Stretch fabrics, animal prints and dark denim have been hot trends this year. Marciano predicted strong consumer demand for “very washed down, frayed and used” jeans and for two key silhouettes: cropped styles and HotPants.
“I think the flood is going to be the most important silhouette,” he said. “And also short shorts. It’s going to be a very sexy spring and summer. It’s very fun right now. I love the fashions right now.”
Mindy Grossman, president and chief executive officer of Polo Jeans Co., echoed the sentiment.
“The customer is totally responding to newness, excitement, wearable novelty and color, all of which we’ve seen through the year, but will seek to maximize in the fourth quarter,” she said. “We expect our business momentum to continue through the year 2000.”
Citing a “wave of femininity” in jeanswear fashions, Polo Jeans is offering sexy, back-revealing tops, fitted shirts in gingham prints and two important new denim silhouettes: a stretch, ankle-zip capri and the “Saturday” jeans style, a sexy, low-rise fit in a ring-spun denim. The brand is also taking a “major stand” in the shorts category next season, offering a range of silhouettes and fabrications at $39 retail.
“The brands that will continue to excite the consumer and win brand share are ones that have consistency in their brand statement, both in product and marketing and those that continue to evolve and present new products in a cohesive manner to consumers at retail,” she said.
DKNY Jeans, which is launching a junior version at retail next spring, is also expecting that an infusion of color, feminine embellishments and items including halter tops, shrunken tank tops and cropped pants will drive sales in 2000, according to Susan Davidson, president of DKNY Jeans, Active and Juniors, which are produced under license by Liz Claiborne Inc.
Moderate junior firms are equally bullish about new silhouettes and alternative fabrications, forecasting double-digit increases for the first half. Several executives cited deflationary pressures in the jeanswear market, which plays into their proposition: jeans that retail for about $30 or less.
“I think January is going to be a huge jeans month,” said Spencer Rosenheck, president of sales and marketing for LEI, a division of RSV Sport Inc. “If crop jeans and floods are going to be as big as everyone thinks they’ll be, the first quarter will be huge.”
Rosenheck said five-pocket flared jeans, which catapulted the fortunes of moderate makers like LEI, Paris Blues and Mudd, continue to “drive the picture.” But he said alternative fabrics, including nylon, cotton ripstop and stretch twills, are also factors he is watching closely.
“The winners are going to be the ones who can control their inventories better and let the retailers drive their businesses,” he said. “The whole category of junior bottoms has been very robust for us.”
Dick Gilbert, president of Mudd, said the firm is preparing to offer a quick-response program to its major customers for back-to-school, having tested it with select retailers this year. He said that, plus large commitments from its biggest accounts, will help the firm achieve double-digit growth in the first half.
“The moderate jeans business is spectacular,” he said. “It’s as good as it’s ever been.”

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