PREMIUM JEANS: SMALL BUT GROWING
Byline: Rusty Williamson / Georgia Lee / Stephania H. Davis / Teena Hammond
How much are women willing to spend for perfect jeans? Although jeans retailing from $25 to $49.99 outpaced those in all other price segments in 1997, specialty retailers around the country cite a growing appreciation for premium jeans at anywhere from $65 to $200. Following is a spot check of what premium brands and trends are opening wallets in four major markets.
DALLAS — When it comes to dressing down in jeans, some consumers seem willing to trade up.
Stores in this area said these women typically rank price last after fashion, fit and finish when buying jeans.
“It’s all about the label and the fit,” said Deborah Kaplan, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for leisure sportswear at Neiman Marcus here. “Fashion customers appreciate the designer label, and once they try them on, they love the fit.”
Neiman’s most expensive denim jeans retail for about $150, from such labels such as Versace Jeans Couture and Moschino Jeans. Other brands are Agnelli, Big Star and Lucky Brand, retailing from about $60 to $100.
Kaplan said Neiman’s jeans business is about even with a year ago.
“Newness in styling includes low-rise and some looser fits,” explained Kaplan. “But we’re still selling very fitted jeans at the designer level.”
Stanley Korshak, a women’s and men’s designer store here, sells jeans for up to $175, such as those from Daryl K, to a strictly fashion-conscious crowd.
“The woman who will pay $175 for a pair of denim jeans wants to be first in and then first out of a trend,” said Kay Glatter, vice president. “When something becomes too popular, they drop it. Price isn’t an issue; it’s the look. They want the hottest trends.”
Glatter said retro styles evocative of Marilyn Monroe are driving the premium jeans market, especially dark rinses, roll-up cuffs and capri styles.
Best-selling premium labels at Korshak include Daryl K, Bisou-Bisou and Big Star. Korshak’s jeans are merchandised in the active sportswear department.
Stores that reach out to a broader range of customers, from young professionals to the arts crowd, echoed the sentiments of designer stores: The best-fitting jeans can command the highest prices.
“It’s not necessarily the wealthy who will pay $98 for a pair of Diesel jeans,” said Fivy Adler, co-owner of WearAbout Fashions here. “Instead of buying two pairs of less expensive jeans, cost-conscious customers will buy one pair of Diesel because it’s an investment in something they really want.”
The majority of WearAbout’s stock, though, retails on more middle ground — Reactor, JNCO, Levi’s Vintage 501’s and Calvin Klein at $49 to Lucky Brand at $72.
“You cannot put the bulk of your wholesale buy into the high-end niche,” said Adler. “The ratio is about 4 to 1. You can never keep as many jeans at $98 as you can at $49. The fashion customer will pay the higher price, but you won’t find a kid wearing them.”
WearAbout’s denim jeans business is ahead 30 percent, and the store is carrying more brands and devoting more space to the category, Adler said, citing the unbridled popularity of denim and the interesting new styles on the market.
“We just started carrying Diesel, and they’re already a huge hit,” said Adler. “You wouldn’t believe how many requests we got from customers wanting us to carry Diesel jeans.”
ATLANTA — Designer names, specialty fabrics and a great fit help retailers sell premium-price jeans, according to Southeast retailers.
At Junkman’s Daughter, a specialty store here, specialty fabrics such as velvet, vinyl or fake fur and novel looks sell jeans for more than $60.
“It’s usually a tighter fit, a dressier look for clubwear, rather than the baggy jeans our younger customers buy for every day,” said owner Pam Majors.
Junkman’s Daughter sells higher-price jeans by Lip Service, Serious and Tripp, and wide-leg styles by Auraze.
Canyon, another specialty store here, sells jeans from $99 to $138; the average price is $125. Customers ask for Big Star, Diesel and Replay labels, which Canyon carries exclusively in this city, in around 15 styles.
“They usually know the lines, and if they don’t, we stress the fit, the fabric and the fact that it’s the hottest look of the moment,” said Cindy Haight, area supervisor.
Almanac, a women’s specialty store with one location here and one in Athens, Ga., carries jeans from Diesel, Daryl K and BCBG at $88 to $146. Selling higher-priced jeans is easier in Athens, home of the University of Georgia, said owner Stefanie Halperin.
“College girls live in jeans,” she said. “Sometimes they might freak out about the price, so we try to convince them of how long these jeans will last, without tearing or fraying. After they try it, they usually come back.”
Regular customer Jody Fordyce, who shops the Almanac here, said money is no object in her quest for the perfect fit. At 5 feet 11 inches, Fordyce finds Daryl K is one of the few lines that fit her.
“I would pay $500 for jeans that fit,” she said.
Halperin said she would carry jeans between $65 and $75, but has yet to find a good label in that price zone.
Labels and logos are key at Dobson & Keith, a Manchester, Ky., women’s specialty store. In the past 18 months, the store has increased premium brands to around 75 percent of inventory due to customer demand.
“Our customers are very conscious of labels, and they are willing to pay for them, especially those they can’t get many other places around here,” said owner Stephania Gregory.
She said Tommy Hilfiger, Lucky Brand, Polo, Calvin Klein, Guess and JNCO are key fashion brands, ranging from $44 to $75.
“We have no price resistance up to $100,” said Gregory, who added that while the name is the selling point for younger customers, older women look for perfect fit and fabric.
Jacobson’s, a Jackson, Mich., specialty store chain with 24 locations, carries only premium-priced jeans, ranging from $48 to $68. Housed in the Ms. J department, jeans are primarily fashion looks from Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Polo, Mossimo and Calvin Klein.
“Our customer profile started as between 18 and 30, but we’ve found it is a much broader age range, with an emphasis on fashion looks and logos,” said Beverly Rice, senior vice president of merchandising and strategy.
CHICAGO — Sandy Jenkins, a lawyer here, heard from a friend that a trendy new boutique called Chasalla carried Joop Jeans, a premium German brand.
And paying $150 for a pair of jeans was not too high a price for a measure of exclusivity.
“Once everyone else has it, who wants it?” she reasoned.
Such sentiments fuel a small but robust market for premium jeans in the greater Chicago area.
“It’s funny because I was really against selling jeans in here,” said Richard Settlemire, co-owner of Chasalla, which opened in March. “But it would have been my stupid mistake because we are really moving these jeans.”
Chasalla sells Joop jeans, priced from about $135 to $170, among the suits and separates for men and women from Dolce & Gabbana, Hugo Boss and Cinque.
Other local retailers cite similar successes with a diverse range of high-end denim brands.
Lark Stores Inc., a retailer based in Gary, Ind., is increasing the number of premium-priced jeans it offers, according to Lenny Rothschild, president and chief executive officer. He said he wants his seven locations in Illinois and Indiana to hit as many prices as possible.
“What’s happening is, all the designers that have been in the couture business are coming down to the jeans business,” Rothschild said. “The only reason a pair of jeans costs $88 or more is because of the special dyes, or washing processes or fibers used in making the products.”
Lark stocks several price tiers. The first includes Versace, Ferre and Iceberg, ranging from $95 to $160. The second features Girbaud, Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, Nautica, DKNY and Pelle Pelle, from $65 to $100. The third is Lugz, Fubu, Avirex and Phat Farm, from $35 to $75.
Thomas George, owner of E Street Denim Co., said fit and lifestyle are more important to most customers than price. Since he opened his business in 1990, George has carried more than 60 brands of jeans.
“But if I have a bad-fitting jean, it’s not gonna sell, no matter whose name is on the label,” he said.
E Street sells Sutters, Mavi and several other labels that retail from $40 to $60. Its most expensive brand is Adriano Goldschmied, which has jeans up to $165.
But E Street carries more jeans from Lucky Brand Dungarees, ranging from $60 to $80, than any other brand.
“It’s as good a product as you are gonna get out there, as far as consistency and quality,” George said. “We have 30 bodies [styles and fits] of them at any one time.”
Many customers, from preteens to grandmothers, will spend between $65 and $85 on jeans, but just as many leave the store with a pair for $40 and one for $150, George said. “I get the young guys who come in and say, ‘I just gotta have a pair of Lucky’s or Mavi’s in every style and color,’ and then I have the customer who says, ‘You know, I don’t really wear a lot of jeans. I’ve got a good fit with Adriano, so I’ll just take a couple of those.”‘
“Of course, those are people with a lot of disposable income,” George added. “They’re looking for something a little different, and they know they’re not buying something they’ll see on a lot of people.”
Jeans that have been featured in music videos are all that matters to customers at Technique, part of the Lark chain, said store manager Charmaine Gage. The store specializes in urban jeans from Phat Farm and Fubu. The customers, mostly under 25, have seen the jeans in music videos featuring rap artist LL Cool J and in hip-hop magazines like Vibe.
“Most of the time they come in knowing what names they want, and price is only considered when they’re thinking about whether they can afford jeans and a shirt or just the jeans,” Gage said.
Price mattered to Mabel James and her son Zane one recent afternoon as they shopped in Technique. Zane, 15, wanted a pair of Phat Farm jeans that cost $72.
“No, I don’t care if it is a birthday present,” said Mabel James. Her son settled for a pair of $58 Fubu jeans. “To me, jeans shouldn’t cost more than what I spend on a week’s worth of groceries for four people,” she said.
Sometimes, Gage said, a customer will pick out a Phat Farm shirt in Technique, but want to go down to The Lark Collection store nearby for a pair of Guess jeans. “They’re familiar with Guess; it’s tried and true,” Gage said. “With those brands people know what they’re getting for their money and they’re used to paying that $70 or $80. They feel funny going below that amount.
“And,” she added, “it’s fine with us because either way, we can keep the customer within the company.”
LOS ANGELES — Put them on and you’ll know.
With that sales pitch, Undercover, a trendy Santa Monica, Calif., boutique, gets its customers to shell out close to $200 for a pair of jeans.
In fact, the store carries only two upscale jeans brands: Plein Sud and Jeans Dolce & Gabbana. The three styles of Plein Sud retail for $168, $175 and $185, and the D&G is $155.
“These jeans are not typical jeans,” said Adam Shaffer, who owns Undercover with partner Neidda Shehady. “These are like a stretch denim pant. They’re sexy and they fit like your favorite pair of pants, but yet they’re jeans.”
Shaffer said customers get spoiled once they try on the pricey jeans and won’t buy anything else.
“We sell out of them every time we get them, so we’re going to continue to buy them strong,” he said. “All they have to do is try them on. When a girl asks me why they’re $200, I say, Just put them on and you’ll know; $100 jeans simply don’t fit the way they do.”
In San Francisco, Behind the Post Office on Haight Street is having luck with jeans from Yoni Yum that retail for $68.
“Last season, she did a sparkle, antique stretch denim that was really cool. For next season, she’s doing some dark indigo stuff,” said Stephen Pringle, owner of the store.
He said women love the cut of the jeans, which come in low-waist and high-waist styles.
The store is selling only the Yoni Yum line right now because “it’s new, and the cool thing is, no one else has it.”
“We’re a little boutique, and we can’t sell Mavi’s because we were selling them before they caught on and now they’re selling everywhere,” added Pringle.
Down in Newport Beach, the DNA boutique at Fashion Island mall is sticking with a favorite — Diesel, which retails for $99. Earl Jeans are the top-priced items; some of the specialty washes go for $105, said owner Doug Schell.
Schell also sells Mavi, which he prices at $68, slightly higher than other boutiques, which sell them for $48. “They’re sitting there right next to the Diesel and the $68 makes sense when you see the quality,” he said.
“I try to carry fashion lines that make sense at a price point where price isn’t an issue. I carry used Levi’s at $48, but price really isn’t an issue if it fits right,” Schell said.
The Mavi price is popular with customers under 20 while older shoppers opt for the higher prices.
To talk a customer into paying more for jeans, he points out that Diesel jeans have the quality to last for several years, while “the $50 pair of jeans is going to wear out just from washing,” he said.
In Pasadena, the Elisa B. boutique sells jeans from $75 to $130. The top-price category is where the Daryl K line fits in; Diesel sells for $96 and $98, and Todd Oldham is the only jeans selling for $75, said owner Elisa Bruley.
The customer for Diesel and Daryl K is the same.
“Both are pretty hip, fairly young; age range 16 to 30,” said Bruley. “Obviously, the customer with a higher level of income is going to go for the denim that’s a little bit pricier or a little bit better known. Daryl K is a very, very hot designer right now.”
Another hot line is Tag M., stretchy, sexy jeans that retail for $98, she said.
It takes a little work from the sales staff to get a customer to buy higher-priced jeans. Diesel trains store staff on the history of its five-pocket denim program, familiarizing personnel with the different washes, weaves and fits.
“If the salesperson knows what they’re selling, it’s a lot easier,” Bruley said. “Trying on a pair of jeans is like trying on a bathing suit. It’s murder for women.”