LOW RISE: A GAME OF INCHES

Byline: Scott Malone

NEW YORK — How low can they go? Six inches, maybe five, but not any lower, unless they are looking to get busted for indecent exposure.
While the low-rise trend is expected to continue to be an important driver of jeans sales over the coming year, executives said it is moving into a second phase. For most of the past 1 1/2 years, fashion-forward jeans vendors have been pushing the waistbands on their jeans lower and lower, in an effort to show more skin and attract a little more attention.
Now, jeans companies are turning their attention from that extreme to adapting the look for more mainstream shoppers — women to whom an 8-inch or 9-inch rise looks fashionable without being uncomfortable.
Rather than pushing even lower on the low end, vendors said they’re bringing down the higher rises in their lines, finding that consumers have lost interest in jeans that sit much higher than the navel. Even at big-volume moderate brand The Lee Co., the highest current rise in the line is 10 7/8 inches, with the low end dipping to 9 inches.
“There are some jeans out there that have reached the point of how low they are going to go,” said Allen Kemp, design director at Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Silver Jeans. “You could maybe go to 5 inches, but, boy, you’re getting close to indecent at that point. It’s almost like you have to go in for a waxing.”
Noting that Silver’s lowest current rise is 6 inches, he said, “There’s a point that you reach where it’s so low that it’s not even flattering anymore because you’re hitting a wider part of a girl’s anatomy and you’re not really accentuating a narrow waist.”
Many in the jeans industry throw around lower numbers in describing the rise of a pair of jeans, but often use them inaccurately, citing just the length of the zipper rather than everything between the crotch seam and the top of the waistband. Some designers argue that a pair of jeans with an actual 3-inch rise wouldn’t stay on without a pair of suspenders or tape.
An important development for companies trying to offer the low-rise trend to slightly more modest consumers has been the shift toward contoured waistbands, which dip in the front and provide more coverage at the rear.
“The engineering or contouring of the waistband, which allows the back of the rise to ride higher on the body, creates more possibility,” said Todd Howard, president of jeans and juniors at New York-based Tommy Jeans. The current highest rise in that line is 8 inches, with a 5-inch rise at the low end. As long as the trend holds, Howard said, the company won’t be coming out with new styles that are any higher than 7 inches.
Like many executives in the women’s jeans arena, Howard cited the acceptance of low-rise jeans by male shoppers as evidence that the trend would last for some time.
“When we introduced our classic low-rise hipster flare [for women] it was 9 1/4 inches,” he said, adding, “9 1/4 is starting to be a little high for men’s.”
Kathy Collins, vice president of consumer marketing at Merriam, Kan.-based Lee Co. said, “Our low-rise business is growing. Our core business, which tends to be the longer-rise products, is a little bit soft … but low rise is gaining ground.”
To take advantage of that trend, the company is slightly dropping rises across its line.
“We are constantly making adjustments to some of those more core silhouettes,” she said. “In the last few months, we’ve been dropping them a tiny bit, maybe 1/4 inch, just enough to give it a broader appeal. You definitely don’t want to alienate the people who have been buying those jeans for 20 years, because they’re our bread and butter, but the consumer in general has become more accepting of a lower rise.”
But at a time when many designers are lowering their rises to take advantage of the trend, some are bringing back slightly higher rises, to make sure they don’t abandon shoppers who aren’t interested in low-rise styles.
“There needs to be a balance, part low rise and part regular,” said Lisa Engelman, president of sales at Los Angeles-based moderate juniors brand Paris Blues, which for spring is bringing back a style with a 9-inch rise. “It should never have been all or nothing. There is always going to be a certain percentage of the population that can go low. With all the tummy-bearing tops, there is a place for them. But it’s not 100 percent of the business.”
Her brand shipped one 7-inch style, which Engelman said sold well in specialty stores, but bombed at department stores. The line’s current best-selling rise is 8 inches.
“I don’t think we’ll go lower than that,” she said. “For us, that’s not volume.”
Other designers are aiming for a point that’s a lot more daring.
“The word is ‘butt cleavage,”‘ said Sal Parasuco, president of St. Laurent, Quebec-based Parasuco Jeans Co., which promoted a pair of jeans that show just that in a series of advertisements this year.
“The ones who have the body definitely want it. The ones who don’t will just wish they had the body,” he said. “What’s driving the market is that whole new young generation, the anti-Gap generation. They are very interested in individuality.”
Parasuco said he expects the low-rise trend to last for some time.
“I lived through the low-rise era in the Sixties and it lasted quite a while, about six years,” he said. “And in the Sixties, we didn’t have all these belly rings and tattoos and stuff. Skin is being a lot more exposed these days. It’s a good thing because the more skin you have exposed the more people are body-conscious and taking care of their bodies.”
Parasuco currently offers rises as low as 6 inches, though 7-inch models sell better. He acknowledged that the plumber look isn’t for everybody.
“The butt cleavage thing you’ll see on more extreme cases, like clubwear and rock stars. Definitely, when you sit down you don’t want to show too much,” he said. “The key is to engineer to the point that gives you a good segment of the market.”
With the low-rise trend penetrating the psyches of most jeans designers to varying depths, executives acknowledged that, while it remains popular, it’s ceasing to be a selling point. They’re looking for ways to keep the trend going, while continuing to reinvent it in ways to keep it looking fresh.
At Todd Oldham Jeans, which is produced by New York-based Jones Apparel Group, executive vice president Chris Nicola said that’s meant interpreting the look for silhouettes including skirts, which can sit higher or lower on the hips but don’t technically have rises.
“It’s not so much ‘how low can you go?’ but what other silhouettes can we incorporate it into,” he said.
Across all silhouettes of bottoms in the line, from jeans to shorts to skirts, the rise or apparent rise ranges from 6 3/4 inches to 7 1/4 inches, he said. The company believes that’s low enough to seem daring to the brand’s specialty and department store consumers, but not at the point of making people uncomfortable.
“We have a lot of accounts, like in the Midwest, where the girl understands low rise, but to [consumers] here that is the extreme,” Nicola said. “They are very comfortable with it. That’s the jeans we need to be in to do a lot of volume.”
At Silver, Kemp said that low rises are starting to be taken as a given, and he’s looking for other ways to change the look of jeans.
“You have to create newness within the genre of low rise,” he said. “You have to take new washes and fabrics, and put three or four elements together on the low-rise body. Then you have an exponential factor of what you can create.”
For those who have made their names by pushing the extremes of low-rise, broader acceptance of the trend is a sign that it’s time to move on.
Daniela Clark, a Los Angeles designer who appeared on the scene in mid-2000, with a line bearing the Frankie B name, said she believes her initial 6-inch rise is about as low as she wants to go.
“You can’t get any lower than that. That was it,” she said. “Now we’re making some that are a little higher, for people who are a little bit more modest.”
While her line has also expanded to include jumpsuits, jackets and tops, she said she’s looking to push the envelope on the other end of the jeans in upcoming seasons.
“Right now, I’m looking for some really big bells,” she said. “I know everyone is looking for slim legs, but now I’m into big bell-bottoms.”

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