JEANS FIRMS WEAVE SAFETY NET

Byline: Joshua Greene

NEW YORK — While executives at jeans companies said they expect strong consumer demand for denim fabric to continue through next year, they’re starting to diversify their lines. If for no other reason than to avoid monotony on the sales floor, designers are adding more corduroy, twill and cotton fleeces to their assortments.
They’re also covering themselves, in case shoppers’ ardor for denim starts to cool.
As fashion has trumped basics in the jeans market over the last 1 1/2 years, designers have put much of their focus on the denim fabric itself. They’ve poured their energies into coming up with new washes and treatments, everything from whiskered abrasions to potassium washes, and increased the variety of denim they use to include lighter weights and cross-hatched varieties.
They’ve also played around with new silhouettes, including those with lace-up details, studs and tears. But many companies are coming to rely on the low-rise boot-cut jean as the most popular platform to show off their new fabric variations.
Now, as they turn their attention to new fabrics, they’re looking for textiles that will work together with denim, rather than supplant it.
Spencer Rosenheck, president of Los Angeles-based junior denim line LEI, said he will push non-denim bottoms starting with February market appointments.
“We’re not doing it because the denim business is soft, we’re doing it because there is an additional need for the floor to look balanced,” he said. “Our denim is still the focal point, but if the floor is all indigo with all the vendors, it starts to look monotonous.”
He cited corduroy, twill and micro-polyester fabrics in trouser and five-pocket silhouettes as looks the company is planning. The company is also developing ways of using some of the washes and treatments that have been developed for denim on other fabrics to produce whiskered corduroys, for instance, that would have a jeans look without being denim.
Some jeans executives said they’re surprised that denim has become such a fashion focus.
Earl Jean Inc. founder and designer Suzanne Costas Freiwald pointed out that jeans are, by their nature, a basic item. She suggested that many companies whose core business isn’t jeanswear have simply jumped on the trend.
“I’m sure that companies that aren’t really jeans companies will just move on with the next trend,” she said.
While she mixes in corduroy and twill fabrics to Earl’s assortment for variety, she said the company relies on basic five-pocket denim jeans as its core.
“I don’t go too far from home,” she said.
Vendors also pointed out that whole denim is currently enjoying a period of particularly high popularity, and it’s not something that’s likely to disappear from the U.S. fashion market in the foreseeable future.
“We are worried about a downturn” in consumer demand for denim, but I don’t think denim will ever go away,” said Polo Jeans Co. vice president of design Chris Leba. “We are doing some different fabrics, but certainly denim is still our number-one focus.”
Leba said it’s difficult for jeans companies to expand into other fabrics because the look ends up inconsistent with denim’s “street” feel.
“We’re trying some twills, but it’s difficult because you get a sportswear look, which is more preppy,” he said. “Cargo pants in twills look great, but not five-pocket jeans.”
Leba said Polo jeans is adding flap pockets to the front of jeans, for a Seventies feel, and adopting titanium rivets as a way of keeping denim looking new. But the company is also adding athletic-type bottoms, like sweatpants, which can be worn with a denim top without looking too sporty, he added.
Executives at DKNY Jeans also have activewear on their minds and are adding fleece, stretch terry cloth and velour to their assortment. President Susan Davidson said the company plans to offer fabrics that are comfortable and cozy for 2002, since she thinks people are spending more time at home after Sept. 11.
Davidson said the active fabrics are not meant to be worn head-to-toe, but with a denim jacket or other denim item, to give the entire look a jeanswear feel.
“I clearly believe that denim, which is enjoying a major strength right now, will continue,” said Davidson. “Jeans companies have traditionally offered other fabrics. It’s how they mix their assortment, and I think we need to offer the consumer other fabrics.”
Polo Jeans’ Leba compared the current focus on denim with the late Sixties and Seventies, when the fabric first saw a major evolution. That’s when techniques including stonewashing were first developed.
“If you look at the late Sixties, denim went wild and then it went back to basic. I think now, we’ve gone from a classic to a fashion jean,” Leba said. “We need to cover all our bases, though. Nothing happens in mass America overnight; trends take a while to change. So, if we hear about [a slowdown] somewhere in regards to jeans sales, we would react to it.”
Solid denim sales at retail confirm the continued demand for jeans, even in a weak economy.
“We don’t see any drop in demand for denim from our customers,” said Alison Mangaroo, buyer for the New York-based specialty store Atrium. “The biggest part of our solid business through this recession has been denim. People are just looking for a more unique and special treatment. We see the direction going that way also for at least spring and fall 2002.”
Barneys New York denim buyer Megan Mitchell said jeans sales have exceeded expectations and that the low-rise, boot-cut style is still selling well. Mitchell said she introduced some non-boot-cut styles, but customers didn’t respond. She’s adding stretch twills and corduroys as an option for customers looking to get away from denim.
Ken Girouard, vice president of marketing and product development at textile manufacturer Cone Denim, said he believes that the large variety of shades, weaves and weights of denim will keep shoppers interested.
“I don’t see another fabric on the horizon that has the variety in silhouettes and finishing that denim has. I don’t see a miracle fabric that will replace denim,” he contended. “You could have 10 pairs of jeans in your closet and they could all look different, and you could have 10 pairs of khakis and they would all look the same.”

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