Byline: Scott Malone / With contributions from David Grant Caplan

NEW YORK — In today’s uncertain economic environment, belt-tightening is on many Americans’ minds.
But specialty jeans retailers are hoping that one key trend this spring will allow them to avoid feeling that squeeze — as rises get lower and lower, wearing a belt is not really an option.
Still, while low-rise jeans are bringing out shoppers, they aren’t enough for everyone to hang a season on. Particularly in the Midwest, retailers acknowledged that spring selling is getting off to a slow start, as anxious consumers seem a little less willing to open their wallets.
“Anything with a low waist is selling,” said Sharon Segal, owner of the Sharon Segal at Fred Segal boutique in Los Angeles, who listed Frankie B jeans and Levi’s new Superlow style as two of her top-performing low-rise looks. “They’re sexy and everyone wants to look sexy right now.”
While the low-rise trend got started on the West Coast last year, it has made its way across the country.
At Up Against the Wall, an 18-store Washington, D.C.-based juniors chain with units on both coasts, fashion director Wendy Red said her customers have been snapping up low-rise styles, as well.
“I just got some in today that are really low, with 3-inch zippers,” she said this week. “That’s pretty low. I’m not going completely in that direction, because not everybody can wear that. But I think that low-rise in general will be pretty good.”
Three-inch zippers are the extreme of low, and somewhat of an an exaggeration since that number excludes the fabric between the bottom of the fly and the seam that joins the front and back pieces of the jeans, which many consider to also be part of the rise. But a number of retailers said they were seeing strong demand for jeans with 4 1/2-inch and 5-inch rises.
It’s not only fashion-forward brands that are jumping on the low-rise bandwagon — even Lee Co. has offered a lower-rise style in its Riveted by Lee line, though that comes in at a more modest 9 1/2 inches for the misses’ customer.
“Really low is still big,” said Alison Mangaroo, assistant buyer at Manhattan’s The Atrium. “The lowest we have right now is about the 3-inch, but I’m selling a lot of the 4 1/2-inch cuts.”
The trend has even made its way north of the border.
“Low-rise jeans are popular and they are getting lower,” said Lazer Crudo, chief executive officer of the 52-unit Montreal-based retailer Jeans Experts. “The new thing that they are buying is the no-waistband that is frayed.”
Crudo said a low-rise frayed waist from Manager, a Montreal-based brand, has been performing “very well.”
George Moumouris, owner of Toronto’s Due West Clothing Co., echoed Crudo’s observation.
“Low-rises are doing wicked — the lower the better,” said Moumouris, whose two-story, 2,200-square-foot-store carries brands such as Miss Sixty, DKNY Jeans and Diesel.
Moumouris said the popularity of low-rise jeans — an item that is “getting more universally accepted” — has been driven by pop icons, such as Britney Spears, who don such duds.
“Everybody wants to look sexier,” he said. “They’ve been watching all of these videos and they want to look like everyone on TV.”
Moumouris said one of the store’s hottest sellers is a low-rise pair with a frayed waistband from Montreal-based Luscious Clothing.
In areas where the low-rise trend hasn’t sparked consumers’ interest, business has been a little slower.
At Lark Stores, a 10-unit Chicago chain, president Leonard Rothschild said his customers just haven’t been interested in low-rise jeans.
“We have higher-rise pants and the low-rise is what’s hot right now,” he said. “We have an urban clientele that doesn’t wear as many low-rise pants… The story is low-rise and we are not partaking in that.”
In the absence of that, Rothschild acknowledged, spring sales are having a slow start.
“There’s nothing standing out that’s been that great,” he said.
Rothschild wasn’t alone in reporting slow spring selling.
At It’s the Ritz in Birmingham, Mich., buyer and manager Colleen Pozzuoli said she worries that consumer concerns about the economy could start to hurt jeans sales.
“Let’s be realistic. It’s going to affect anyone in this area of the country. It’s the Midwest,” where downturns in the economy lead to worries of layoffs by the major automakers, she said. “We’ve got to tighten our buckles, so to speak, and just keep on going.”
So far, she continued, her store has to make its plans, despite the uncertainties.
“Some days are worse than others and some are better than anticipated,” she said. “It’s a weird time of year anyway.”
At E Street Denim in the Highland Park suburb of Chicago, owner Thomas George said he believes things are getting tougher.
“When you get into one of these slowdowns, iffy periods, whatever anybody wants to call the economic situation, the self-doubt of the consumer magnifies a problem that already exists,” he said. “Our business is workable and steady, but it certainly isn’t without effort. It’s not as easy and focused as it was a year ago.”
The pre-existing problem that’s hurting the denim business, in George’s eyes, is a classic challenge of the apparel industry: a category gets hot and then everyone wants in on the action.
He said that after last year’s strong denim sales, the competition in the jeans business has heated up substantially.
“Now we have too much product for too few customers and the good products and the good brands are being used as bait to satisfy the national chains….They’re trying to manufacture sales that probably don’t exist,” he said. “There’s only so much product of any category, whether it’s T-shirts, dresses, denim, outerwear, jackets, that you can stuff down the consumer’s throat. There’s too many doors and not enough customers.”
However, not all jeans retailers share the worries about the economy.
At Smith Bros., a five-store chain based in Cherry Hill, N.J., owner Wayne Shulick said he remains confident about the jeans business, which he said has gotten off to a strong start.
“I don’t have any indication that it’s going to soften up,” he said.
While market gyrations and worries about the economy at large may discourage consumers from making big-ticket purchases, Shulick said, he doubts that they will have a significant effect on the jeans business.
“I can’t imagine the media hype about the stock market and everything getting any worse than it has been,” he said. “If it hasn’t affected it yet, then I find it hard to believe it will.”
Up Against the Wall’s Red took a similarly upbeat approach.
“I’m not paying one bit of attention to that,” she said. “I’m expecting a great season. If you think positive, positive things happen.”
While low-rise styles remain the strongest trend of the season, they’re not the only thing catching consumers’ eyes. Stretch denim remains an important category, merchants said.
“Stretch fabrics are really happening for us,” said It’s the Ritz’s Pozzuoli. “Women are so conscious of denim stretching out. Mavi started the trend of the lightweight denim and it’s great, but it does stretch out so much. The stretch denim keeps it all in the right places, in the butt and the front and so forth.”
Pozzuoli listed Diesel and Seven among her other current top-performing brands.
Consumer preferences on wash are also starting to shift, retailers reported. While dark denim remains a strong seller, lighter looks are also catching on.
“They’re definitely getting into the lighter washes,” said the Atrium’s Mangaroo. “For fall, I’m not doing any dark at all. But it’s not just an even light wash. It has to be treated.”
But the rise of light doesn’t spell the end of dark, merchants emphasized.
“Dark continues to sell well,” said E Street’s George. “Whiskers have their place, as well.”
One denim staple of last year that has seen sales slow is the denim jacket, retailers said.
At Up Against the Wall, Red said that jacket sales have “slowed down,” but added that they have been in greater demand in California than on the East Coast.
However, she suggested that as consumers start picking up lighter-colored jeans, they’ll be open to jackets that better match the new hues.
“Now that we’re selling a lot more sandblasted and lighter washes, what will happen is people will want a jacket that matches the color of their jeans a little more,” she said. Red listed Sergio Valente, Jordache, Parasuco and the stretch line Azzure among her top brands.
She also emphasized that for denim to continue its strong roll, brands have to remain innovative.
“Novelty is doing well,” she said. “Frayed looks, rhinestones, studs, patchwork and things like that. It’s unbelievable.”
Overall, denim specialty stores remain guarded about the spring.
At the Atrium, Mangaroo summed up many retailers’ current view of the economy when she said: “It’s not really hurting me at the minute. I pray it doesn’t, but right now I think that denim will still be really strong.
“Everyone will still be wearing jeans. They may not want to pay for the expensive leather, but they will pay for jeans.”