Byline: Scott Malone / With contributions from Georgia Lee, Atlanta / Holly Haber, Dallas / Kristi Ellis, Los Angeles

NEW YORK — After experiencing some turbulence in 1999, the jeans market is climbing into clearer skies in early 2000.
The updraft is being led by the shift away from busy, heavily pocketed jeans and towards simpler cuts of uniquely treated or washed denim, which has caught consumers’ attention and given the spring selling season a strong start.
A survey of department store and specialty retailers around the country reported that novel denims, with shiny coatings, heavy washes or embellishments, as well as non-denim fabrics like pleather and fake animal skins, have sparked demand over the past few months.
They’ve also refreshed the standard five-pocket styles, which look new to shoppers in these new fabrics, buyers said.
But the five-pocket jean is by no means the only in-demand silhouette. Across the country, the boot-cut flare remains a popular style with women, while in the South capris are also moving.
“There are are so many interesting fabrications of jeans and textures that it just makes the market more exciting,” said Wendy Red, fashion director of Up Against the Wall, a 16-unit juniors chain based in Washington, D.C. “There’s a million different ways you can make basic five-pocket jeans, with different fabrics and stretch. Everything out there is in a five-pocket silhouette, snake and leopard [prints], all these different fabrics.”
Overall, she assessed her jeans business as “phenomenal.”
“Stretch is selling, colored-stitched looks are selling, black rinses are selling unbelievably,” she continued. “But only dark denim. I’m not selling any light jeans.”
One major new look Red said she was not enthusiastic about was the dirty wash.
“I didn’t buy them, I’m not doing them, I don’t want them,” she said.
Red also noted that stretch jeans have come to represent 80 percent of her assortment this spring — a surprise, given that she had expected stretch to be on its way out by now.
“I’ve been selling stretch for three years really well, and I thought it had maybe peaked out,” she said. “I thought it would be quieting down. But it’s better than it was.”
Hot brands at the chain include Dollhouse, Sergio Valente, Guess and Baby Phat, she said.
Up Against the Wall is one of a handful of retailers carrying the initial limited rollout of Levi’s new Engineered Jeans ergonomic style.
“We just got them in and we sold a couple of pairs, which is good,” Red said, noting that getting customers to try on the redesigned style is crucial to making a sale.
She noted that she expects the jeans business to pick up over the months ahead.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “I never order jeans for April, May and June. Usually, after April 30, I won’t take a jean in. But now it doesn’t matter. When something is hot, they’re wearing it 24-seven.”
Denim sales are running ahead of last year at Rich’s, according to Sheila Kamensky, vice president of fashion merchandising.
“We’re in a denim cycle,” she said.
Vintage-wash and dark-rinse denim are selling well. Polo Jeans’ new relaxed Saturday Jean and short skirt, and Tommy Jeans’ misses’ relaxed basic, all in vintage washes, have each been strong, she noted.
In the juniors area, dark-rinse denim and denim shorts have been bestsellers. A five-pocket slim leg and a capri with an embellished bottom by Guess have been strong juniors sellers. Capris from Paris Blues and LEI have also had good early selling.
In denim-related areas, bare knit tanks, halters and tubes have been strong, along with nylon fabrics and animal-print shorts.
Spring denim sales are strong across the board at Lord & Taylor, said Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising. Basic replenishment denim is outpacing fashion offerings.
“Embellishment has had media hype that called attention to denim, and there’s interest there, but we find that the consumer wants to replenish her basics first,” she said.
Bestsellers include CK Calvin Klein’s basic five-pocket jean and Polo’s Saturday Jean.
Embellished looks have also done well at Jacobson’s, a 24-store specialty chain based in Indianapolis.
“Particularly in the young department, whether it be feathers or embroideries or ribbons or jewels, the decorated jean is really popular,” said Beverly Rice, senior vice president for fashion and merchandising strategy. “It’s just something the customer hasn’t had yet. That’s what’s driving the business, not only in jeans, but in anything else. All ages are going for newness.
“The decorated denim jacket has merit, too. We haven’t had a lot of them in stock, but we saw some at the Coterie, and I do believe that will take off, too,” she added, referring to the Fashion Coterie, a trade show held in New York last month.
Rice added that flood-length jeans, mid-calf capris and wide-legged looks have all been performing “consistently.”
She said that Jacobson’s had recently added XOXO jeans, which are performing well. That brand was picked up to fill in a hole created when the company recently dropped two status lines from the jeans area, Rice continued.
“Our customer has not missed the Ralph Lauren and Hilfiger [jeans],” she said. “Those brands have just been footballed around by the department stores, and we just had to take it on the chin to back away from those businesses.”
She said carrying those brands that were so promotional “defies our credibility, because we’re not that kind of store.”
At Beall’s, a Bradenton, Fla.-based department store chain with 63 Florida stores, denim business has been “excellent,” according to Don Niemann, divisional merchandise manager.
“There’s no really overwhelming trend now, but denim is still very strong,” he said, adding that warm weather had boosted sales.
Private label under the Outlooks brand has performed well, accounting for around 20 percent of sales. National brands, including Mudd, CK Calvin Klein, Guess and Bongo have also been strong.
Basic flare silhouettes have sold best and wide legs, which many thought to be waning, are starting to gain momentum again, said Niemann. Sandblasting has become almost a standard treatment, and trims, in animal or floral motifs, are important on pockets or hems. Belted denim has also done well.
Fabric interest has also proven to be key at It’s the Ritz and Frankie & Debbie’s in Birmingham, Mich., according to Colleen Pozzuoli, buyer and manager of the sister stores.
“The fact that they’re doing different fabrics is important,” she said, referring to jeans makers. “Pleather, shine and twill are starting to kick in. People are willing to venture out a bit this year.”
In terms of brands, she said that Mavi has been strong, as has Buffalo, which her store recently began carrying again after not buying for a few years. She also said that “Parasuco is better than I ever expected it to be.”
She added that her most popular silhouette is “more or less of a boot-cut flare, though the younger shopper can’t let go of the bell.”
In the Southwest, faded and dirty-wash jeans in flare and capri cuts are reigning supreme, although some of the more unusual treatments like shine and rubberized looks are seeing some action from juniors, too.
“The hottest washes are definitely the dirty vintage or super vintage wash that looks really worn on the knees and butt,” said Allison Gordon, buyer and manager of Wearabout in Dallas. “The dirty vintage is too far out for older customers — they go for the other one.”
Looking forward, Gordon is enthusiastic about a new extreme in dirty looks — gasoline and oil-treated jeans she has ordered from Von Dutch, the West Coast jeanswear resource.
“They actually smell like oil and gas and are so dirty, but so cool-looking,” Gordon noted.
At Global Chaos in Houston, stonewashed jeans in boot and capri cuts by Silver are the bestsellers, along with Buffalo’s iridescent finish.
“Women aren’t as fashion-forward here, so heavy embellishments aren’t taking off for us,” said Yousuf Beg, an owner. “We seem to be doing best with a really stonewashed look and light-dyed finishes for women.”
Dark washes are less popular here because they seem hotter in Houston’s steamy humid summers, Beg noted.
Dark-wash and toggle-closure jeans with drawstring waists appeal to juniors at Beth’s, with two units in Gonzales and Prairieville, La.
“The juniors love the toggle closure because it’s below the navel,” said Beth Ambeau, owner. “Everything has a flare to it. I’m also selling anything with trim like beading, silk fabric and seashells in capri and five-pocket jeans.”
Ambeau feels she has to maximize her jeans business now, before the temperature rises and shoppers turn to barer looks.
“It’s so hot down South that we really kick into shorts and capri and short skirts, halter tops and dresses in denim,” she said.
Flare jeans and linen-look styles by Silver are the top styles at Express Male, a juniors and young men’s store in the college town of Conway, Ark.
“Mostly, the junior business is in bigger flares, and for the college girls it’s a smaller flare to fit over Doc Martens shoes,” said buyer Larry Rogers. “The dirty wash is selling a little — it’s fair — but it’s the first six months. The medium stone wash is probably the best one. Shine and rubberized looks are OK, but not in volume. It’s just a little trend.”
Rogers praised Silver jeans for their fit.
“I can fit a fat girl or a skinny girl in them,” he said. “They don’t just change the waist — they adjust the butt and thighs.”
On the West Coast, Sharon Segal, owner of Sharon Segal at Fred Segal, a high-end boutique in Santa Monica, Calif., said coated denim is selling briskly. She is also banking on dirty denim for late spring.
On the coated side, the boutique has tweaked several pairs of Levi’s button-fly 501 jeans, overdyed them and dipped them in latex.
Priced at $158 a pair, the denim has sold well in navy, dark brown and black.
“It looks like leather,” Segal noted.
Segal is also anticipating a strong performance from dirty washes. She has bought into S.B.U.’s dirty denim in pale, light washes, which will hit the store in the next month. The Italian jeans retail for $200 to $210.
Raw denim by G-Star is also a top seller.
“This raw denim is different,” Segal said, noting that it features an articulated knee. The main silhouette for women is low-rise and straight leg.
Segal said Levi’s Engineered Jeans, priced at $75, have not performed as well as Levi’s higher-priced Red line, which ranges in price from $175 to $260. She noted that Levi’s took the mass-market approach with Engineered Jeans, which does not appeal to her customer.
“We’ve had the Red line since December, and it is amazing,” Segal said. “We are going to focus more on Red going forward because our customers want something special, and Red fits that with a limited distribution.”
The bestsellers in the Red line include a skant and a signature jean, which sells for $260.

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