JEANS FALLING BACK ON BASICS

Byline: Georgia Lee

ATLANTA — Still reeling from the failure of embellished jeans, especially in the juniors market, denim manufacturers are relying on basics to bring balance to denim departments this fall.
An overload of fashion denim last year, at all price points, resulted in heavy markdowns and surplus inventory, according to industry experts. Juniors didn’t take to the Gucci-inspired embellished jeans that flooded the market, preferring basic silhouettes, good fit and lower prices over beads and feathers.
Regrouping for fall, manufacturers are counting on basics to boost sales, as they offer higher volume and bigger margins than cutting-edge trends.
While they haven’t abandoned novelties, they are often limited to smaller groups. Rather than silhouette or embellishment, newness is coming from washes, rinses and fabrics, giving fashion denim a less gimmicky look this fall, said manufacturers.
“Department store floors last year looked like a ‘sea of stuff,’ with all this fashion and no real statement,” said Susan Mazawey, vice president of sales at Tommy Jeans. “The consumer voted, and the embellishment hoopla didn’t materialize. Now we’ve gotten away from tricked-up styling.”
For fall, Tommy’s basic replenishment jeans will expand from 20 percent of total inventory to 30 percent. Five styles, all five-pocket silhouettes, will expand into a variety of fabrics and washes.
“We’re doing fashion through fabrics, rather than changing a pocket or tweaking silhouettes,” said Mazawey, adding that the basic focus should help retailers build margins, with fewer high and low markdown cycles, she added.
A spokeswoman for Calvin Klein Jeans said fashion assortments have been edited for fall, with a return to basic boot-cut jeans that emphasize proportion and fit. Embellished styles are more minimal, with newness more in coated finishes, destruction washes and vintage styling.
For the relaunch of Todd Oldham Jeans, formerly known as TO2, basics have increased from 10 percent of the collection to 60 percent. Prices are also 30 percent lower.
Chris Nicola, executive vice president, said that fall 1999 had clarified department stores’ focus.
“Embellishment did not translate in the junior market, particularly in department stores, which have a more basics customer,” he said. “Everybody went crazy with rhinestones and feathers, without the basics as a safety net.”
The new Todd Oldham line will still offer fashion, such as animal and python prints, as well as printed iridescents targeting fashion specialty stores, although Nicola noted an increased demand for basics there, too. The return to basics is particularly evident in moderate juniors lines, where embellishment flopped last year.
Mudd, a New York jeans supplier, is expanding replenishment programs for fall, which should increase basics from 50 percent of total volume to 75 percent this year. Basic replenishment, now in place with Federated Department Stores, May Department Stores Co. and J.C. Penney Co., will expand, tripling the company’s inventory this fall.
A replenishment program requires 500,000 units to start, said Mudd president and chief executive officer Dick Gilbert. The company has invested in upgraded systems and consulting to grow the programs.
Replenishment tested with May’s denim departments has increased weekly turn rates from around 6 percent to around 10 percent, said Gilbert.
“We’re augmenting basics through quick response, not added trim,” said Gilbert. “Basics on replenishment is the real buzz now. Department stores are cautious about fashion.”
Gilbert said that oversaturation of fashion had resulted in markdowns and dumping of inventory for many manufacturers. Mudd, which only offered a handful of embellished styles last year, wasn’t hurt as badly as some, said Gilbert.
With no new bodies or fits, Mudd will still offer a limited amount of fashion — animal prints, iridescent prints, plaid interior linings and vintage prints.
“We can’t get caught ignoring fashion,” said Gilbert. “We have to give the customer a reason to buy, with color, washes, rinses, even some embroidery.”
Moderate-price manufacturer Paris Blues has worked out a 80/20 percent ratio of basics-to-fashion for fall, significantly increasing basics. Four silhouettes, all five-pocket, with 20- or 23-inch leg openings make up 80 percent of styles.
With the only new shape a simple stretch-twill short short, fabrics, including pleather and Lurex blends provide newness. The fall line has no embellished pieces.
“People went overboard with the Gucci embellishment thing and it blew up in our face,” said Lisa Engelman, national sales manager, who added that juniors never liked the trend, which did sell in contemporary or children’s markets. “Department stores all agree that 80 percent is the right amount of basics. It may be boring, but the 80 percent pays the bills. Fashion, if it’s not right, can kill you.”
Engelman noted that specialty store accounts had also asked for more basics, even those that typically stay away from that business.
Some manufacturers, such as Guess, are resisting a basics binge. Joie Rucker, director of denim, said basics had always represented around 50 percent of the line. Embellishment, which was only around 10 percent of last year’s styling, had been well received, even among juniors customers. Joie said subtlety and quality had helped sell the look.
Guess will keep the same fashion-to-basics ratio this fall, emphasizing four basic jeans shapes in denim and stretch denim. New fabrics, including blends, “slick denim” — which has a rubbery coating — ring spun and novelty weaves, have generated the best response, along with color, said Rucker.
“The embellishment trend was overkill,” she said. “It was too much too fast, or it might have lasted longer. Department stores were trying to do what specialty stores do best. You just can’t do fashion trends in tonnage.”