TIGHT FIT

Byline: Lois Sakany

The jeans story can’t be told without dispatches from the retail trenches — from dusty dry goods merchants to Army/Navy surplus, from counterculture head shops to haughty department stores, from surburban malls to cyber-malls. Here, a few of the highlights.

1902 Denim apparel makes its first appearance in the 1902 Sears catalog. Marketed strictly as clothes for the working class, dungarees are first embraced in the fields and small towns of Western America by farmers, miners and the cowboys with whom they will become inextricably linked in the annals of Americana.

1946 With the end of the Second World War comes the advent of Army/Navy Surplus stores. They become a popular retail venue for merchandising the denim pants originally produced for soldiers. Traditional denim workwear manufacturers, who produced for the war effort, begin to adapt mass-production methods, and the market begins to make the shift from strict utilitarianism to casualwear.

1955 The all-time popularity of television and movie westerns combines with the trend of Easterners heading west and vacationing on dude ranches in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, to create both a western style phenomenon and coast-to-coast demand for the jeans that make it authentic. At men’s mercantile stores, retailers discover they are unable to keep up with the demand for jeans.

1956 The first mall in America, the Southdale Center, is built in Edina, Minn., and for the first time, two department stores operate under the same roof within a climate-controlled environment. Designed by Victor Gruen, the facility becomes a model for mall design, which ultimately changes the focal point of retail from downtown to the suburbs — and in the bargain provides jeans retailers with tremendous opportunities for exposure.

1969 The first Gap store opens in San Francisco, a reflection of the youth culture’s flowering love affair with denim. Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, in upstate New York, a shagged-out Tommy Hilfiger makes his first venture into retail with People’s Place, a boutique with inventory including incense, records and bell-bottom jeans.

1970 M.O. Lee, president of VF Corp., holds a public sale to clear out excess inventory in the corner of the factory, giving birth to the modern jeans factory outlet. Following on the heels of mall sprawl, the major branded jeans manufacturers built out the outlet concept quickly.

1974 The arrival of designer jeans, with their skintight fit and status logos, ups the retail price point for denim to a previously unheard-of $35.00. At first carried in specialty stores, the category soon makes its first appearance in the women’s departments of better department stores, thanks to the killer combination of sexy fashion and higher price points.

1989 Guess opens its first free-standing store, known as “The Ranch,” marking the arrival of specialty stores with jeans designed specifically for the children of baby boomers. Meanwhile, in the then just-burgeoning Lower East Side, Triple Five Soul opens and becomes one of the first stores to feature denim designs celebrating hip-hop culture.

1997 With more 1,700 brick-and-mortar locations throughout the world, Gap jumps online to sell jeans from its Web site, Gap.com.

1998 Levi’s launches Original Spin, a jeans customization program, in all of its 13 stores. “The unique experiment” lets customers create a pair of individualized jeans that reflect specific size or style needs. The jeans, which take approximately two weeks to manufacture, can be picked up at the store or delivered.