Byline: Scott Malone

NEW YORK — Coming off a robust spring for jeans and denim jackets, executives at top jeanswear companies are expecting their strong momentum to carry through fall.
Consumers have embraced the industry’s return to more basic five-pocket and boot-cut silhouettes, cut from denim with new treatments or coatings for a different hand and appearance. Vendors said they expect that trend to continue, and they will be adding a wider variety of colors to provide newness in basic silhouettes.
While jeans performed well through the spring, shorts sales were mixed. Most vendors reported a soft shorts season, though a couple of resources who shipped their goods early said they did OK.
Even the industry’s top players — Levi’s and Lee — who have reported weak results of late, said that the strong spring has boosted their businesses.
“The jeans category has been very strong in the first half; there’s definitely a momentum there, with fabrications being very important,” said Gordon Harton, president of The Lee Co., of Merriam, Kan. “Our jeans business was very strong. Shorts did not come in at the levels we had expected, but the long jeans business was strong.”
Similarly, at Levi Strauss & Co., Nick Coe, director of licensing for the Levi’s brand, said, “For us, it’s a terrific time, because it looks, smells and feels like the whole denim business is coming back quite strong.”
He said that sales of the San Francisco-based brand’s core silhouette rebounded in the spring.
“The 501 business in women’s is coming back,” Coe said. “That’s just another reflection of the fact that the five-pocket jean is starting to come back.”
Coe added that what’s driving the strength of basic cuts is interesting fabrics, a trend he expects to continue through the fall.
“Finishing is going to play an important role again in jeans, more than just stonewashed and bleached,” he said. “There’s a whole generation out there that still hasn’t seen what finishing can do. We’ll be pushing that quite hard.”
A number of smaller brands targeting the juniors business reported substantial sales growth through the spring.
“We saw a bigger-than-planned increase in sales,” said Michael Silver, president of Silver Jeans, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “We had planned 10 percent and saw a 25 to 30 percent increase.”
Similarly, Dick Gilbert, president of Mudd Inc., based in New York, said that despite a weak shorts season, “We had a fabulous first half. We shipped 24 to 25 percent ahead of last year.”
He added that his production is fully sold through the end of September, which leads him to expect a brisk fall season.
At Mavi America Sportswear, executive vice president Ron Gelfuso reported, “The demand for jeans and related apparel was very good in the first half of the year for us. As a matter of fact, it was excellent. Basic five-pocket flares continued to do very well, but besides that, jackets certainly sprang out and devoured everyone.”
The extreme popularity of denim jackets, paired with everything from vintage jeans to dressy skirts, is helping to drive the overall popularity of denim and to stoke demand for jeans, executives said.
“It’s very exciting,” said Robert J. Arnot, chairman and chief executive officer of I.C. Isaacs & Co., the Baltimore-based company that now produces Marithe & Francois Girbaud jeans in North America. “There’s a lot of denim being mixed with things, a lot of denim jackets being worn with all types of prints and dress-up fabrics. I see a lot of women in the streets wearing denim jackets with prints.”
A number of vendors said they’d be offering large amounts of corduroy for the fall season, part of an effort to offer consumers new fabrics in basic jeans cuts.
“This is definitely the year of corduroy,” said Bonnie Stein, president of Resource Club Ltd., a New York company that produces Bill Blass Jeanswear, a moderate misses’ line. “We’ll have a lot of stretch corduroy. Also, we’ll have a lot of velvet for holiday, both stretch and rigid.”
In juniors, Gelfuso said Mavi would be doing likewise.
“Corduroy is selling already, contrary to the many people who are afraid of it,” he said. “We’re doing it in juniors and young men’s. In juniors, the color palette is hot pink, military, stone and a washed-out orange that’s subtle, not Halloween-looking. It’s all sandblasted.”
Levi’s, too, will be offering a wider assortment than usual of corduroys, including boot-cut silhouettes. All this fits into the company’s goal to reinvigorate its sales by relying on “great basic” products.
Coe said Levi’s was trying to emphasize to consumers that basics can be more than the blue 501s. In addition to offering a wider variety of colors, the company will also be offering more fits of boot-cut jeans for fall, including a lower-rise model it’s calling “super-low.”
“We have two real key focuses,” he said. “Fifteen- to 19-year-olds are our biggest problem and an immediate opportunity. After that, our priority is maintaining our 25-plus business.” But for the junior shopper, he continued, “great basics” can be experimental looks.
“In women’s, it would be be like a super-low boot, or the Levi’s Engineered Jeans, where we have a couple of different fits and are changing the way jeans look on consumers.”
Engineered Jeans will first hit department stores this fall. The fall batch, made in the U.S. and Mexico instead of in Europe, will be priced slightly lower than the spring imports had been, with jeans retailing for around $54. The jeans are expected to be sold in 60 specialty stores and 50 department stores, Coe said.
“We’re not over-aggressive in the number of doors we want,” he said. “We’re going to gently roll that out.”
Overseas, the jeans have surged ahead much more quickly than they’re expected to in the States, growing to represent 10 percent of Levi’s second-quarter sales in Europe and Asia.
Meanwhile, a number of launches are planned for fall. Among them are the relaunched and lower-priced Todd Oldham jeans, which will replace the TO2 label and be sold through specialty stores, not department stores.
Nautica Jeans Co.’s women’s line is due to hit department-store shelves, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, late this month, according to Paulette McReady, president of the division of New York-based Nautica Enterprises.
She expects the launch to benefit from the current strength of the denim cycle.
“The stores are ready for something new, and the customer is definitely ready for something new,” she said. “There’s definitely a trend towards denim.”
While their strong momentum from the spring season has jeans executives confident about the fall, they do face one worry. It’s unclear what the slowdown at retail — most recently evidenced by the disappointing June comp-store sales reported by many chains last week — will mean for the jeans business in the months ahead.
But not surprisingly, a number of executives at jeans brands with different niches said they believed their companies are best positioned to ride out stormy economic times.
“Retail as a whole hasn’t been as strong,” acknowledged Lee’s Harton. “Gas prices and all of those things are impacting the consumer’s perception of disposable income. That is having some effect on what consumers are spending on apparel, but normally we see sales of classic jeans increase when that starts happening. We do very well when we go through those types of cycles.”
The reason for that, Harton said, is that moderately priced basic jeans styles seem like a rational purchase in uncertain economic times. He projected that Lee would see double-digit increases in jeans sales through he second half of the year.
Isaac’s Arnot agreed that there is reason to be concerned about an overall slowdown in consumer spending.
“It’s no secret that retail’s been sluggish,” he said. “And, yeah, that’s a concern. When the retailers don’t turn their inventory, then it affects everybody. It’s a concern, but I don’t know what to do about it. All you can do is give the customers something they’ll respond to.”
But he contended that it’s safer in the fashion camp when the going gets tough.
“At least with fashion, you can try to visually excite people, give them something fresh,” he said. “I’d rather be fashionable than basic” in tough economic times, he said.
Silver acknowledged that the signs of a retail slowdown had him rethinking his plans for the second half for Silver Jeans.
“People are a lot more nervous than they have been,” he said. “The second quarter was not as good as the first quarter. There is no question that people are a lot more nervous about their inventories than they had been at the beginning part of the year. If we don’t see as great a sales growth in the second half, I won’t be disappointed, because I’m expecting things to flatten out.”

What’s Ahead
Levi’s Engineered Jeans will hit 60 U.S. specialty stores and 50 department stores this fall. Made in the U.S. and Mexico instead of in Europe, where they began selling last year, the jeans will retail for around $54.
The relaunched and lower-priced Todd Oldham jeans will replace the TO2 label this fall and will be sold only through specialty stores.
Nautica Jeans for women is due to reach store shelves in the Northeast and Midwest at the end of the month.
With simple silhouettes being scooped up by consumers, jeans resources will continue to experiment with washes and treatments that make denim look new.
A wider variety of colors, particularly for juniors, are expected to dominate the fall denim market.
Vendors will be offering a wide array of corduroy, which they expect to fill an important fashion niche for fall and holiday.
Executives said they don’t believe that signs of an overall softening of the retail environment bode poorly for the denim industry, since jeans are generally not a high-ticket item and the category is just beginning an up cycle.

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