LONDON — The U.K.’s High Street has become known for turning around cut-price versions of high-end looks in record time.
No sooner has Sienna Miller worn a dress or a top out shopping than its cheaper sibling is available in Topshop and New Look, with the discount chain Primark touting a version for the matter of a few pounds the following week.
While consumers will happily hit the High Street for a cheap, directional item that has a one-season life span, in the wake of the booming trend for skinny denim styles and the increased fashion focus on denim, mass-market stores are now hoping to get a slice of consumers’ denim spend, too.
Last year, Topshop expanded its Moto denim range, which carries jeans starting at $71. H&M launched its denim line in 2005, with several new fits retailing at a $47 starting point, and Primark now sells fashion-led denim from $11 a pair.
“Just five years ago the denim market was dominated by branded product, such as Levi’s and Lee, and own-brand denim only had around 25 percent of the market share,” said George Wallace, chief executive officer of U.K. retail analyst Management Horizons Europe. “Now, the own-brand segment has shot up in terms of market share and it has around 45 percent.”
Topshop’s launch of its Baxter range of skinny jeans last summer, before many premium brands were producing the style, is testament to the growing popularity of store-brand denim. The retailer sold about 26,000 pairs of the $75 jeans across the country in the first week they were on sale.
“Denim was the area that Topshop was lagging in,” said Sebastian Coles, denim buyer for Topshop. “When we introduced the Baxter last year, they became a fashion piece that
everyone wanted to have. People were coming into the store to ask for them by name.”
With its sourcing and manufacturing channels, the store can have a pair from drawing board to shop floor within weeks.
“It is frustrating, as the High Street can get in there early,” said Aimee Brown, casualwear buyer for the department store Selfridges, which carries brands from Seven for all Mankind to Rock and Republic. “That did affect us when the trend for skinny jeans first started here last year, as U.S. brands such as True Religion and Citizens of Humanity just didn’t have a skinny jeans option.”
Similarly, Primark, which has 127 stores across the U.K. and Ireland, sells a fashion-led jeans assortment from about $11 to $23 a pair. Matalan, which owns the Falmers brand and sells the Lee Cooper denim label exclusively, sells its own-brand jeans from $21.
Flora Evans and Lucy Pinter, who design the London-based premium denim brand Superfine, which was one of the first brands to produce skinny-leg jeans in London, said they don’t see the High Street as a competitor. Their denim collection retails from $207 for a pair of jeans to $880 for a shearling jacket.
“We’re really flattered by the High Street copies,” said Evans. “But there does seem to be a different customer base from the High Street compared to the high-end brands. There will always be people who want the real thing, and quality, fabric and attention to detail does justify the cost of premium brands.”
Brown at Selfridges also believes that consumers are loyal to premium brands because of their fit, pointing to British brand Radcliffe’s T400 Lycra spandex content, which allows fitted jeans to recover their elasticity overnight and not sag.
“There’s a lot more time and quality that goes into premium denim,” Brown said. “It’s the features such as extra belt loops and great-feeling denim.”
However, the High Street stores counter that the same amount of research and development goes into a pair of their jeans, and they said they don’t skimp on quality.
“We’re not churning out the jeans,” said Coles at Topshop. “We spend two days fitting a pair of jeans, as that’s one of the main focal points for our customers. It’s our great production and suppliers that means we can get the jeans out quickly.”
Lancaster at Primark said, “It isn’t a sustainable strategy to sell garments that, however cheap, don’t satisfy. We know our customers come back repeatedly.”
Wallace said that rather than premium denim customers deserting the high-end labels for the High Street, they would supplement their premium denim purchases with High Street finds.
“The premium and High Street brands feed off each other,” said Wallace. “The High Street brands have taken inspiration from the look that you get with premium brands. The same customer is shopping in both parts of the market.”
Brown at Selfridges said High Street’s denim lines give consumers the opportunity to road-test a trend before committing to the premium version.
“Customers will buy a couple of pairs of great, colored Baxters from Topshop to mix in with their higher-price denim, in colors such as a dark indigo,” she said, adding that the store’s core high-end denim consumers were led by fit rather than trend.
“Our [premium] sales are massively driven by the boot cut,” said Brown. “Seventy percent of our denim sales come from boot-cut and straight-leg denim. Our customers range between 18 and 40-plus, and for most of that group the boot cut or a straight leg is the most flattering fit.”
But Wallace said the lower end of the premium market and mid-market denim are feeling the pinch from High Street’s growing interest in denim.
“The core mainstream brands, such as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler, have lost market share pretty heavily in the last two to three years,” he said. “The fabric quality of these brands, which tend to be priced from between $75 to $100, may be better than the High Street brands, but Topshop will be perceived as better value, in terms of design, by the consumer.”
Though Brown said Selfridges’ Spirit department, which carries brands such as Levi’s, Lee, Fornarina, Diesel and Pepe, hasn’t felt the impact of High Street’s recent denim launches.
“I think customers are looking for someone who knows what they’re doing in denim,” said Brown. “Denim brands have their own looms and factories and appeal to a customer that wants a fit to flatter them, rather than something [just] fashion-forward.”
Brown added that Selfridges will carry more directional styles from established brands, such as Lee’s Gold Label, which will retail for about $188.
“With the High Street denim brands, there will always be a certain compromise on quality,” said Wallace. “But as they continue to add value in terms of their rise, styles and embroidery, they will continue to put pressure on the specialist denim brands.”