Latin Brands Head North

Pop divas and supermodels aren’t the only Latin influences percolating up into the U.S. fashion world.

Executives at Brazilian denim companies including Triton, Sul Denim and Argentinian brand Kosiuko all said they have plans to expand business within the next few years through distribution growth and marketing.

Known for its large economy and fashion industry — Morumbi Fashion is Sao Paulo’s version of 7th on Sixth — Brazil produces an average of 101 million pairs of jeans per year, according to Abravest, the Brazilian clothing association.

Brazilian designer Tufi Duek started Triton in Sao Paulo in 1975, as an offshoot to his eponymous contemporary label. The denim line now has 350 points of sale and 30 company owned stores in Brazil. Stateside, Triton launched exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman last year but will be rolling into 43 Nordstrom locations starting next month. The jeans and tops can also be found at a handful of specialty stores in Los Angeles, Miami and Palm Beach.

“We want it to be easy for the market to understand and assimilate the line,” said Triton vice president Antonio Haslauer. “We want to expand and have more doors with our current partners,” Haslauer said, adding that before he expanded the line, he wanted to make sure the brand was well-positioned at retail. He said he expects revenues of $1 million in 2002, with further growth next year.

The Triton concept, which Haslauer describes as “coutured up” is based primarily on the fit. The look is sexy and low-waisted, and includes novelties like surfer-print inspired waistbands, zip fronts, appliques, drawstring waistbands and hand-painted details. Jeans, which wholesale between $40 and $60, are manufactured at the company-owned factory in Sao Paulo.

Though it’s new for the U.S., the low-rise cut is standard in South America. During early sales calls, buyers asked Haslauer if he copied the low-rise style from companies like Frankie B., but Haslauer and other Brazilian denim executives said they had been biding their time until the U.S. market accepted the sexy styles that Brazilians have worn for years.

“I remember saying, ‘these will never sell in the U.S., they’re way too low,”‘ Haslauer said.

Robert Carilli, chief executive officer of Sul Denim, the Rio de Janeiro-based line that launched in the U.S. last year said low-rise jeans have been very widely used in Brazil since 1989. “Brazilian women look for a pair of jeans to do to their backside what an American woman would look for a Wonderbra to do for their breasts,” he said.

Carilli said it is not uncommon in Brazil to see a mother and a daughter in the same pair of super low-rise jeans. “It’s a very different attitude,” he said. “They fit so well and support the body, they look slimmer.”

Sul, which holds the license for Diesel in Brazil, produces its jeans at the company-owned factory in Rio. Carilli said he expects sales of about $10 million for 2002.

Buenos Aires, Argentina-based Kosiuko is another key player in South American denim lines coming to the U.S. Backed by Venezuelan retailer Carlos Sultan and $4.5 billion dollar Hong Kong-based apparel trading company Li & Fung Trading Ltd. for the U.S. market, the line is currently available at over 200 specialty retailers nationwide, as well as Macy’s and Nordstrom on the East Coast.

“We first brought Kosiuko’s jeans into America about a year ago,” said ceo Federico Bonomi. “We’ve had a Kosiuko store in Miami for a few years and our jeans line sold well there. Then we did MAGIC and within a few weeks we had a few million dollars in orders, so we knew we had a market for Kosiuko.”

Kosiuko’s revenue for South America is roughly $70 million.

Thanks to its deep-pocketed backers, Kosiuko ran an extensive print ad campaign in over a dozen fashion magazines during the past quarter and plans to hire a ceo for the North American and European markets in the near future, who would report to him. Bonomi said the key to his business is to show retailers that Kosiuko is committed to supporting the brand. Advertising, he said, helps do this.

Kosiuko executives tout the line as a lifestyle brand with jeans, tops, sportswear, activewear, shoes, accessories and beauty products. The line has over 35 freestanding stores in Argentina, offering the company’s low-rise jeans in novelty washes with details like hand-painted accents, patches and rips.

“Our goal is to become meaningful and develop into a globally recognized status jeans and sportswear brand,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to be dollar or volume driven.

Another Brazilian-born trend catching on in the U.S. is the use of Veloflex, a knitted denim fabric invented by Brazilian mill Velonorte. Using DuPont Lycra spandex, Veloflex is now used by American designers such as Adriano Goldschmied, BCBG Max Azria and Theory. “With the benefits of Lycra, Veloflex knit denim jeans have been a tremendous success with the modern, fashion-conscious woman in Brazil,” said Linda Kearns, global brand manager for DuPont Lycra.

Gang, another Rio-based jeans line which entered the U.S. market only six months ago, uses Veloflex denim exclusively. Distributed domestically by My Blue Fish in Miami, wholesale prices for Gang’s racy rhinestone-studded pieces range between $45 and $90.

California Seaming

Mik Serfontaine started designing jeans out of the back of Slave, his former boutique on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach, Calif., nearly five years ago. But it wasn’t until last year that his eponymous line came into existence, producing low-rise boot-cut jeans with intricate pocket stitching and decorative seams.

Easy Rider, his number-one seller, is a low-rise style with an exposed front zipper and knee seams that suggest the tops of cowboy boots.

“Not at a shopping mall near you is what I like to say to the buyers,” Serfontaine said, noting that his line is about fit, rather than image. “The first 250 pairs didn’t even have a logo on them. It was sold purely on design merit.”

Serfontaine said his line has more in common with custom jeans. Serfontaine jeans retail for $59 and up. He asserts that he can keep prices lower because he owns his own factory.

“We’re really trying to give value for money and we’re probably the most justifiable out there for the price,” he said. “I have my own factory in Los Angeles and we do our own sewing, which keeps the quality up but the quantity down.”

Serfontaine said that first-year sales figures came to $2 million, and that he expects exponential growth this year, largely because of Japanese retailers that discovered the line. Serfontaine also said distribution will remain selective. The line is currently available at specialty chains and boutiques, including Fred Segal and Scoop.

Because of the limits of how one can treat stretch denim — harsh bleaches or other chemicals can break down the spandex — Serfontaine plans to do more work with rigid denim in the future, like boy-cut jeans that sit lower on the hips. Serfontaine also offers stretch corduroys.

Though Serfontaine is South African born, his image of denim comes from the American woman.

“The image of denim is very American and I think that influence will never go away.”

There Is a Difference

While Diesel may use some androgynous characters in its ad campaigns, it has few among its customers. So the Italian company is starting to roll out more jeans styles with a feminine fit, rather than just reworking its men’s jeans bodies.

“It’s really important that we go feminine now,” Andreas Kurz, chief executive officer of Diesel USA, said at the company’s Manhattan showroom last week. “There’s no more androgyny.”

The company had rolled out two new fits, called Zink and Hush, with the intent of shipping them for fall retailing. But buyer reaction to the two styles was strong enough that the company has sped up production and plans to have limited deliveries of the jeans for spring.

The fit of Zink is based on traditional chino trousers, with a low rise and smaller pockets. Hush features a contoured waistband and small sewn-on front pockets. The styles wholesale for $59 and up, depending on the fabric and wash.

Overall, Kurz said it’s part of his efforts to increase Diesel’s women’s jeans sales. Right now, the company’s roughly $90 million in U.S. sales splits up about evenly between women and men, but Kurz added that he believes women’s jeans could grow to represent two-thirds of the company’s volume. Since Diesel is not opening significant numbers of new U.S. wholesale accounts, above its current 550 doors, it’s looking for alternate ways to drive sales growth.