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The denim pendulum has swung.

Retailers at specialty boutiques in the U.S. and Europe are bringing superskinny, unembellished jeans front and center and moving their boot-cut styles to the back of their stores. Silhouettes are long, lean and narrow and when it comes to washes, the consensus is the darker the better, with rich indigo and ink black on track to be the most popular of the season.

It’s a sharp contrast from last spring, when distressed jeans with dazzling embellishments were the rage.

But not everyone is ready to take the skinny jeans plunge just yet. Retailers at New York suburban malls have observed some resistance to the trend and have returned to prominently featuring traditional bestsellers like the boot cut.

Regardless of the fit, denim continues to boom — from $80 styles up to $245 designs. According to The NPD Group, denim sales reached $15.26 billion for the 12 months through January, a 9.3 percent gain over the year-ago period.

The switch to skinny in major cities is helping fuel sales increases in the premium segment. Jeans priced at $80 and up rose 27.7 percent in the 12 months to January to $335.4 million, according to NPD.

At Addict, a contemporary boutique in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Sass & Bide’s skinny Frayed Misfits style is the shop’s top seller.

“It’s thriving,” said owner Megan Johnson, who noted that the group is selling despite the $245 price tag. “People are willing to pay up the wazoo because it’s such a hot jean and a great fit. Those jeans really look great on everyone.”

Johnson said women are buying skinny jeans mostly in black and gray washes, as long as the finish is clean. “Ripped and distressed is completely done,” she added. “Women want a clean, going-out jean.”

Across town at The Denim Hub in the East Village, Citizens of Humanity is a top seller, while distressed styles are stuck on the floor.

“I just can’t move it,” said the boutique’s owner, who goes only by Jo. Retail prices at The Denim Hub start at around $150, but extend up to $220.

This story first appeared in the March 30, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Most people are happy spending $150,” Jo said. “When it comes to paying more, some people complain, but they mostly expect to [pay more].”

Johnson of Addict added, “People really get excited about the $180 price tag on J & Co. jeans. It’s like they’re getting a bargain.”

Caren Watson, owner of The Jean Connection in Dallas, said sales were holding even to last spring’s business, which was up at least 40 percent.

“If the jeans fit, they’ll buy them,” said Watson. “There’s absolutely no price resistance. Our average prices are about $170 per pair, a figure that continues to rise.”

For spring, Jean Connection is scoring with straight- and cigarette-leg styles, with medium rises in a range of washes and various degrees of embellishment. Bestsellers include several styles from 575 and Seven, cashmere and denim looks from Meltin’ Pot and contoured styles from Joe’s Jeans. Other hot labels include Genetics, Fidelity and Brown Label.

Brian Kaneda, denim buyer for Ron Herman stores in California, said the concept of more stylish and dressed-up jeans has taken hold this spring.

“The overwhelming aesthetic is dark, clean and basic,” said Kaneda, who added Ron Herman currently carries 30 brands. “We’ve been heading this way for two years and its time has finally arrived. People are tired of all the embellishment and they’re ready to wear a sophisticated jean.”

The style of the moment for Kaneda is J Brand, which he said has hit the mark in style and fit.

“They’re clean, sophisticated, basic and no-frills,” said Kaneda. “They embody the spirit of the slim silhouette that everyone wants to have right now.”

Jane Arrendale Sims, co-owner of Atlanta denim boutique Blue Genes, said, “Embellishment is over. It is definitely out. Even with the dirty washes and rips that we saw last summer, that’s out.”

Melissa Murdock, owner of Sandpiper in Atlanta, agreed that rhinestones and crystals are “completely over.” She said her customers are looking for “really saturated denim” with straighter legs and higher rises.

“If they do something cute on a pocket, it’ll still sell,” she said, but that is as far as the embellishment can go. “If [the customers] like a detail, it’s more subtle.”

Murdock reported strong sales for her tried-and-true brands such as Seven, Citizens and True Religion, and like Kaneda has seen a strong response to J Brand. She launched the line in her store last week and has seen 88 percent sell-through.

“Common sense says that denim should be slowing down, but I don’t see any of that,” Murdock said. “It’s still our number-one category selling through.”

Sims has also had great success with J Brand as well as Habitual, Seven, Earnest Sewn and Chip and Pepper. “Everybody’s doing the straight leg, and we’re selling it,” she said.

The straight leg, however, is beginning to narrow to the cigarette leg and Sims sees her customers in peg legs by the end of the season.

The trend is picking up momentum overseas, as well. In Paris, skinny styles, in black and white denim, are predicted to be big sellers well into summer.

“Skinny fits with a rock ‘n’ roll feel are strong directions this summer,” said Sarah Lerfel, buyer for Colette.

Lerfel said April 77’s ultraskinny fit in unwashed dark indigo was poised to be the top selection for the season.

A painted-on aesthetic also seems to be a top priority.

“Stretch denim is a must for the summer,” said Flora Gomez, owner of Paris-based streetwear shop Noir Kennedy, adding that white and black denim would be the base for many summer outfits.

“There’s no sign of the skinny jean waning,” said Joanna Jeffreys at Harvey Nichols in London. “They’re so sexy and flexible. Everyone’s in them.”

The hip London label Superfine is still a market leader.

“It does incredible business,” said Bridget Cosgrave, of London chain Matches.

But other skinny jean brands are also selling well, including Swedish brand Acne, Notify Jeans, Sass & Bide, J Brand and Earnest Sewn, which are all being lauded by key British denim retailers.

Dark washes are taking over as the most popular and white is also making a comeback, according to Selfridges’ buyer Aimee Brown. “White is becoming a huge trend in all fits,” she said.

Brix Smith-Start of Hoxton denim boutique Start-London also noted new textures and detailing are surfacing.

“I’m seeing a lot of black, and also black-waxed denims coming out, which have a finish a bit like leather,” she said. “Lots of zips at the ankles are also appearing.”

Retailers in Milan said slim-fit jeans are a favorite among teenage girls. Colorful seams, tiny embroideries on leather labels and jeweled buttons complete the looks. Top-selling brands in Milan are Italian niche denim brands such as Indian Rose, Maggie Jeans and Take-Two, coupled with the likes of the more popular Miss Sixty, Diesel and Levis.

Some retailers have found that they have to ease their customers into the trend. Alison Barnard, owner of InJeanious in Boston’s North End, a red brick neighborhood of Italian restaurants and specialty stores, said her customer is a professional woman age 25 to 45 who still likes clean, flared, dark denim.

“I have a minimum of requests for skinny jeans,” Barnard said. “If they are going to do something different, they’re looking more for a straight leg. They’re not ready to take the leap to cigarette-skinny.”

The store carries 30 denim lines, including Odyn, Taverniti So and Hudson. Gold Sign, the newest project from Adriano Goldschmeid, “flew out” once Barnard explained Goldschmeid’s connection to AG, Diesel, Replay and other legendary denim houses.

Still, one of her rock-solid properties is Red Engine.

“It’s a sleeper line, but it blows out of here,” she said. “We have the Tokyo color, which is a deep navy with a minimal wash. It hits right over the hip and it really connects with the professional woman.”

But skinny isn’t in everywhere, and it hasn’t really gained traction outside major metropolitan areas.

A recent retail check at Roosevelt Field Mall and Walt Whitman Mall on Long Island in New York found several retail chains weren’t seeing a big benefit from the skinny jeans trend. At Roosevelt Field, an Urban Outfitters associate said the store’s best-selling denim was a pair of Levi’s boot-cut jeans for around $80. At Lucky Brand Jeans, an associate said the store had initially displayed skinny jeans up front, but after the jeans failed to perform well, they were moved to the back. The current main display shows boot-cut and flare jeans in a variety of washes priced at $100 to $150.

It was a similar story at an Abercrombie & Fitch store at Walt Whitman. A store manager said skinny jeans were positioned up front for a few weeks, but performance was weak and they were moved to the back. The store has its main wall jeans display filled with $70 to $80 styles in several washes with flare and boot-cut fits prominently displayed. The A&F manager also noted that the company’s Ezra Fitch premium denim line is performing “exceptionally well.” Ezra Fitch sells for $150 to $250.

Premium denim was still hot for other mall retailers as well. The Saks Fifth Avenue at Walt Whitman prominently displayed jeans priced from $140 to $230 from the likes of Seven and Citizens of Humanity, and the J. Crew store there had a $118 pair of mildly distressed boot-cut styles prominently displayed.

Kaneda of Ron Herman said he hasn’t seen any signs of weakness in the premium denim market. Ron Herman stores, he said, are having their best sales results of the year this month. And he isn’t putting any stock into reports of brands that have retreated to lower price points.

“They’re not doing that because the market isn’t strong. They’re doing it because they’re not a competitive brand,” said Kaneda. “I’m selling jeans at premium contemporary prices and there doesn’t seem to be any slowdown.”

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