CALABASAS, Calif. — Behind a glass-and-steel house, on a wood deck stretching toward the Santa Monica Mountains, a photo shoot sizzled as the mercury hit 110 in this affluent suburb north of Los Angeles.
“Grab him like you’re hungry,” Andréa Bernholtz, president of premium jeans label Rock & Republic, ordered a Brazilian beauty wearing her company’s Lurex-trimmed denim miniskirt and gray cropped cashmere sweater. As hip-hop tunes played on an iPod, the model, Fernanda Tavares, embraced the shirtless, bronzed torso of David Smith.
The scene represents more than passion. It is an investment. Premium denim companies, including Rock & Republic, Seven For All Mankind and AG Adriano Goldschmied, are intent on growing as luxury brands — and this may be the start of an advertising blitz.
The manufacturers face multiple challenges, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research firm The NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. In addition to competing against Levi’s, Lee, Wrangler and other established brands that are venturing into the premium denim market with hefty marketing budgets, they can no longer rely on celebrities, who are showered with free products, to serve as walking billboards.
“There is no more free lunch for the premium denim business,” Cohen said.
As some premium denim companies look to achieve gains by moving up the fashion food chain, others hope to grow by going the other way. In January, Paper Denim & Cloth announced plans to reposition the brand at a lower price point. The goal was to take advantage of a perceived soft spot in the market at the $100 price point, particularly in department stores. Blue Holdings Inc., which owns Antik Denim, Taverniti So Jeans and Yanuk brands, has opted to introduce lower-priced versions of its brands to play in the same arena.
Statistics from The NPD Group show the denim industry remains strong, but that a change is under way in the premium end.
For the 12 months through March, women’s jeans sales reached $7.8 billion, a 10.8 percent increase compared with the $7.04 billion reported during the same period a year ago, although down from the 13.7 percent growth rate recorded between 2005 and 2004.
A loss of momentum begins to show at jeans priced above $80. Sales of women’s jeans costing $80 to $99.99 grew 20.3 percent to $149.6 million for the 12 months through March, compared with the 408.5 percent growth rate reported in the same period a year ago, according to NPD.
Sales of jeans priced more than $100 hit $113.1 million for the 12 months through March, a 34.7 increase from the $84 million reported during the same period last year. However, this represented a dramatic decrease from the 71.7 percent gains posted between 2005 and 2004.
The designer denim market is localized in that a brand may be popular at one high school while a different label is the jean of choice at another. “It makes it challenging to grow it on a national level,” Cohen said. “Hence, [that’s] why advertising is so important.”
Still, jeans companies risk losing their message amid a barrage of ads, said Marc Gobé, chairman and chief executive officer of New York-based branding consultancy desgrippes gobé group. And among some shoppers the irony is that “the less visible you are out there, the more special you are,” he said. “There is a really fine line between preserving what has made your brand great and unique, and spreading the brand to access a greater group of customers with traditional marketing techniques that are not necessarily seen as relevant for hip brands.”
Culver City, Calif.-based Rock & Republic, one of more than 300 U.S. denim brands, is spending what executives said was in the “low seven figures” on its first ad campaign to help promote the fall launch of its shoes, handbags and women’s sportswear line, Tailor Made.
After staging seven fashion shows in Los Angeles during its four-year history, the company will make its debut at New York fashion week on Sept. 9. Next year, Rock & Republic plans to expand into eyewear and cosmetics, which will help it top $100 million in annual wholesale sales, said Michael Ball, ceo and head designer. The company also aims to introduce a fragrance and freestanding stores in 2008 and, eventually, unveil branded boutique hotels in Los Angeles, Mexico and Spain as well as christen an airplane company. All efforts will lead to an IPO planned for 2009.
“Premium luxe” is the theme for Rock & Republic’s transformation as a lifestyle company, Ball said.
“This is all about the image,” he said, noting that the company sponsored a race car in May’s Indianapolis 500. “If we are going to play with the big boys, if we are going to step up to the plate, we have to reinforce the image over and over again. We are the coolest brand. It is rock ‘n’ roll.”
Rock & Republic isn’t the first denim company seeking to break out of the jeans niche and highlight lifestyle in its marketing campaign, which will begin in September issues of Vogue, W, Vanity Fair and other publications and will include billboards in New York’s Times Square, on King’s Road in London and on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard.
Los Angeles-based Guess launched its first ad campaign in 1982 and spent almost $20 million on advertising in 2005, according to a company financial filing. For the fall campaign, Guess picked photographer Ellen von Unwerth to shoot a sultry blonde frolicking with a band of troubadours in historic Parisian hotels and along the Seine.
“We strive to create a desire, an aspiration,” Paul Marciano, Guess’ co-ceo and creative director, said in a statement.
Koos Manufacturing Inc.’s AG Adriano Goldschmied changed direction after the introduction of ads of a statuesque model stretching her legs in skinny jeans in the April issues of publications that included Vanity Fair, Vogue and Lucky. For the fall campaign,
breaking in August issues of Vogue, In Style, Elle, Interview, Nylon and other consumer magazines, the six-year-old company opted to feature a couple lounging by a pool and living the California dream.
“We’re trying to align ourselves as a luxury brand and not just as a denim company,” said Alissa Friedman, public relations and marketing manager for the Los Angeles-based company, adding that AG Adriano Goldschmied has expanded into categories such as cashmere sweaters, belts and leather jackets.
Not to be outdone, Los Angeles’ Seven For All Mankind, also founded in 2000, plans to launch its first consumer ad campaign next year and unveil a higher-end brand that has yet to be named.
Yu Tsai, the photographer for Rock & Republic’s campaign and creative director of his own creative agency, 88 Phases, in Los Angeles, said he didn’t want to shoot traditional ads about the fit of jeans. Tsai, who has photographed advertising for Japan’s Beams, Clairol and Avon, pitched a voyeuristic theme. “It had to be about the energy and attitude,” he said. “It had to be sexy.”
Hiring top models was key to separating Rock & Republic from other brands. Tavares has appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and fronted campaigns for Guerlain’s Shalimar perfume, Versace and other designer brands, while the Chicago-raised Smith has been featured in campaigns for Gucci, Hugo Boss and other men’s labels. Le Call, a playful blond from Missouri, was chosen to model the fur line. Brazilian-American Eloisa Carvalho rounded out the multicultural cast, which will help the company market in foreign countries.
Since it was founded, Rock & Republic has grown from five employees to 200. To accommodate its expanding workforce, the company bought 3 acres in Inglewood, Calif., where it will move its headquarters from Culver City by yearend.
Bernholtz said Rock & Republic isn’t initiating an ad campaign merely because it is one of the established brands in a premium denim market filled with upstarts. “We’ve got other collections,” Bernholtz said, referring to Tailor Made, which is geared toward young career women who aren’t allowed to wear jeans to work, as well as the men’s line, which makes up one-fifth of business. “We want to show we’re lifestyle.”