ATLANTA — Retailers have added denim — along with death, taxes and markdowns — to their lists of sure things.
Driven by an infusion of hot contemporary lines, buyers said the jeans business remains on a solid growth track. New brands, such as James and Yanük, are generating good buzz, while a few established lines, including Lucky and Big Star, are making a comeback.
Merchants said that, at least among denim aficionados, there is little price resistance, with consumers willing to pay well over $100 for the right fit, wash and name. Back-pocket logo stitching has become so important that stores are increasingly showing jeans folded — rather than hanging — to show off the pockets.
Retailers noted that part of the reason for denim’s success as a category for the past four years is that shoppers are buying jeans to pair with everything from T-shirts to suit jackets to evening tops. They said they’d like to see jeans vendors doing a better job of offering coordinated tops and jackets to dress up their lines.
Another complaint was that high-end lines are missing a big market by focusing on low-rise styles that appeal mostly to teens and svelte twentysomethings. Merchants said more business could be done if denim lines offered hip products with forgiving fits for older women.
At Bloomingdale’s, the denim category — especially contemporary lines in the $100 to $125 price range — is “on fire,” according to Frank Doroff, executive vice president. As a result of strong full-price sales, he said, the chain has boosted the space and funding for the category for spring and fall.
“Current business is phenomenal,” Doroff said.
Bloomingdale’s best-selling lines include Seven, Citizens of Humanity, AG Adriano Goldschmied, Blue Cult, Chip & Pepper, Diesel and Miss Sixty.
“People look for jeans that make them look great, and that’s more important than a name,” said Doroff. “For spring, low-rise jeans are still selling well. It’s most important for us to stay in size and in stock.”
Bloomingdale’s has replenishment programs on some successful styles.
The Alcoa, Tenn.-based Proffitt’s and McRae’s chains — part of Saks Inc. — carry no contemporary denim, focusing instead on misses’ and junior product. Spring denim sales increased in high single digits over last year for both areas, according to Toni Browning, president and chief executive officer. With most of its stores in the South, at the end of March, Proffitt’s drastically cut back on its offering of full-length jeans, replacing them with the shorts, skirts and cropped lengths that dominate in the warm region.
“We’re playing in the right area,” said Browning. “Lines such as Liz Claiborne and others are taking fashion direction from Seven, and other contemporary lines.”
In misses’, denim shorts and cropped utilitarian pants have performed better than last year, though sales of carpenter and cargo styles have slowed. For fall, Proffitt’s will offer more stretch fabrics, colored denim and pocket treatments in women’s. “Hook-ups,” tops that relate to jeans, are increasingly important, Browning said.
“Denim houses need to focus on being complete, offering jackets and other coordinating pieces,” said Browning.
Washes are key for the junior customer, she said, adding that in this age category, denim miniskirts replace jeans through the summer months. Around 65 percent of spring junior jeans include belts, in ribbon or webbing. Browning believes the belt trend should continue into fall, in tooled leather with Western-inspired buckles.
LEI and Mudd, priced at $39, are key volume lines, while Guess, DKNY and Dollhouse, at around $55 to $58, are important fashion lines at Proffitt’s and McRae’s.
Browning said having the right product at the right place and time was more important than “gimmicks,” such as promotions or sales events. Replenishment programs are in place for 25 to 30 percent of Proffitt’s and McRae’s lines, and will be a requirement for any new resources.
A spokeswoman from Federated Department Stores Inc.’s Rich’s and Macy’s units said that in the junior category, miniskirts, jeans with ribbon belts or other trims and cropped basic five-pocket styles have done well for spring. The store is adding more variety in washes, including a range of light to darker washes. For back-to-school, basic five-pocket jeans, with back-pocket embroidery, but little other embellishment, will be key, she predicted. Beyond b-t-s, Rich’s will add slim leg jeans with pearl belts.
Specialty stores also reported record spring sales for denim.
At Barneys, the New York specialty chain, denim sales increased 100 percent over the last year. With a best-selling price range of $150 to $185, customers are also shelling out $250 to $300 for lines such as Rogan.
“Seven started it, and now it’s a universal demand for name brands,” said Terence Bogan, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for women’s apparel. “Brands have reinvented the back-pocket designer identification made popular by Calvin Klein in the early Eighties.”
With no traditional junior or misses’ denim lines, Barneys carries only contemporary brands in Barneys Co-op, a lifestyle area that targets customers in their 20s and 30s. Seven and Citizens of Humanity are bestsellers, and James Jeans, known for “lifting and tucking” the rear end, is a new strong performer, said Bogan.
He noted that some brands, including James, Citizens of Humanity and Rogan, have begun offering more sophisticated styling and testing slightly higher rises that appeal to somewhat older shoppers.
Cleaner looks have replaced heavy embellishment, and cropped pants and dark washes sold well for spring. For fall, Barneys will emphasize novel details, such as Henry Duarte’s lace-up fly and distinctive zipper pulls.
“We’ve made a big investment in denim, with a goal of staying in stock and in style,” said Bogan. “It’s important for lines to stay true to themselves and focus, rather than reaching out to try to be everything to everybody.”
At Up Against the Wall, a Washington, D.C.-based specialty chain with 17 stores in Washington, West Virginia and Maryland, the best-selling price range for a pair of jeans is $120 to $150. Men’s and women’s denim represents 70 percent of inventory. The majority of lines are priced over $100, with a few exceptions, including Big Star, at around $86.
Wendy Red, the chain’s fashion director, said denim has done especially well as consumers have become enamored of premium and superpremium brands. Consumers also like to mix jeans with casual and dressy looks, wearing them with colorful high heels. To get noticed, a brand has to offer good fit, said Red, while to stay hot it has to continually offer newness in washes and silhouette.
“Each line has to have something that makes it special,” she said. “Contemporary lines are doing well, but they have to keep evolving with consistent fit, new washes and reliable deliveries.”
Strong late-spring demand resulted in lots of sold-out product and reorders, she said. Red, who prefers lines with selective distribution to create a sense of exclusivity, complained that spring deliveries have been unreliable from several vendors.
Low-rise silhouettes are still popular, but Red hopes that the new higher-rise styles will help her chain appeal to a broader target audience than its current crop of 15- to 24-year-olds.
The narrow focus on the young is also a pet peeve of Joe Laurenti, buyer at Lone Star Jeans, a Plainview, N.Y., men’s and women’s specialty store, where denim represents more than half of inventory.
“The industry, stuck in the low-rise look, is missing out with older women,” he said. “Baby Boomers are a huge piece of the pie, and there’s not nearly enough for them. Brands need to offer more range in fit.”
Lines are improving somewhat, said Laurenti, by offering more fits, contoured waistlines, better finishes and more stretch.
Even with a narrow focus on mostly younger customers, Lone Star Jeans reported a “significant double-digit” sales increase year-to-date. Seven, which has been its number-one selling line for several seasons, continues to dominate women’s business by introducing new fits, such as the Boy Cut, with a slightly higher rise.
The most popular jeans price rose from $120 a year ago to $175 this spring, according to owner Joe Rubino, who carries a few jeans over $200, although they don’t move fast.
“I tell manufacturers that we’re retailers, not museums,” he said. “The product over $200 may be beautiful, but it’s too expensive.”
Rubino also advises manufacturers to send samples to celebrities, as customers are highly influenced by sighting jeans on a star.
For spring and summer, the store’s best-selling jeans have been less embellished and contrived, with lighter washes. Some lines, such as Paper Denim & Cloth, Lucky and Chelsea, have had success with ripped or torn jeans. For fall, Lone Star will offer more vintage-inspired jeans by Joie and organic cotton styles by Loomstate.
Atrium, a Manhattan specialty store, now offers few jeans under $100, with the best-selling range at $139 to $175. With no price resistance, the store is pushing the envelope with Triple E, priced between $400 and $560. The few lines that sell at $95 move slowly.
“Consumers have become educated in recent years and they know quality,” said Allison Mangaroo, buyer. “We train salespeople to be able to explain the value. Customers may need to touch and feel the fabric to understand, but if it feels soft and good and the wash is good, they’ll buy it. Denim is our focus, and it’s been amazing this year.”
Seven, which “exploded” as Atrium’s best-selling line, is followed by Citizens of Humanity and Paper Denim & Cloth. Always out to be the first to carry the hottest new lines, Atrium recently picked up Sacred Blue, True Religion, Yanük, James, Bartack, Earnest Sewn and Loomstate, which retails at $200. Established line Frankie B’s 3-inch rise stretch jeans have a waiting list and Joe’s Jeans has made a comeback with new fits.
Mangaroo said the majority of her vendors have started promoting the names of specific fits, which helps customers remember and ask for styles. To promote an association between the store and the hottest brands, Atrium partnered with Sacred Blue, Blue Cult, Yanük and Earnest Sewn to develop exclusive washes. Some exclusive styles featured double labels, with both the line’s and the store’s logos.
For summer, denim miniskirts, capris and pedal pushers will be important, along with novelty embellished tops and off-the-shoulder sweaters from top vendors, Mangaroo said. For fall, a few vendors, such as Yanük and Citizens of Humanity, are pushing slim-leg jeans to be worn inside boots.