NEW YORK — From robotic vacuum cleaners and microwaves to prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Americans are avid consumers of convenience products. This year, jeans vendors have been responding to the overwhelming time pressures of the modern world with a crop of products that provide the illusion of having been subjected to years of wear right off the hanger.
After a year in which jeans sales slipped, vendors said spring volume has been up, largely driven by “vintage” styles made with hand-done details like sanded white patches on rear pockets that create the effect of a wallet having worn into the fabric. While companies from Mudd to Mavi reported that sales have been rising through the spring, executives acknowledged that the continuing flood of new entrants into the jeans business has made it tough for a brand to stand out.
“Business is good, but a grind,” said Michael Silver, president of Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Silver Jeans. With much of the high-end jeans business focusing on basic five-pocket silhouettes subjected to subtle finishing techniques, the difference between a winning product and one destined for the markdown rack is subtle.
“In terms of curb appeal, right now garments that are looking heavily vintaged have it,” he said. “It’s about the scruffing or sanding or whiskering. But the look can’t be cartoon-y. They have to look like the real thing, and that separates the girls from the women.”
Creating a pair of jeans with signs of wear that don’t look destroyed requires factories staffed with employees who have a light touch with a palm sander and extensive experience with industrial washers, said Silver, who produces his Silver label, as well as the 1921 and Airoo brands, at his company’s Canadian factory.
One risk, Silver warned, is that the subtle design touches that consumers love today — like the wallet marks on rear pockets — are always at risk of becoming universal, which tends to send shoppers scurrying on to the next, yet-to-be identified trend.
“Pretty soon all the jeans that had curb appeal are going to look the same,” he said.
Steve Miska, president of Seattle-based Sergio Valente Jeans, agreed that however subtle, the trends consumers seek out are changing rapidly.
“There’s a trend for the consumer to express individuality, and what we are trying to do is to continue to change from season to season as much in terms of detail and styling and finish as we possibly can so there’s always a new look,” he said. The reason for the quick changes, he said, is to try to hold on to customers: “If they’re not looking for a new look, they’re looking for a new label.”
From a management perspective, the changes have meant producing smaller quantities of any given style of jeans for a brief period of time.
“For example, two or three years ago, we would have had one or two styles that were dominant, maybe representing 35 to 40 percent of production,” Miska said. By contrast, today his top five or six styles represent a comparable quantity of the company’s output. Sergio Valente jeans are produced in Hong Kong.
“We do smaller runs, and what happens is we end up cutting those items more often,” he said, adding that for his brand a typical style’s lifetime today is about six months.
Sal Parasuco, president of Montreal-based contemporary jeans line Parasuco, agreed.
“At one time we would do a run of 50,000 units for a fashion style,” he said. “Now 10,000 is sufficient.”
He expects the lifetime of any given style of jeans to get even shorter in the coming years. Reflecting that expectation, he said Parasuco this year is shipping six distinct seasonal collections. Next year, he plans to up that to eight seasons, with the eventual goal of having a new shipment every month.
Robert Hanson, president of the Levi’s brand in the U.S. at San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co., said his company — which has been struggling unsuccessfully for the past seven years to stem a slide in sales — has also sped up its development cycles.
“We’ve cut lead times by seven months” on average, he said, with the company’s longest lead time being about 6 1/2 months and its shortest two months. That’s down from an average of about 13 months a year and a half ago.
While monthly deliveries represent a new development in the high-end contemporary market, they’ve been common in the junior market — where vendors are engaged in a desperate race to hold the attention of fickle teen shoppers — for several years.
Dick Gilbert, president of New York-based junior resource Mudd USA LLC, has been chasing that customer for years.
“Spring, I think, was tough,” he said. “I don’t think it was a great spring for anybody. But everybody is anticipating a tremendous back-to-school.”
His confidence, he said, was based on recent sales of full-length jeans. While jeans sales typically slow markedly at this time of year as shoppers turn their attention to shorts, skirts and cropped pants, so far they’ve continued selling at a slow but steady rate. He said shorts sold poorly through the spring season, though 23-inch flood-length pants and 17-inch capris did well.
At Jones Apparel Group Inc. — which produces the Polo Jeans Co., Gloria Vanderbilt and LEI jeans lines — group chief executive officer of jeans Isaac Dabah also said sales of jeans have held up well through the late spring.
“It’s amazing how well it’s selling through the season this year,” he said. “Generally it slows down in May and just doesn’t go into June.”
He also noted that, while quick-turn items are key for the fashion business and for younger customers, brands targeting misses’ shoppers need to offer replenishment items buyers can reorder through a season. He said replenishment orders today represent about half of the misses’ Gloria Vanderbilt line’s sales, compared with 25 to 30 percent of junior brand LEI’s business.
Heather Pech, Dabah’s deputy and president of the Polo Jeans Co. business, added that sales of her line have been running more than 20 percent ahead of prior-year levels.
Dabah joined some of his colleagues in noting that shorts sales have lagged the performance of capris through spring.
Not all vendors cited weak shorts sales, however.
“Seasonal business has been exceptionally good for us,” after a weak 2003, said Gordon Harton, president of Merriam, Kan.-based Lee Co., the moderate-priced jeans division of VF Corp. “Shorts’ and capris’ sell-throughs have been outstanding. Some retailers are looking for additional goods. That’s been very positive, especially capris.”
Looking toward fall, he said, “The basic five-pocket jeans is what will drive most of the sales. We’ll have a huge emphasis on different fits for different occasions, from the very low rise, to medium rise, to slim cut, to boot cut, to slim tapered, to more relaxed styles….We’ll really be driving off of fits and updated finishes.”
Another common element from the spring season that vendors think will carry toward fall is relatively lightweight fabric.
“Right now, the biggest thing driving business is the medium to lightweight fabrics in stretch,” said David Frankel, president of the New York-based U.S. operations of Mavi America Sportswear. He said jeans made of 9 to 10 ounce denim, which offers a more fluid drape than the traditional 14-ounce weight, will remain key.
Also looking toward fall, Scott LaPorta, president and general manager of the Levi Strauss Signature division of Levi Strauss, predicted growth for his brand. The company is in the process of rolling out the mass-priced Signature line — which it launched last year in Wal-Mart and Target — in test batches to regional mass merchants Pamida, Meijer and Shopko. Those chains will have full launches of the line for back-to-school retailing.
For the fiscal year ended in November, Levi Strauss Signature generated about $200 million in sales. Through the first quarter of this year, it brought in $93.3 million worldwide. The brand is also sold abroad in Canada, France, Germany, the U.K., Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
“Now we’ll have five [U.S.] retailers that will be highlighting certain of our products in their circulars,” said La Porta. But he stood behind Levi’s previous statements that it would not allow the Signature brand to be promoted on television. “We are not interested in advertising our brand on national TV….We have much more of a grassroots operation.”
That position has largely been the result of concerns that sales of Signature product could cannibalize Levi’s primary Red Tab business. Levi’s officials have been adamant since the launch of Signature product last summer that their research shows no fall-off in retail sales of Levi’s Red Tab products to have resulted from Signature’s introduction. They have acknowledged, however, that corporate sales have been affected as nervous national chain retailers have trimmed orders while they watch to see what Signature’s effect on the market is.
For Los Angeles-based Guess Inc., the year ahead will be a big one. The company plans to launch the Marciano line in September, which will be a complete upscale collection of women’s apparel with a dressy, yet sexy edge. The products will be made with high-end fabrics, which will increase the line’s price points from the original Guess collection. Following the launch of Marciano, the company plans to open freestanding stores, which will exclusively carry the Marciano label.
The company will also open its own Guess accessories stores, as well as factory accessories outlet locations.
“These Guess accessory stores are a welcome addition to the Guess retail environment, and will work to uphold the status of Guess as a complete lifestyle brand,” said Paul Marciano, co-chairman and co-ceo of Guess Inc.
Overall, Marciano said business is on an upswing.
“For the first quarter of 2004, Guess outperformed analysts’ predictions by improving net revenues 9.9 percent over the same period a year ago. Because we diversify the line each season with trend-right items, we strive to offer a variety of accessible options,” he said. “Guess retail same-store sales rose 12.8 percent during the last year. Guess is always looking for new ways to grow, explore and expand through new opportunities and partnerships both in the U.S. and internationally. We recently signed an agreement with a new fragrance licensee, and a new Guess scent is forecast to be launched in 2005.”
Known for its fashion denim offerings, Marciano said the company has a lot planned for new items next season.
“One of the hottest pants of the season is the ‘zip to the hip’ cropped denim pants with sexy seam details and a very low rise,” he explained. “The zippers, which extend from hem to thigh, allow the jeans to be extremely versatile. It can be unzipped at the bottom to add a bit of flirty flair or can be fully zipped to be slim and fitted. Our bestselling denim pants for both men and women have progressive washes and zippers on fashion bodies. Bottoms, both in denim and non-denim fabrics, are very strong and are currently driving our business.”
Marciano said skinny jeans and cropped jeans will be a big trend for fall, as the company is offering two versions of skinny jeans this season — the cropped three-zip Marilyn jeans are skinny and sexy, with a wide waistband and zippers at the hem. The other skinny jeans have a 14-inch leg opening but are not cropped.
“The overall denim trend is toward a straighter cut across the hips, with exaggerated details like thick top-stitching, new pocket designs, and revised button styles,” he said.
For the Los Angeles-based James Jeans brand, business has been booming. The company, which is run by James Lim and his designer wife Seun, has booked $33 million in orders, opened a 4,000-square-foot showroom in New York, hired almost 50 people and expanded its corporate headquarters.
“It’s really been great, but just so fast — too fast,” Lim said. “I am just glad that the customers are getting it and that our fit has been working out so well.”
Now, he said, the next step in the business plan is to partner with a large company to assist with production and distribution.
But James Jeans isn’t the only brand of status denim in demand.
The Los Angeles-based Bella Dahl is on target to reach about $15 million in sales this year, thanks to the help of its newer sister brand, Bartack.
“Bartack is still only in its infant stages,” said Kerry Jolna, president of both brands. “It’s a brand that has authentic and natural denim, it’s not really about fashion denim, that’s more of what Bella Dahl has. This is for that true denim fan.”
Jolna said that with the launch of the new label last year, the overall denim business for the company is much better than it was last year. The fabric accounts for about 50 percent of the company’s mix, whereas it was only worth about one-third of the business last year. He said that after the fall selling season, he expects business to increase even more.
“A lot of other companies spend money on advertising and marketing their product,” he said. “We come from a different place. Our thinking is that if we have a great product, we will always win.”
For fall, Bella Dahl is offering lighter-weight denim in new slimming skinny styles. For Bartack, Jolna said the designers are constantly developing new washes and styles while also keeping true to the brand.
The Los Angeles-based Seven for All Mankind has reached the $100 million sales mark and is well on the way to increasing that number this year. According to Trent MacLean, chief operating officer, growth plans and more line extensions are in the works.
“We started with women’s, of course, but our men’s business is doing well now, too, and so is our international business,” he said. “Right now we are trying to increase our production and distribution without over-saturating the market. It’s a real challenge to meet the demand we’ve had so far, but we are getting there and will be shipping on time for the fall season.”
Also in the works are plans to expand Seven for All Mankind’s non-denim offerings, as it did this year with the launch of a knit and cashmere tops line.
“This has been the best season at retail for non-denim fabrics,” MacLean said. “It’s been great because we are able to show our customer that we can do more than just jeans with our fits.”
While these brands have refocused production and distribution to fit the demand of the retailers, Jim Boldes, owner at Red Engine in Los Angeles, has, in a way, struggled to stay small.
“Our basic five-pocket business is great,” he said. “That’s what I want to remain good at, so I want to make sure I stay focused. I want to make a quality product that will keep me in business for the long term.”
Boldes said that, despite the fact that he is striving to remain small, his business has more than doubled over the past year. By the end of 2004, his four-year-old brand will bring in between $8 million and $10 million in sales.
The Los Angeles-based Chip & Pepper brand faces the same sort of pressures that Boldes’ Red Engine does. While Chip & Pepper has been in the denim business for 16 years, according to co-owner Pepper Foster, it’s becoming tougher to remain underground.
“People have approached us and asked us to do private label and to ship more jeans,” Foster said. “I always tell them the same thing: I do not do that. I do premium denim, and that other stuff just isn’t for us.”