NEW YORK — A focus on basic five-pocket jeans dressed up with distinctive washes and higher-quality fabrics, coupled with signs of recovery in the economy at large, led to a solid first half for major jeans makers.
Executives said they expect to remain on strong footing as they head into the critical fall season, typically a peak demand period for jeans.
Looking at second-half selling, Heather Knight Pech, president of Polo Jeans Co., said, “Consumer demand, I think, is going to continue to be very denim-focused. It seems to be the American uniform of choice right now.”
Denim styles have taken a turn toward the subdued this year. After a few seasons where designers relied heavily on extremes of abrasion and whiskering to create jeans that would grab consumers’ attention, lines have been focusing on subtler washes that provide a vintage look without the heavy sanding and blasting.
“The washes and colors have been clearer and cleaner than what they had been in the past,” said Pech, whose business is a unit of New York-based Jones Apparel Group. “It’s been more subtle in the whiskering and abrasion.”
Much of the swing to subtlety is due to the influence of the premium and superpremium market. Brands such as Diesel and Earl, as well as newcomers like Earnest Sewn and Bartack, have been steadily raising their price points to ascend to the $200 mark, while they upgraded into higher-end, costlier fabrics. Having embraced the upscale fabrics, designers have been reluctant to abuse them too much in the finishing process.
While these elite lines represent a sliver of the $5.7 billion women’s jeans market, their influence is felt throughout the sector. But emulating the light-handed techniques of the high-end lines has proven somewhat of a challenge for mainstream jeans vendors.
“Everything is coming out of the premium market,” said Dick Gilbert, chief executive officer of Mudd LLC USA. “You’ve got to emulate them as much as you can. But when it costs $15 to wash a premium jean, and in the moderate area you won’t get $15 for the jeans [at wholesale], it has to be a copycat look.”
For moderate brands — and even status-priced lines wholesaling their products for $25 to $35 — keeping current with finishing trends requires studying new looks and developing less labor-intensive ways to produce them.
For the teen shoppers that Mudd targets, including freebies — particularly belts — with the jeans is a key sales driver.
“You have to have sharp belts,” Gilbert said. “A throwaway belt doesn’t work anymore.”
Vendors said much of the pickup they’ve seen in sales appears to have been related to the general improvement in the economy and at retail. The Bush administration has been pointing to recent job growth — according to its data, the U.S. economy has added 1.5 million jobs since August — as one of the key signs of recovery.
“The junior business has generally been good,” said Andrew Cohen, president of the Energie and L.E.I. lines at Jones. “It’s sort of outpacing the general business.”
Likewise, Gordon Harton, president at Merriam, Kan.-based Lee Co., owned by VF Corp., said he is expecting “good” second-half sales. Looking at the broader economy, he said, “I’m not sure if the turnaround is going to be as fast as some people are expecting.”
But he said jeans sales appeared to be outpacing other sectors of the fashion market and said Lee’s retail customers are increasing their space and budget allocations for jeans through the second half. He said the company’s Lee 1889 line, launching for fall retailing and aimed at teens, will be sold at more than 1,500 retail locations.
Sixty Inc., which produces the Miss Sixty line, is also on an expansion path.
Andrew Pollard, director of sales and marketing at the New York arm of the Italian company, said for fall, the high-end line would be sold at between 350 and 400 retail locations around the country, a 50 percent increase from the prior year.
“We’ve come on in a more aggressive way, we have more floor space in the stores, more doors,” he said.
Pollard noted that after establishing itself in major urban markets like New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, the brand has started to boost its presence in Middle America, including cities such as Dallas and Atlanta.
Looking ahead at spring merchandise, which apparel vendors will begin showing to retailers in the coming two months, Pollard said Sixty saw the subtlety trend continuing.
“For us, it is a lot more feminine, softer colors, very feminine shapes, less flash, more substance, better quality fabrics,” he said.
Pollard added that the company’s lineup would include more tailored pants, in addition to classic five-pocket jeans cuts.
Polo’s Pech pointed to similar trends for spring. She said lightweight denim would be a key item for the season, with light-colored fabrics, in blue, blue-gray, blue-green and white being “really important.”
For fall, Polo Jeans will be watching the rollout of its higher-priced line. The brand has raised its top retail price point to $89, where previously its prices had gone up to $69. Pech said that move reflected shoppers’ growing familiarity with high-end jeans.
“The consumer is smarter, I think, in their denim purchases,” she said. “They’re looking for better fabric and finish and wash. I think they’re more educated than they’ve been.”