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Denim sales still going strong

Even in this recession, designer jeans continue to command top dollar. But decent-looking knockoffs are competing for a piece of the pie.

August 16, 2009|Emili Vesilind

Once upon a time, jeans were strictly weekend wear -- what you donned to grab a slice of pizza, watch a Lakers game or stroll the local mall.

But gradually, they've infiltrated every facet of our culture. Now we wear jeans to work, on big dates and even (like it or not) to formal events. For most school kids and college students, pulling on a pair of jeans in the morning is as routine as brushing their teeth.

Our devotion to the five-pocket staple runs so deep that even in the worst recession in decades -- when sales of almost every other apparel category are weaker than a papier-mache tree branch -- denim sales are still strong. Sales of premium denim jeans, which can cost more than $200, have proven especially resilient.

Sales of premium brand jeans grew 17% during 2008 and 2.3% from December to February 2009, according to market research firm NPD Group. And while nondenim sportswear sales fell 3.1% in the 12-month period ending in March, compared with the same period the previous year, the women's denim market grew 2.2%, to $8.03 billion.

For some of premium denim's top executives, the robust sales aren't a surprise. "When people stop drinking Coca-Cola, denim will have trouble in America," said Jeff Rudes, co-founder and president of L.A.-based J Brand. "Denim is so American."

Jeff Lubell, chief executive of L.A.-based True Religion Brand Jeans, said that jeans "are a value purchase in a tough economy. Jeans are not the kind of thing you wear once, like a formal dress. They just get better with time."

But how long can our love affair last with jeans that cost as much as some car payments?

Lower-price retailers are invading premium denim's turf -- knocking off the look and fit (if not the feel) of premium jeans. And, because premium jeans rely less on logos and back pocket designs than they used to, it's easier than ever to create a knockoff.

These less expensive jeans are getting better looking every day. For example, Target sells $17.99 tie-dye jeans that appear similar to J Brand's $198 version. American Eagle Outfitters boasts a trendy distressed jean for $49.50 that could be mistaken for Current/Elliott's $229 boyfriend jeans. Seen up close, the cheaper versions' construction quality is clearly lacking, but sales are still brisk..

Gap, which was founded as a T-shirt and jeans company, is the first major retailer to label its jeans as "premium" without the sticker shock of luxury brands.

In July, the chain scrapped its decades-old jeans patterns and debuted the 1969 Premium Jeans collection -- a line of men's and women's jeans starting just under $60 that Gap creative director Patrick Robinson claims can hold their own (in construction, fit and fabrication) against any premium jean.

Robinson, who hired a number of people from premium denim companies to develop the collection, maintains that the customer gets a jean that is as high-quality as those that sell for $100 to $300. "We can do it because we're the Gap and we're huge," he said.

Earlier this month, Gap debuted the 1969 Jeans Shop, a pop-up store on Robertson Boulevard which will be open through September.

But many of premium denim's top executives say they're not sweating the lower-priced competition.

"Premium denim is much more an art than a science," said Marc Crossman, chief executive for L.A.-based Joe's Jeans. "It's very expensive and labor-intensive to make a pair of premium jeans, so it's very hard to knock them off. The customer is going to feel the difference in the hand and look of the garment."

Gary Freedman, chief operating officer and general counsel for L.A.-based Citizens of Humanity, said, "You could say that from a distance, nobody's going to know what kind of jeans I have on -- but if that were true, there would be no Gucci or Prada."

Although skinny jeans and boyfriend-cuts will remain ubiquitous this season, innovation is a key to survival for premium brands. Part of the reason they have been so successful is their ability to set trends.

"When you have a very creative brand, the brand succeeds," said Jerome Dahan, creative director, founder and CEO of Citizens of Humanity. "People always want something new."

"Fashion jeans" -- styles that stray far beyond basic blue, black and white dungarees (think tie-dye, painted, studded and overly distressed jeans) -- are what premium customers are after, some executives said.

"Basic jeans are not where brands and retailers are making their money now," said Michael Ball, owner and creative director of L.A.-based Rock & Republic. "The girl who buys premium products wants something different."

Designer collaborations also generate buzz and up their fashion quotient. Swedish premium brand Acne Jeans has partnered with Lanvin for dressy denim collections, while Levi's has teamed up with artist Damien Hirst and designer Junya Watanabe, among others, for arty special collections.

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