In May, Gap Inc. hired 7 for All Mankind's head designer to ramp up its new 1969 premium denim line, priced at $70. Even pioneer Levi Strauss & Co. is hoping to reignite sales with a new, edgier denim line that approaches $200.
"The last few years we've seen so many new brands coming out on a weekly basis in L.A.," said Stefano Aldighieri, a denim designer who has worked for 7 for All Mankind and Levi. "It's not as crowded as it was two years ago, but there are still too many players."
Henry-Lee, for its part, is taking advantage of the still-struggling economy by hiring talent from the denim industry in L.A. and New York on a contract basis. The recession made its way through the denim industry as it did everywhere else, shutting down lines and leaving plenty of experienced designers, production operators and sales and marketing executives free for project work, he said.
So Mann assembled a team from Gap, Edun, DKNY, Michael Kors, BCBG Max Azria and Ralph Lauren to fly into Chicago monthly to create the new denim line.
The jeans line started out late last year with the name Denim 6, and Henry-Lee sold the collection to some independent retailers to test the market this year.
By April, the team began making adjustments to the whiskering and the rise and the wash, aiming to boost the cool factor. Mann hired a few more outsiders in marketing and sales to talk to Nordstrom Inc. and Bloomingdale's Inc. about carrying the line. The fresh perspective shook Mann into realizing that Henry-Lee's longevity — it was founded in 1957 — stood out in a sea of fly-by-night denim labels, so he renamed the line after the founders.
Mann hopes the Henry & Belle line will generate $5 million its first year and eventually account for three-quarters of Henry-Lee's revenue. The company continues its sourcing business, manufacturing private-label clothing.
"Jeans is the defining piece of attire for the entire boomer generation," said Jennifer Ganshirt, managing partner at marketing firm Frank About Women.
"Boomers basically put jeans on the map and created a jeans culture," she said. "Of any generation to identify with jeans, it's the boomers. They will have a place in their lives for their entire lives."