Blue jeans selling strong, but high-end sales could suffer

The $13 billion denim industry — a life preserver for the sinking apparel industry the past year — may be fraying at the high end of its product line.

While old standbys including Levi's, Lee and Wrangler are still seeing sales increases that likely will continue in the coming year, sales increases for pricey premium jeans will likely occur only in the under-$200 category, according to market research firm NPD Group.

Sales of these and even pricier jeans had soared deep into the recession — up 17% last year alone, says NPD — as retailers and apparel makers benefited from a largely recession-resistant jones for jeans. But really pricey denim pants may be falling out of fashion.

"The economy shifted, and all of a sudden those outrageous prices actually look outrageous," says NPD chief retail analyst Marshal Cohen. "The superpremium jean business has dropped off tremendously because the inspirational shoppers aren't going up that high, and luxury customers aren't buying two or three pairs anymore."

Still, as retail strategist Todd Hooper of Kurt Salmon Associates, says, "Premium denim is too big to fail."

While at least one high-end manufacturer boasts of planning no adjustments for the coming year, others have dropped prices and are offering additional product lines to consumers who want the brand appeal without the $300-plus price tags. And Gap plans to take advantage of the downscaling of denim next month when it introduces a $60 line of what it says are great-fitting jeans designed in part by hires from premium jean companies.

Total jeans sales were up 2.3% for the three months ended in February, NPD says, while apparel sales overall declined 6.3% for the same period.

That three-month period was the most challenging in terms of consumer spending, so any growth during that time is significant, Cohen says.

Shoppers such as Debi DeFrank, 42, helped drive the recession trend of jeans-buying. DeFrank, a Fox News makeup artist from Ellicott City, Md., owns about 25 pairs, including several by high-end manufacturers True Religion, 7 for All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity.

"I'm always looking for the pair of jeans that fits the best," says DeFrank. "Then I go and shop some more and say, 'No, these are the ones that fit me the best.' "

DeFrank, who travels extensively for work, says jeans are the perfect thing to pack. "I don't want to have to put dress pants in my suitcase."

Instead, she wears a pair of her many light-colored jeans by day and her darker ones with heels at night for dinner. There are skinny jeans for certain boots and every other possible cut to go with the dozens of shoes and 10 pairs of boots she owns.

Opening their own stores

Still, with record drops in sales at luxury department stores, makers of pricey jeans can't rely on devoted customers like DeFrank for survival. So they are rapidly opening their own stores, diversifying into other apparel and shifting more to lower price points. They're also trying to communicate why their jeans are worth hefty price tags.

"We really don't believe consumers today understand the value of premium denim," says Topher Gaylord, president of 7 for All Mankind, which is owned by VF. "It's the whiskering of the denim, the wash ... and taking raw denim and creating artistic interpretation."

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