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Denim couture craze fading?

Janet Babin Nov 10, 2006
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SCOTT JAGOW: How much does a pair of jeans cost? $30, $40? Yeah, that’s the low end these days. Try $200 for some of the fancy denim that’s out there now. The jeans business is pretty hot for investors, but it could be peaking. Marketplace’s Janet Babin reports from North Carolina Public Radio.


JANET BABIN: Total denim sales reached about $15 billion last year. That’s a hefty 10 percent of all women’s sportswear sales.

But the jeans market wasn’t always so lucrative. Simon Doonan is the creative director at upscale department store Barney’s. Apparently, he says there was a time when nobody who was anybody wore jeans.

SIMON DOONAN:“There was nothing more un-groovy than a pair of jeans in the 90s everyone wore black pants, they wore boot cut pants . . .”

So what set off this latest denim frenzy? A number of brands and designers are still fighting over that mantle. But you could blame, or thank, Chris Gilbert.

In 1999, he started Paper Denim and Cloth. The company treated jeans with special washes, made each pair by hand, and charged a few hundred dollars for them. Gilbert says his company took off when Hollywood noticed:

CHRIS GILBERT: “Various celebrities started wearing the brand, we got the best accounts, and from there everything just took off.”

30-year-old Gilbert claims he invented the premium denim trend.

But Doonan says haute couture jeans are part of an old fashion cycle. During the 1970s disco craze, Sasoon, Fiorucci and Calvin Klein jeans pulled in over $100 a pair.

This time around, the famous brands have more purposeful names. 7 for all Mankind. True Religion. Citizens of Humanity. Doonan says it’s hard for shoppers to keep up:

DOONAN:“There’s this sort of Internet underground fever to identifying the next groovy denim, and if you’re wearing the one that’s not groovy anymore, then it really marks you as someone who’s gone a bit dusty.”

Maybe it’s the pursuit of undustiness that keeps expensive jeans among the fastest growing segments of the retail market.

The craze even caught the attention of the investment community: Bear Sterns owns a 50 percent stake in 7 jeans, and Berkshire Partners owns more than half of Citizens of Humanity.

But analyst Brady Lemos with Morningstar says consumers’ desire for high-end denim may be fading.

BRADY LEMOS:“We are seeing saturation in the premium denim market. I think a lot of the new designers are seeing the success of a Paper Denim for instance, and they think they can replicate that, so it’s just introducing many new brands into the marketplace.”

Taking the lead in a changing market, this fall Paper reduced the price of its jeans. That got them booted out of sakes and Bloomingdales.

But the company’s begun selling its jeans at Macy’s for under $100. Lemos says that could double Paper’s revenue which the company says was around $50 million last year.

I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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