That’s right, kids! Here’s the article… I’m down to one quote, but it’s a good one, and I’m glad to have been able to be a part of it! If you want to go to the original version, feel free to head over here.
In the search for the perfect pair of jeans, shoppers have long bowed to the terms of premium-denim labels, which promise superior fit but demand supersize prices—often more than $200. Now Gap Inc., Loft and other mall-based retailers are selling jeans that they say fit just as well for under $60.
As the recession cools the premium-denim craze, the time seems right for trading down. The question is whether these stores can recreate that perfect fit for a broad swath of consumers.
The premium-denim movement started a decade ago with the popularity of Seven for All Mankind, now owned by VF Corp., which was among the first to master and market fit as a reason to pay top dollar for jeans. Function became fashion as denim proved it could slim and sculpt. Fashionistas offered the coveted label of “favorite jean” to a series of smaller denim design brands, such as True Religion and Citizens of Humanity, and midmarket clothing stores, with their one-shape-fits-all patterns, lost hold. Design embellishments, such as rhinestones and dramatic washes, pushed prices even higher. The onetime workman’s attire became a luxury item with an increasingly dressy feel.
But even as pure brand cachet amped up the popularity of hot labels, the main attraction remained simple: Premium jeans “made your butt look good—damn good,” said Gary Muto, president of Loft, a division of AnnTaylor Stores Corp.
Jaime Palmucci, a petite 23-year-old from Denver, said the curves created by her J Brand jeans made her an instant fan. “They have a wonderful lifting ability,” she said of the jean’s backside and thighs.
Recently, the $13 billion denim market has grown more slowly. Sales of women’s jeans increased only 2% in the year ended June 30, while the average price per pair fell 2%, according to market-research firm NPD Group. Men’s jeans have seen a similar slowdown. The popularity of premium denim has flattened as well, said Todd Hooper, a retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates.
Now, popular chains see an opportunity to offer the top-notch fit of premium denim at a more affordable price. Gap and Loft have jeans on their shelves for $59.50. Other youth-oriented stores, including J. Crew Group Inc.’s Madewell brand and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. have offered jeans at $59.50, either by ticketed pricing or through promotions.
The design team at Gap, a 40-year-old brand founded on denim, spent the past 18 months overhauling its lineup, according to Patrick Robinson, executive vice president of design for Gap adult and Gap body. It was all about “fit,” Mr. Robinson said. “Fit, fit, fit, fit, fit.”
For women, the focus is on fit from the knees up. “Every woman who puts on a pair of jeans turns around and looks at the butt,” said Mr. Robinson, demonstrating the fitting-room pivot and over-the-shoulder glance.
Men are much more interested in the overall feeling of the jeans, especially in the front of the thighs, Mr. Robinson said, offering up a half-squat, half-lunge motion that he witnessed in the denim research. He confessed to not fully understanding the move—”Guys are going to, like, jump over cabs on the way to work?”—but he designed to meet that need.
The biggest change between the old and new Gap jeans is that not every style is intended to fit every customer. While the brand always offered different “fits,” the styles were cut to fit a broad range of figures. For the new product, which Gap shipped to its nearly 1,100 stores this month, Gap used different fit models—the human template for the pattern—to create the different styles. The “Curvy” jeans are built for a woman with proportionally bigger hips and thighs. The “Real Straight” jeans are for someone with a narrower frame. Customers can fit into a few—but not all—of the new styles (six for women, seven for men).
Layered on top of that new concept are details meant to flatter the bottom, lengthen the legs and slim the thighs. The waistband is constructed so that it won’t gape when the wearer sits down. The flare of the leg opening in the boot-cut jeans starts below the knee, instead of at it, to make the legs look longer.
Of course, it’s impossible for the Gap to completely recreate premium denim. Most obviously, the power of many small denim brands lay in the logo on the back pocket; Gap (which left its back pockets fairly plain) can’t offer the same cachet.
Another difference between luxury jeans and their mass counterparts is the fabric they use, said Mr. Hooper, the retail strategist. High-end brands often use fabric from mills in Italy and Japan. Their denim’s quality is hard to imitate, he said.
Gap offers little detail on its denim manufacturing, but it has focused great attention on the properties of the fabric it uses. For instance, the company created different patterns for different washes to account for the fact that fabrics treated differently won’t stretch and move in the same way.
Some of the same re-engineering is happening at Ann Taylor Loft—and not by coincidence. Mr. Muto, a former Gap executive, joined AnnTaylor as president of the Loft brand last November. He ordered up a new denim line just two months later, the result of which is in stores now.
The new Loft denim skews slightly older than Gap and is designed around a model that is a mother in her 30s. But Mr. Muto said there was a conscious attempt to steer away from the dreaded “mom jeans,” the term for jeans with high waists, bulky front pouches and unflattering washes.
Loft’s new jeans have details to enhance the backside and elongate the legs, such as a slight tilt of back pockets. Loft designers subtly altered the back seam that hits right above the bottom to give it more of a “V” shape.
The effect has to be immediate, Mr. Muto said, because women tend to make a snap decision about denim. “If it doesn’t fit,” he said, “it’s off with the jeans.”
I was hoping they’d mention Denim Debutante, but hey… I beat my father into WSJ!