Denim may - according to Giorgio Armani - “represent democracy”, but the category is also big business.
The global market for jeans alone is expected to reach $56bn (£36bn) by 2018, according to research firm Companiesandmarkets.com, and Selfridges is tapping into that demand for this evergreen wardrobe staple with the launch of the Denim Studio at its London flagship.
Two years and “well in excess of £6m” in the making, this week saw the official launch take place, complete with two months of celebrations in which denim will literally take over every department in the store, from lingerie to furniture to food (fortunately only food colouring to turn items denim blue).
For Sebastian Manes, newly promoted director of buying and merchandising, it has been a long road and one that began after the success of the Shoe Galleries became clear.
The world’s largest footwear department when it launched, Shoe Galleries features everything from £20 Gandys flip-flops to £13,000 Swarovski-encrusted Gina wedges.
“We wanted to apply the same philosophy to denim,” Manes explains. “Our offer before was a bit too narrow, focused on the mid-market but without stretching to both ends. Our philosophy is to be fashion democratic, but until this point it was not really true.”
The Denim Studio - which has already received the highest-ever score for Drapers’ Shopwatch (43 out of 50) - sets that straight. With 11,000 pairs of jeans, ranging from an £11 Primark pair to a bespoke £11,000 pair by Paige (embellished with two carats of a girl’s best friend), the business is hoping to attract everyone in the market for a pair of jeans. Others may have attempted something similar, but this project dwarfs those of competitors such as Harrods’ Fashion Lab Denim.
According to director of womenswear Judd Crane, until now 75% of Selfridges’ jeans turnover has come from the premium market of £150 to £250 pairs. But with the inclusion of more designer names such as Stella McCartney and Christopher Kane - as well as the Primark concession at the lower end - that is going to come down to about 65%.
Sub-£150 pieces are expected to make up about 15% of the total denim takings, but it’s not just Primark that is carrying the burden of shifting denim in volume. A pop-up space currently dedicated to ‘Denim by the Kilo’ sells reworked vintage product as provided by the East End Thrift Shop, literally at £25 per kilo.
“Quite a lot weigh in at half a kilo, so that’s a very interesting price point,” says Crane.
“We want it to be a place where every woman can buy something, no matter what her age, budget, shape or style.
It’s a place for mothers and daughters to shop together,” he adds.
The pop-up area also affords a grittier and, dare I say it, messier element to the rest of the perfectly manicured department. “We really wanted from our first season to get to the heart and soul of denim,” says Crane. “Sometimes new environments can seem a bit cold, so this is going to be a really active area in terms of us adding to the feel of the studio.”
Aside from price point, the business has done its homework when it comes to styling to avoid doubling up on skinny and boyfriend fits. Selfridges categorised shoppers by “tribe” - edgy, natural, tough lovers, tomboy - and sought out brands that offer something a bit different.
Yona Christodoulou, third floor divisional manager, explains the Denim Studio “has to cater for two and a half floors of womenswear”.
She adds: “That lady buying her dress in Roland Mouret, or the one buying her gym kit in Sweaty Betty, knows they can buy their jeans here. Whether it’s Primark or J Brand’s Little Black Jean, she will get what she wants.”
The Little Black Jean offers some insight into the level of work Selfridges has put into this new department. The team has asked every brand to create something exclusive to Selfridges, but J Brand took that to a whole new level, responding with the £495 denim answer to the little black dress.
J Brand had been developing the idea before it was approached but had needed a retail partner to launch it through until Selfridges came knocking.
J Brand creative director Donald Oliver says: “It was a real collaboration from day one, and it’s just great that we have been able to showcase it in such a way that looks incredibly modern and in keeping with the brand.”
Overall he describes The Denim Studio as “genius” (no pun intended). “It’s an emotional purchase and for experts who know denim to be able to point women in the right direction is amazing - jeans are not easy to shop.”
His was not the only brand to enthuse about the experience of working with Selfridges. Hudson president Barbara Cook tells Drapers she was so impressed that the brand took all the staff on the denim floor out as “a thank you for the way they brought denim to life”.
“The team behaves like true partners - they want to do what they can to maximise sales of Hudson jeans,” she says.
“Selfridges has the incredible ability to attract all walks of life and this inclusion of disposable fashion alongside the elite is great. I don’t think everyone has all the answers but they come pretty close.”
Alongside existing partners such as Hudson, J Brand and Paige - all of which are still the top sellers - are new names such as The Laundry Room, Hyena and Frame.
Manes explains that the team had a “hit list” of brands it wanted to include, but it took nearly a year to get everyone on board during what he describes as a “seduction process”.
“Because of the scale of the project, brands had never seen anything like that before, so there was a bit of scepticism at first, but eventually when it became clear that all the services went right to the client, they saw the opportunity was huge,” he says.
While product is king, service plays more than second fiddle. The number of fitting rooms has doubled to 18, two of which are dedicated to ‘denim by appointment’, with windows allowing sunlight in for the first time. Husbands tired by their wives’ hunt for the “perfect bottom” (the average time spent in changing rooms when jeans shopping is 45 minutes to an hour) are given water, jelly beans (blue, naturally), access to DVDs and the hypnotic Jeanius Bar - an interactive mood table with flowing images, short films and denim inspiration, which doubles up as a tool for consultations.
The team has also increased, with three times as many staff on hand to respond to the blue lights that flicker on when someone needs a second opinion, in a process that one team member compared to bra fittings.
Each member of the team has a denim pouch with tricks of the trade - most in need is the tape measure that allows them to quickly establish what alternations might be needed. A pair of jeans is then handed to the on-site tailoring team, who must return it ready to wear within an hour.
During the launch celebrations, Selfridges also had a team from British label Cut & Sew to customise jeans - for free.
“Potentially you could make a pair of £11 jeans look like a pair of £11,000 ones,” says Christodoulou.
However, the inclusion of a dominant Primark concession has not gone uncriticised, particularly in the wake of the tragedy in Bangladesh. “Should Selfridges really be doing that?” a senior figure at a rival store asks. “It just doesn’t sit right somehow.”
While the £11 jeans are likely to attract a new kind of shopper - one who might, as Crane puts it, “find the experience of a Primark store intense” - Selfridges’ initial targets are perhaps less than ambitious.
Given the size of the new space - it is five times bigger than the previous allocation to denim - it’s surprising Selfridges is only expecting to double the turnover of denim sales (exact figures are kept under wraps).
“Obviously our density is down,” says Manes. “We wanted to give a very strong experience, so 25% of space is dedicated to fitting rooms, alteration, denim by appointment, the Jeanius bar and so on. The game has been elevated - you can’t always build success just on sales density.”