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Fightingfit

With its emphasis on fit, James Jeans was one of the LA denim brands to survive the premium jeans gold rush. Here its founders tell Lorna Hall how they plan to build the business in the long term

Back in 2003 the fashion world was in the grip of one of those phenomenons that seems to come from nowhere. Suddenly, jeans were king again. But instead of the corporate giants such as Levi's or Wrangler benefiting from this new consumer fad, it was high-priced, boutique-based newcomers such as Earl Jeans and Seven that were all the rage. Born mainly out of Los Angeles, these jeans were retailing at unheard of prices which broke the £100 threshold, taking denim out of the high street and into the designer boutique.

James Jeans founders Seun Lim and her husband James Sway admit that they almost stumbled into the denim business. Unlike most of their rivals, the couple were based in New York. Sway worked on Wall Street while Lim was a designer with her own label, which Sway had an interest in, called Bouy.

Lim says: "Bouy was really a tailoring collection but I had started experimenting with denim and had added five pieces into it that season. As a joke I had named them James. When people came to look at the collection it was the denim that they were more interested in. James picked up on it quickly and things moved fast from there."

The couple realised that if they wanted to be serious about producing a premium denim label they needed to move to LA, to the heart of the industry. Sway explains: "We managed to just get in on the first quarter of the premium denim spectrum, and we rode the wave."

For a start-up business, that wave was almost tidal. The brand sold half a million units in its first year. "It was an incredible achievement," says Sway. "But in hindsight I do regret having done it that quickly. If you are a brand new company it is better to be able to control your growth so you can monitor the quality of what you do and get everything right first time. I haven't started many companies. I suppose what I have learnt from the experience is that you just have to keep pedalling to the middle. You have to go at it full steam ahead, because to survive you need to reach a certain size."

The couple, who own the James Jeans brand outright, admit they were learning the denim business as they went along. Sway says: "We were starting to get a lot of press attention. Gwyneth Paltrow was spotted wearing the brand, and then the whole celebrity bandwagon got going - we had used a small red tab on the jeans and Levi's are very protective of that, so we had to remove it. It was a stressful time and a big learning curve for us, and it made us realise what a closed community the denim industry is. We weren't denim people.

"A lot of our comrades in premium denim businesses have it in their blood. It's part of their DNA. They have probably worked in the industry all their lives. Denim has these time-honoured values which we were unaware of, so we reinvented the wheel without even realising it because we were the complete outsiders."

The key selling advantage for James Jeans, Sway says, has always been the fit, and that has become the brand's niche and its USP. Lim's tailoring background means she produces all her own patterns by hand. She is obsessed by how the jeans will look on and how someone will feel in them. "The key thing," she explains, "is for them to be tailored in a way that gives them an uplifting, slimming and leg lengthening look. I always want to accentuate a woman's rear and show it off to the best advantage."

Lim adds: "I think what happens with a lot of brands is that designers work hard in-house on a style, but then send it out to a generic pattern maker so a lot end up looking the same. I think that's how fit has become our differential."

The pair are convinced it is that differential that led to them being one of the survivors of the premium denim gold rush, which Sway believes probably peaked in early 2005.

"I suppose the bubble officially burst this spring, but as we had to regroup in 2005 after that frenzied first year it gave us some time to learn the business better, to correct some of the things we had done wrong and put an infrastructure in place," he says.

"We are in a better place now to deal with the way the market is changing. Since the autumn 2005 season our sales have been growing every quarter by about 10%. There is more room for growth because now a lot of the fashion players in the premium denim market have disappeared. What has changed is that at the peak of the boom a woman probably had 12 pairs of jeans in her wardrobe. Now, she is more likely to have three. So to be among those brands in her wardrobe you must have something that will keep her coming back to you."

Lim agrees and says that in terms of the past few seasons' trends the denim industry has taken a wait-and-see approach.

"It's not really clear what the next big thing will be," she says. "Skinny is still there and some people are backing the full-blown wide leg, particularly in the US. We will do all the different styles, but for me it's still all about putting a sexiness into the fit and understanding the female body from a female point of view."

Sway is clear about the brand's take on trends. He says: "Trend followers are great for instant growth, but we have had our time of that and now I believe we are better off developing a loyal customer for whom James is the friend they know. There's a tendency when you are the hot new brand to push the envelope. One of the things we have learnt is that we need to have a core collection of affordable basics with spot-on fashionability that we deliver brilliantly. We have a high success rate once the jean is tried on. The key thing for us is getting the new customer to take the jean into the dressing room."

Jessica Britten, manager of premium independent Fluidity in Henley, agrees that the James customer comes back for more. "The fit is brilliant and the sizing very accurate. We do sell other denim brands but if a customer likes James then they will remain very loyal and buy again so it is an important brand for us to stock," she explains.

Julia Jaconelli, owner of The Courtyard in Guildford, says the label is her best selling denim brand. She says: "The fit is flattering and the design and washes are subtle and stylish with a good choice of shapes including a very popular higher rise cut called Hector which is very comfortable to wear. James is a very good basic jean for all ages and sizes."

Annual sales now stand at US$38 million (£19 million) and on average James Jeans is selling 400,000 pairs a year. Sway says: "We are not a public company. There is no one else on the board so we don't have the quarter-to-quarter pressure to show our numbers. I know our margins are a lot better than some of our competitors - between 35% to 40% of our sales reaches the bottom line."

Sway betrays his Wall Street background and new Californian persona when he describes the industry in computer software terms. "Premium denim 1.0 is over. We are in the phase of premium denim 2.0, and it's interesting because we don't know how it is going to manifest itself. But I am reverting to my Wall Street training. We need to invest in the business in the dip to come out strong in the next peak."

Investing in the dip means putting more money into raising the brand's profile, which includes a marketing campaign planned for autumn. Sway says marketing spend will raise to 5% of turnover this year, with more money put into internal and external pr.

"In the past we've been really lucky with celebrities picking up on the jeans and wearing them. Paris Hilton has been very good to us and we got the most amazing endorsement when Oprah Winfrey said on her show that she only wears James because the fit is so flattering.

"I sense there's a real opportunity now to cement our brand as one of the top premium denim labels. But I have to keep reminding myself that this is a marathon rather than a sprint. This is the way I see it. The other guys are a little tired now and we will be looking for our opening. I really believe that this is the time for us to pull away."

JAMES JEANS - THE LOWDOWN

TURNOVER: £19 million. The US represents 45% of sales, Japan 20% and UK 8% to 10%. The rest of James' sales are in Scandinavia, Germany, Russia, Australia, Canada, China and South Korea.

STOCKISTS: 1,500 doors worldwide, with 80 in the UK including Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and independents.

RANGE: Twenty styles with four to five washes and fabrications.

PRICES: Between £56 and £69.

UK AGENT: Scout 020 7937 0959.

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