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Retailers back branded denim to beat the blues

If 2009 was a tough year for denim, 2010 has been tougher still, and women’s branded jeans in particular have taken a battering.

According to retail research firm Kantar Worldpanel Fashion, the total value of the under-35s men’s jeans market fell 6% to £120.8m over the 24 weeks to April 25, of which branded jeans accounted for £50m. Meanwhile, sales of women’s jeans plummeted by almost a third, falling behind men’s to £117.6m - with just £15m sales from the branded sector.

These bleak figures will come as no surprise to many in the denim trade, who blame the decline in women’s jeans — branded and own label - on the continuing popularity of other categories such as dresses and non-denim trousers.

“Three years ago, if you went to a nightclub, 60% of girls were in tight-fitting, low-slung sexy jeans,” said Robert de Keyser, founder of premium womenswear distributor De Keyser Fashions, which sells classic womenswear brands Jovani, Luisa Spagnoli, Talbot Runhof and MYBC by Basler in the UK. “Now they’re in dresses or jeggings. They don’t need to buy new jeans every three months. Instead they’re making do with what they’ve got.”

Branded denim retailers also said they felt additional pressure from the significant improvement in the quality of the high street offer for women under 35, where prices have remained keen.

“There’s no brand loyalty in womenswear and we can’t compete with the likes of Primark and H&M on price,” said David Weeks, buying director of three-store young fashion indie Xile. “Women don’t buy into brands like they used to. We’ve still got some diehard Diesel and Replay customers, but they’re not even spending as much as they used to. They’ll buy one branded pair of jeans a season rather than two or three.”

James Leslie, co-founder of Trilogy, the three-store women’s designer denim indie in London, which first opened in Chelsea in 2006, agreed. “In the time since we opened there has been a big shift in the high street. Topshop and Zara in particular have really improved their offers.”

The market has polarised so that shoppers are either opting for cheap, disposable high street denim or for premium brands, which they regard as an investment, he added.

Premium retailers said women had moved towards more classic brands and styles that justify their premium prices on the grounds of fit rather than embellishment.

Fit-focused brands like Paige Premium Denim have taken share from more established brands, while Levi’s, which has suffered over the past few years from sitting too firmly in the middle ground, is poised to trial a new shapewear range in Trilogy next month with a view to taking the brand more upmarket.

Mark Bage, owner of York premium indie Sarah Coggles, told Drapers: “We do all the fashion brands but most people see something amazing in the window and come in to buy that, but then walk out with something much more conservative. Some people just want jeans.”

There is a danger of going too far, of course. One retailer told Drapers sales of Acne had slipped because its designs were “a little bit dull”, while De Keyser claimed Rock & Republic, a label he once distributed in the UK, had suffered from a misguided repositioning. “They have gone plain but their consumer is embellished. It’s a mistake,” he said.

Anecdotally, sales of True Religion have also flattened, but US brands including Current/Elliott and 7 For All Mankind continue to do brisk trade, as does J Brand. Trilogy has already shifted £100,000 of J Brand’s £245 Houlihan cargo pants this year.

Upturn for men

By contrast, menswear retailers have noted a slight shift towards more flamboyant styles, prompting a resurgence for Italian brands.

The owner of one premium indie said: “Diesel has skipped a generation and now appeals to younger buyers as an edgy brand. It’s the first time in a long time that our sales of Diesel have overtaken G-Star, which has been dominant for the past decade.”

Leslie agreed: “Those brands that have ridden the storm feel much more confident. They are much clearer on where they stand, especially those middle-ground brands [that] have started to sit more comfortably than a few years ago”.

He has been buoyed by the mood at some of his early spring 11 buying meetings, and felt the utility and urban chic trends would play well to the branded denim market - potentially paving the way for an upswing.

His optimism is shared by Bage. Sarah Coggles, whose trading patterns are often about six months ahead of the curve and seen as a forecast for sales trends in the wider premium sector, has seen a 22% like-for-like uplift in sales of women’s denim since the start of the year, and a 25% rise in men’s.

“People are sick of fast fashion and harking back to a ‘when I had that top I only wore for special occasions’ mentality. Initially, in a recession, people go and buy cheap things, but there is a learning process and at the end of the recession branded goods start taking off,” said Bage.

“This is the customers driving brands rather than brands driving customers, but I think [branded] denim will come back really strongly.”

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