Jason Denham says his surname ensured his love for jeans “was meant to be”. His focus on detail makes his Denham brand stand out from the crowd.
There was a subdued atmosphere at Bread & Butter Berlin’s (B&B) spring 14 edition when I visited a few weeks ago. Anecdotal reports have indicated that footfall was down around 30% this season, but Jason Denham, founder and chief executive of premium jeans label Denham, tells me it was “the best Bread & Butter show” he’s ever seen for his brand. Certainly, during my visit the Denham stand was bustling throughout the three days.
“We had more visitors on day one than in the total three days of the previous show,” says Denham. “The mix of buyers was very high level and very international.”
While this may seem out of line with other responses to this season’s B&B, Denham’s report did not surprise me.
Visiting the brand’s stand was the conclusion of my research into the business that started with a trip to Amsterdam earlier this year; the Dutch capital is a denim mecca that hosts the European headquarters of the likes of Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as Denham.
When I visited Denham’s HQ, based in a house beside one of the city’s canals, the spring 14 show season was fast approaching, spring 13 stock was about to drop into stores and orders were still being placed for autumn 13.
From the taxi driver to the hotel clerk to the owner of the cafe where I had lunch, the locals of Amsterdam were keen to tell me how well they know Denham - the man himself, that is. The brand was launched in 2008 and its reputation stems from some serious exposure.
It has 120 accounts in the Netherlands and three standalone stores in Amsterdam - the first opened in 2009 and the most recent is a new concept store that opened in May. However, with 62 UK accounts and one standalone store in Shoreditch, east London, Denham, a Yorkshireman, still sees it as a British brand.
In total, the brand sells in 22 countries and has about 500 accounts, with the business’s wholesale-to-retail ratio about 70/30. Denham also says that after closing the order books for spring and autumn 13, turnover is projected to hit £15m, up a healthy 36% on the year before.
Apart from the Netherlands and the UK, the most important market in Europe is Germany, due to the size of its population and strength of the economy. This makes B&B very important for the brand, although Denham acknowledges “there are a lot of questions in the market about it at the moment”.
“It’s very easy for buyers to come over and say ‘I’ve seen it all before’,” he says. “But it’s up to the brands to make the shows look really cool and exciting.”
This ‘it’s up to us’ attitude permeates everything Denham says, as it quickly becomes clear that while his enthusiasm drives the business, it is underlined by a healthy dose of pragmatism.
“We started the brand in the recession in 2008,” he explains. “So it means it’s grounded in the reality of how the world is today, and we’ve built it very carefully.”
This is unsurprising, given Denham’s career trajectory. Having worked for Pepe Jeans London as denim product manager, which brought him to Amsterdam 17 years ago, he started his own company in 1998 aged 29, a denim consultancy called Clinic, before setting up his first denim brand, Blue Blood, in 2002.
“It was a great project,” he says of Blue Blood. “But it got to a point after six years where we [Denham and business partner Steve te Pas] had a different opinion on how to take the brand forward and I decided to leave and start my own signature brand, with my family name.” And what a convenient family name it is; Denham acknowledges his love for denim was “absolutely meant to be”.
Of its launch, he says: “Denham wasn’t a start-up because I’d already done my own brand and the agency, so I knew exactly what I was doing.” However, the debut store opening in 2009 was his first move into retail.
“It was a new experience for me, but from day one I fell in love with it,” he says.
The stores are impressive, with denim repair clinics, tailored displays and branding details taken as far as the bollards on the street outside. However, Denham says “wholesale makes a brand”, and so finding a way to translate this vision into independent stores is a priority.
“We have a team of people who work on merchandising and a team of builders who put it together,” Denhamexplains. “Everything has to fit the particular store.” This concept has worked brilliantly so far as stockists are concerned. Jo Davies, owner of premium womenswear retailer Black White Denim in Wilmslow, Cheshire, told Drapers: “Denham has invested in merchandising a corner of our store as a Denham store - the stand is fabulous and our sell-through was at 60% very quickly. They are passionate about their brand working for us and they bend over backwards to help us market and sell. This is very rare in my experience.”
In terms of market positioning, Denham describes the collection as “Diesel and upwards”. As of last year, the brand repositioned in the UK, pulling out of accounts including House of Fraser. “We did go into some accounts which were a mistake. We stepped into some stores too quickly and it wasn’t the right time,” he says, explaining a tighter distribution strategy was needed. But this isn’t to say exclusivity is vital. “We want to grow a commercial business and be a competitor. I think it’s wrong to be too precious about saying ‘we’re exclusive’ and we only want to sell in five UK shops.”
The brand - whose wholesale prices range from £15 for a basic T-shirt to £296 for top-end outerwear - has sought to align itself with more premium stockists over the past three seasons, with new accounts confirmed for spring 13.
Mimi Noor, owner of the eponymous women’s premium casualwear boutique in Bath, told Drapers: “I was looking for a brand that wasn’t mass-distributed, was a good price and offered something different, certainly in terms of denim.
I’d looked at Denham prior to spring 13 but felt it was too masculine and industrial-looking for my customer. However, from spring 13 onwards the brand has done so well in terms of design.”
It is design, of course, that’s ultimately the key to the brand’s popularity. “The brand is growing very strong in both men’s and women’s, which is rare in jeans brands,” says Denham. This is down to design, as women are “more into fashion and the ‘look’” when it comes to product, he says.
Last week, Drapers reported that chinos are seeing a decline in sales, with the popularity of denim on the rise. Denham agrees the tide is turning but that it is “cyclical”. It is women’s denim that is going through a transition, he says. “Women have been wearing skinny jeans as a trend for the last five years, and in the last three years men have been getting into them as a commercial fit. Now that is changing in women’s - it’s going much looser into carrot and boyfriend fits. That’s been going on for a couple of years in men’s and now it’s coming in for women’s.”
At Denham HQ, head of design Liam Maher’s attic room is filled with vintage finds and assorted samples, in an atmosphere of Mrs Rochester-like creative madness. He talks me through several pieces, including a Second World War paratrooper vest, a hunting jacket and some fireman’s boots, before presenting an entirely new Denham jacket from which details of all three have been taken. It’s hard not to be convinced by the sell, and the ‘details’ theme seems to pervade every aspect of the business.
“We keep talking about this line ‘the truth is in the details”’, Denham says. “We try and think about every element and everything that goes together. The core of everything is the product, but everything else around the product builds the brand. That’s something we’re very strong at.”
The brand has a formula that works and there’s certainly something to be learnt from such attention to detail.