After 120 years in business, Lee Jeans’ trend credentials are at an all-time high. Its UK and RoI commercial director now wants retail partners to help spread the word
When Drapers catches up with Dave Moreton at menswear trade show Pitti Uomo in Florence, the Lee Jeans commercial director for the UK and Republic of Ireland is pacing up and down the brand’s impressive stand.
The denim and streetwear brand’s European PR offers unflappable assurances that he will be available soon, but Moreton is deep in conversation on one mobile phone while apparently texting or catching up with his emails on another.
He is a busy man, but one for whom Drapers is willing to wait. After all, a glance around the denim landscape reveals that Lee Jeans is well positioned right now. Not only is its checked shirts and skinny denim signature the flavour of the month, but its 300-strong stockist list reads like a who’s who of streetwear retail, including indies such as Cooshti in Bristol, Liverpool’s Microzine and Trapeze in Cheltenham.
And with 2009 being the brand’s 120th birthday, Moreton has plenty to celebrate. So when he tears himself away from both phones and proves himself relaxed, accommodating and warm, he quickly scrolls through a litany of activities planned for the year: the brand will refit its Carnaby Street flagship store in London, launch kidswear, open concessions in House of Fraser and seek growth with its existing stockists.
Perhaps most tellingly, though, Moreton is on the hunt for retail partners to help him open Lee branded stores. “We stated our intention to open our own stores earlier in the year and now is a good time for us to strike those deals,” he explains, citing the opportunity to make favourable agreements with landlords.
Now is also a good time to be seen wearing Lee. Its celebrity fans include Noel Gallagher and bands The View and The Killers. Celebrity lothario Russell Brand even had a section on his website explaining why Lee were his favourite women’s jeans.
But the brand has not always held such currency. Moreton explains that 2001 was the watershed year when it repositioned from a volume-driven value player and started to make the transition to become a more aspirational brand. The weight of that decision is not lost on Moreton, who notes the brand was - up to that point - pretty successful in volume terms, shifting 100,000 units a year through discount fashion retailer Cromwells Madhouse alone.
The challenge from there was how to go back to a point in customers’ minds where it was a desirable brand name. “It helps that we are part of the VF Corporation”, says Moreton. “Its backing and resources are vital. But we decided that to be around in the future it would be important that we got into the right accounts.”
To get there, according to Moreton, there are three vital things to address: product, marketing and distribution. Moreton is involved in each of these, but his forte is distribution. “There were some buyers who we had a real affinity with and we got into House of Fraser and Urban Outfitters,” he says. “Selfridges followed quickly.”
Premium positioning is a concept that Moreton has stuck with for the brand. “It’s about being in the right stores,” he says.
The UK positioning (with 300 stockists in the UK and Republic of Ireland) is the blueprint for the brand across Europe. With own-brand stores pegged for next year, Moreton says he hopes to get a couple open in the next 12 months, providing he can find the right partners and the right locations. Manchester, Leeds and Brighton are top of the wish list.
As for the future in general, let’s get the elephant out of the room. When quizzed on the fallout from the economic wobbles, Moreton is optimistic. “For brands like ours it’s an opportunity, and we can come out stronger from this. We’ve been here for the past 120 years and will be for the next 120 too,” he says.
Moreton’s six-strong sales team comprises a key account manager each for men’s and women’s sales in the northern, central and southern regions of the UK. With such a rock-solid strategy in place, Moreton is very focused. But his demeanour is nonetheless marked out by an unwavering confidence and underlined by a dose of easy-going charm.
And with an attitude that sees opportunity in the face of economic adversity, Moreton’s sales team has been supplemented with an agent for Ireland. “We launched into Ireland in the beginning of 2008 and opened with womenswear in [Dublin department store] Arnotts. Now there’s menswear in there and we are also in independent mini chain Clockwork Orange.”
With so much going on - kidswear is set to launch this year and debut with etailer Asos - it would be easy to lose focus. But for Lee Jeans, its 3,200sq ft two-floor showroom in Shoreditch, east London, which opened in July 2008, provides a centre of gravity for its aspirations. “It’s helped cement the view of Lee in people’s minds,” says Moreton.
Two weeks after Pitti Uomo, this is where Moreton welcomes Drapers for a second time. In the fashion heartland of London’s most aggressively trendy area, the six-month old showroom is just a stone’s throw from fashion-friendly hotel The Hoxton, whose staff all wear Lee Jeans thanks to a deal struck by Moreton.
The showroom is bulging with the next three drops of merchandise: a military-infused range pegged for July delivery; a smarter story with plenty of checked shirts for August; and a smoky colour palette for September. “Four seasons ago, we would have had one drop for the season, now it’s about constant newness.”
Plenty of successful retailers speak with affection about Lee. Joel Fairthorne, manager and buyer for Trapeze, says it is a good time for Lee thanks to the popularity of plaid shirts and slim-fit jeans. Geoff Brownless, director of Union in Newcastle upon Tyne, says of Lee’s 101 collection, a vintage capsule with higher price points: “It is a great product. It’s for the educated few. There’s a small core of ‘denim anoraks’ that come in and look at the weave of the cotton or the original hair on hide labels.” However, he adds: “The 101 range needs to make its mind up what it is. It’s changed a bit each season. Is it a heritage range?”
Moreton says it is, but adds: “It’s a pertinent question. 101 started as a heritage line and has stayed that way, but it did become part of the Gold Label collection. The good news is from this season the 101 range stands alone again.”
It is Lee’s sense of heritage, says Moreton, that makes the brand really stand out and through all of its turbulent history it has remained true to its roots as a Kansas-born workwear brand. “The checked shirts trend is obviously great for us. But even when it moves on, we’ll still be doing them. Our look is Lee, it’s what we are and that will never change,” says Moreton.
Who is your fashion mentor and why?
Sir Paul Smith. He has a great brand that is so consistent - in terms of product, distribution and retail visibility - in an area that seems to be the domain of many Italian and US brands.
Which is your favourite retailer?
I think we’re blessed with some of the greatest retailers in Europe here in the UK, particularly independents, and especially in the north. So there’s far too many clothing stores to mention. But beyond this business, and as I like my gadgets, I try and get around the Apple Store - it has good products and once again is a brand that has a massive amount of consistency and impact.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
If it was last season, then that’s easy - any of our checked shirts; although we did have a great trench coat that sold out everywhere. A bit further back? One piece that does spring to mind is a 101B, a jean in the 101 range that we did a few seasons ago in a deep dry colour, which had a great finish and fit, and the price was really competitive. The UK team has quite a bit of input on the collection and for this season we have introduced flannel versions of the checked shirts.
What has been your proudest achievement?
I am most proud of overseeing the repositioning of the Lee brand in the UK. And I am in the process of putting together one of the most talented and passionate brand teams in the industry.
What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)?
Being a football manager. I would say being an overpaid footballer, but that’s far too energetic, so being an overpaid football manager would be just as good.