LOS ANGELES, United States — While preparing for our FASHION PIONEERS interview with Natalie Massenet over the summer, I had the chance to spend quite a bit of time at the stylish new Net-a-Porter offices. Apart from the funky furniture, bright airy atmosphere and technology, the other highlight of camping out at Net-a-Porter is to see what employees at the most powerful fashion e-tailer are wearing.
Without a doubt, the most ubiquitous piece of clothing at Net-a-Porter over the summer was the Houlihan trouser by J Brand Jeans, known for its low-rise and skinny cut. Everyone from Ms. Massenet herself to scores of others in her team wore the Houlihan like a defacto office uniform. Word on the street was that the Houlihan was the hottest thing running, selling out offline and online, all over the planet, racking up a staggering 200,000 pairs sold.
But of course, this is the era of fast fashion and the days of the hot Houlihan are waning. That's okay, CEO Jeff Rudes was already thinking of his next signature silhouette ages ago. With thirty years of denim experience he's the guy to talk to for insights on how the denim industry has exploded into one of the most important fashion categories, recession or no recession.
I caught up with Jeff on a recent trip to New York to get some lessons on the premium denim business and to get his take on where the denim market will go in seasons to come.
BoF: You have a long and distinguished career in the denim industry, in particular in the capital of American denim in Los Angeles. How has the denim market changed over the past 30 years?
Jeff Rudes: In the 30 years since I have been in this business, denim has transformed from simply a moderate price point product into what was called "designer jeans," and now, "premium denim." It's a premium product that has become a fashion staple sold at upscale retailers such as Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. And this is down to quality, fabric and wash. We are now also using high performance new stretch yarn innovation that allows more comfort which every woman loves. We really focus on how the fit shapes the body.
BoF: How do women buy jeans today? What are the key purchase decision factors? How does this differ from the way men buy jeans?
JR: What we hear all the time is number one decision making factor for a women is fit. Second is the style and then the wash. Women shop for a new pair of jeans as much as men watch sports. All sports have a season and all jeans have a season. For women, there is almost a ritual in the treasure hunt for the perfect jeans. She tends to shop brands she trusts and retailers where the sales associates are knowledgeable about the product.
Men also shop for fit, but comfort and quality matter most to them. Men also tend to be loyal to a brand once they find one they like.
BoF: When setting up J Brand, what was your strategy?
JR: Our strategy from the beginning was to create the perfect fitting jean which was classic, sophisticated and timeless. Our intention was to make a women look and feel beautiful in her jeans. It’s about her outfit and not about the jean. We are known for our dark, clean and minimalist look which is now part of our DNA.
Our strategy also involves product evolution. In January 2006, while driving in a cab in NY and having so much success with our 912/12-inch pencil leg, and knowing that 10-inch skinny jeans had performed years earlier, I looked at the person who was next to me in the cab and said that we're going to go narrower in the leg opening, as skinny as we can, and to the ankle. We knew that we needed to create the next best fit in that style, which became our famous 910 style.
When we started J Brand, we also knew that there was a space in the market for a clean, dark jean that she could dress up and dress down. We created our signature "Ink" blue and "Jett" black washes. Now you see women wearing a Chloe top with her dark Ink J Brand jeans and Christian Louboutin pumps. Or you see her wearing a simple white t-shirt with a black Balenciaga leather jacket, and her Jett black J Brand jeans tucked into her Manolo boots. That is how we envisioned her wearing our jeans.
BoF: And what did you think J Brand could become?
JR: Each move we make in building the brand is calculated to meet the expectation and results for which we are looking. Each step is carefully thought out to ensure the same level of integrity our customer experienced when she bought her first pair of J Brands.
We make sure we stay true to our mission across the board, in every product expansion from non-denim to new fabrications and fits. Every decision and choice we make speaks to the integrity of that branding vision.
So what does that mean? It's about how we are presented in each store; who we are choosing to launch product expansion with; and how we will do it. Because of our careful approach to global expansion and as we are sold in the fashion capitals throughout the world, our customer will recognise our brand whereever she goes in the world, whether on the streets or in the stores.
BoF: Last season you worked with Proenza Schouler to produce a limited edition set of paint- splattered jeans developed with Jack McCullough and Lazaro Hernandez. This season you worked with 5 London designers to do something similar. How do these kinds of young designer collaborations fit into your business strategy?
Our collaborations are not about revenue, they are about creating unique one off exclusive collectors jean with designers which is rewarding and creates an amazing global conversation. It's about the impact of the collaboration.
We measure our collaborations in five extensions of "giving":
- We are giving the stores something special for their floor that drives traffic.
- We are giving our "fashionista" customers a special limited jean that's only found at these top retailers.
- We are giving the press, editors and fashion insiders something interesting to talk about
- We give the designers global awareness by creating a unique collaboration and
- We are giving our creative team a fun and exciting project.
BoF: Possibly one of the hottest fashion items over the last 12 months has been the J Brand Houlihan trouser which has sold more than 200,000 pairs. How and where did the product get developed and why do you think it was so successful?
JR: We started talking about a skinny cargo concept in April/May of 2009. We have a great luxe twill fabric that had been very successful, and we wanted to play around with different dye and wash methods to achieve a faded vintage look. Mary Pierson, the Design Director, took a trip to Japan in August 2009 and came back with a vintage pair of army pants with the perfect proportions of pockets and details. The design team quickly put protos into work in our skinny fit and within a couple of weeks had the Houlihan developed in 4 different vintage twill washes. It was the perfect paring of fit, fabric, wash, timing and press. The perfect fashion storm. When you are right, you are right.
BoF: You recently took on a majority investment from a consortium of private investors led by CAA. Why did you choose them as partners and how will the investment help you to achieve your business objectives for J Brand?
JR: Our partners are made up of a strategic group that understands our vision in growing J Brand, and they all bring resources and added value in growing our brand. CAA adds another level of resources and value in entertainment, music and sports that will generate exponential results. We have a strategic line-up in areas and advisors that companies of our size do not have available to them.
BoF: What are your top tips for entrepreneurs and designers looking to set up a denim business? How is the denim business different from the rest of the fashion industry.
JR: Don't oversell, make what you can manage. Most jean companies were established with one style that grew their business. My tip is that it can be done with a great single product. For most companies, they are driven by a core jean, in other words — each brand has that signature jean that helped build their label — get one jean in the market and stay true to your vision. Denim is based on replenishment so stores are relying on their top denim resources to constantly supply speed to market their core selling styles — it is an item driven business.
BoF: Where are premium jeans trends going from here?
JR: Trends have a shorter life in America because when an item is a best seller or top seller in America, everyone chases to make it. That said, skinny and straight legs are not going anywhere and will remain fashion staples as they can be worn with many different accessorised looks. But, wider leg silhouettes such as bootcuts, flares and bell bottoms are coming back into the product mix. If I were to give you more than that, I'd be revealing our secrets and of course, I can't do that!
CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.