NEW YORK, United States — When Rachel Comey enters a new product category, it’s not necessarily about reaching the next milestone on the company’s roadmap. “We do things organically over here,” says the New York-based designer. Consider denim. When one of Comey’s employees moved to Los Angeles, but wanted to keep working for the company, the designer saw the transfer as an opportunity to build relationships with West Coast factories skilled at making high-quality jeans.
Comey introduced the $345 Legion denim pant for Pre-Spring 2015. The cropped, wide-leg style has a dropped hem, inspired by the jeans the designer wore as a child in the 1970s. It was an instant bestseller and has generated waiting lists, both for Comey’s wholesalers and her own store in New York’s Soho. “I often can’t manufacture as quickly as some companies. But I guess wait lists aren’t a bad thing,” she says. Her now-extensive denim range — which includes collarless coats and cropped flares, made from fabric sourced in Italy, Japan and the US — has served as a catalyst for capturing new wholesale accounts, including Matchesfashion.com. In fact, today, denim makes up 19 percent of Comey’s overall business, which generated $6.2 million in sales in 2014. In 2015, so far, the label has driven 30 percent season-on-season growth.
The success of the Legion pant — and Comey’s denim offering in general — comes as the wider denim market struggles with saturation (not to mention the rising popularity of activewear, which some, including Nike chief executive officer Mark Parker, have dubbed “the new denim”). In 2014, the global premium denim market was worth $23.9 billion, having contracted a percentage point or so every year since 2012, according to data provided by Euromonitor International.
In the US, the numbers are weaker. American sales of premium jeans generated $3.4 billion in 2014, down five percent from the previous year. In part, that’s because American women already own seven pairs of jeans on average, according to Cotton Incorporated, a cotton industry research and marketing company. Indeed, a February 2015 survey conducted by market research firm NPD found that while 63 percent of American consumers say they “love” their jeans, only 32 percent had purchased a pair within the previous five months, perhaps no great surprise in a market — still dominated by the skinny jean — which has not seen the rise of new styles to drive new consumption for some time. “It’ll be another four to five years before we see skinny jeans really rattled by new competitors,” says Katie Smith, senior fashion and retail market analyst at Edited, a London-based start-up offering real-time analytics for fashion. “It’s a functional shape that’s suitable for work and leisure, which makes it difficult to abandon.”
Yet the top end of the market — where designers like Comey have unleashed new denim products — is showing signs of new life. “Whilst the mass market is fairly static around two or three key shapes, it’s premium and luxury brands where innovation is happening. And retailers are picking up on it,” continues Smith. Across new denim arrivals in womenswear in the past three months, the average price of a pair of jeans was $78.02, up from $52.49 for the same period last year, according to data provided by Edited. What’s more, sell-outs in the $200 to $250 range grew 117 percent compared to one year ago.
Emerging labels driving the new momentum in designer denim include Vetements, known, in part, for its reconstructed jeans, and Marques'Almeida, which specialises in soft twill denim with raw, sometimes frayed edges. “As soon as Marques'Almeida landed, it flew out,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.com, who noticed movement in the market at the end of 2013. “That’s when I realised we needed to re-strategise what we were doing with our denim.” While Matchesfashion.com still carries skinny jean favourites like Frame and MiH — Kingham says they continue to sell well — the retailer has moved quickly to pick up more fashion-driven denim from the likes of Marques'Almeida and Vetements, as well as the Los Angeles-based labels Tortoise, which specialises in distressed styles, and Bliss and Mischief, best known for its novel embroideries. Today, Matchesfashion.com’s Denim Studio features 45 labels, of which only 12 are denim-first brands. Prices range from $233 for MiH’s classic cropped skinny to $1,060 for a pieced-together pair by Vetements.
For denim brands looking for avenues of growth, ready-to-wear can sometimes be an appealing option. Acne Studios, for instance, now generates more than 80 percent of its revenue (about $125 million per year) from non-denim items. But others have backed away from this model. “It’s still a challenge to dress the top half of the customer,” says Damien Ladwa, UK country manager for VF Corp-owned denim label Lee. Made-in-Los Angeles denim company J Brand began presenting at New York Fashion Week during the autumn of 2013, installing veteran designer Donald Oliver as creative director. But Oliver left the company in 2014, along with co-founder Jeff Rudes. While the made-in-LA brand — controlled by Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing since 2012 — still sells separates like leather jackets and t-shirts, J Brand has chosen to refocus its upmarket efforts on one-off collaborations with designers like Simone Rocha.
Other denim players are attempting to mimic what is working for designer labels. Comey’s Legion pant has spurred a proliferation of denim culottes across price points, including direct copies of her designs. And Marques’Almeida’s frayed separates have inspired a wide range of retailers to offer similar styles. “There is a micro-trend to offer denim apparel that is not just jeans, but also dresses, shirts, and outerwear,” Smith says. “We’re seeing a use of the fabric in a greater assortment of items.”
“The thing that frees the luxury denim market is the way luxury retailers buy into it,” Smith continues. “You definitely have an opportunity to refresh each season, really explore the niche and push denim in new directions.” Consider Jade Lai, the designer behind New York-based store and label Creatures of Comfort. For Pre-Spring 2016, Lai introduced a selection of natural denim that starts at $299, including the Maison, a cropped wide-leg model. Every single one of Lai’s wholesale accounts bought items from her denim range. And, for Spring 2016, Lai brought back the Maison in blue and added a long wide-leg style, as well as a carrot silhouette. “Denim offers a good entry point into a brand,” Lai observes. “I’ve noticed that if a brand that we carry at the store does denim, it’s usually the first item of theirs to sell out.”