Facebook Twitter

Denim war on the horizon

Analysts fear latest fashion frenzy will cause a supply glut

SHARE Denim war on the horizon

NEW YORK — Let the denim wars begin.

At a time when apparel sales are anemic, manufacturers and retailers, particularly those catering to teens, are reaching back to the past for fashion's latest fix: denim, particularly jeans.

Two years ago, denim made headlines when designers including Oscar de la Renta played up denim on everything from coats to ballgowns. It also achieved renewed status at Gucci, which showed jeans with adorned hemlines that incited a slew of knockoffs.

Now, denim has been redefined for back-to-school, with the focus on low-rise jeans, and a multitude of washes, styles and embellishments. That includes jeans that are sandblasted or bleached, studded or frayed. And there are plenty of mini skirts.

Department store retailers ranging from moderate-priced Kohl's to upscale Saks Fifth Avenue are filling their racks with denim while apparel chains including Gap, Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. and J. Crew are increasing their offerings. Even Limited Inc.'s Lerner New York, which in the past only offered a few denim styles, has joined its rivals.

Denim veterans including Levi Strauss & Co. and Diesel have increased their selection too.

All this activity means consumers will have plenty of choices. But clearly, the industry's zealousness over denim is cause for concern among analysts who fear a denim glut will result in price wars that will only further erode retailers' profits.

"We are witnessing a 15 to 20 percent buildup in denim at stores, but only expect a 10 percent increase in denim sales this fall," said Richard Jaffe, an analyst at UBS Warburg. "You are going to see a lot of leftover denim — at all prices."

"Retailers are digging in their heels, refusing to be the first ones to break price," said John Morris, an analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison. "But when one does, they all will."

Already, a recent visit to Gap's store in midtown Manhattan found prices on a few denim styles, from capri retro cut to low-rise flared jeans, cut in half.

The good news is that many analysts believe the back-to-school season will get a big boost from the tax rebates that have started arriving in consumers' mailboxes.

Still, jeans aren't exactly unique. Cotton Inc., the industry trade group, reports that the average American owns about seven pairs of jeans. Industry watchers are asking, do consumers really need another pair?

Even Sara Yoo, a 26-year-old Manhattan resident, who already has 10 pairs of jeans in her closet, said she's not rushing to buy and seems spoiled by all her choices.

Yoo just bought a denim skirt from Swedish retailer Hennes & Mauritz, and jeans from Armani Exchange. But, as for those low-rise jeans, she said: "I am going to wait and see all the fall lines."

Purveyors of denim remain unfazed about a possible oversupply.

"What makes us competitive is that we believe we are offering a wide variety of styles," said Scott Formby, creative director of J.Crew, which increased its denim mix by 40 percent this fall.

"Our business in the 'Superlow' jeans has been phenomenal," said Anna Brockway, director of marketing for Levi's."The way we are staying ahead is through innovation."

She noted that Levi's was ahead of the pack in breaking its fall jeans ad campaign, which features disco-singing bellybuttons. "We knew the market was hot, so we had to come out loud and early," she said.

Others have followed suit with big ads. Express is running its first campaign in six years with print ads featuring denim. American Eagle has launched its first TV commercials, spotlighting friends chatting about life. And Wet Seal Inc. is sponsoring a denim embellishment content, flying the winner with the best embellished jeans to Hawaii for the closing night of MTV's Total Request Live tour to see the group 3LW.

Express has come up with another marketing ploy: denim customer service. The Limited Inc.-owned chain has hired sales associates dedicated solely to help customers get jeans that really fit.