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Fashion denim right fit for men's

Men's denim trendsetters are thinking young to grow business. Within the jeanswear category overall, youthful looks, featuring high-fashion fabrications and finishes, have witnessed dramatic growth relative to core basics.

"We had a very successful fourth quarter thanks to phenomenal sales in younger styles--our fashion business was up 50%," said Angelo LaGrega, president of VF Jeanswear's massmarket division.

This market-wide trend is expected to hold strong. As a result, new lines and silhouettes aimed at style-conscious, youthful-minded consumers are considered key to improving sales during back-to-school 2003.

Expanding this extremely positive area within the men's denim classification is critical since total jeans sales have been bottoming out, down 1.7% during the past year, according to research conducted by the NPD Group.

However, the inherent strength of the category is unchanged, and in comparison to many other double-digit drop-offs in other apparel sectors, the blue jeans category unquestionably remains the reigning blue bloods of the mass-market apparel business.

"There is still growth in young men's. Our customer has really related to the fashion items that we have offered them," said Melissa Berryhill, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, where denim "continues to drive business."

In light of this industry-wide sales dynamic, numerous retailers and vendors are upping the percentage of youth-oriented styles in their assortments for fall. Fashion jeans are an increasingly important factor both in young men's departments and within overall men's denim assortments.

"Where fashion used to be 3% to 5% of the mix relative to core basics, now it's typically 15% to 20%. It is definitely increasing to about 20% for next fall," says Bill Bradley, senior vp, merchandising and operations for Faded Glory This Bonjour-owned brand remains a very successful mass exclusive at Wal-Mart, doing exceptionally well targeting younger consumers.

The creation of new brands is another tool vendors and retailers are using to address young men's styles in their assortments and grow this newly booming business.

The largest mass-market denim vendor, VF Jeanswear, is introducing a subbrand, Black Rivet, under its Wrangler Hero umbrella, with a hard product launch next fall. Carpenters, the best-selling silhouette in Wrangler Hero for the young consumer, will dominate the line. However, lower rises and higher-fashion treatments, washes and finishes will differentiate Black Rivet from classic Wrangler Hero merchandise.

"We developed the Black Rivet Wrangler Hero subbranded collection so we would be flexible to target a 15- to 24-year-old consumer with very fashion-forward merchandise while maintaining the core focus of the Wrangler Hero brand," added LaGrega. He cites NPD Group research that indicates VF Jeanswear currently has a 40% to 50% share in mass-market level young men's jeans business. VF Jeanswear's goal is to further strengthen its relationship with this consumer, planning on selling an anticipated one-half of the Wrangler Hero jeans sold to young men's customers under Black Rivet.

Prices will be in keeping with Wrangler Hero's range, topping out at $19. Pricing helps Wal-Mart differentiate its denim brands such as Faded Glory, which retails between $11 and $16.

Marketing will also help distinguish product, as well as call it out to younger consumers. Black Rivet's print campaign is currently under development, with planned placement in hipster men's magazines such as Maxim.

Ticketing at point of-sale, includes black-and-white graphics on hangtags, is intended to give the product an edgy image.

VF is also trotting out a new high-fashion young men's line at the mid-tier under its Lee Dungarees label. Lee Dungarees 66202 is named for the zip code where Lee headquarters is based, reminiscent of the TV show "Beverly Hills, 90210." The goal is to grow its burgeoning share of the young men's denim market in this channel as well. 66202 is a new means for Buddy Lee to snag shoppers from Levi's as the latter brand enters mass with Levi Strauss Signature.

"Our volume in young men's was up 186% year-on-year through October 2002, and we're focused on further growth with 12- to 24-year-olds," says Joe Bugni, product manager for Lee.

In light of the subcategory's success, many retailers, including Wal-Mart, are moving young men's styles to the front of their denim departments. Kmart is using Joe Boxer to target this consumer. "Though we attract young consumers through Route 66, we are very focused on meeting this customer's needs through Joe Boxer," said Nick Just, senior vp and gmm at Kmart, which is upping its assortment of fashion denim for fall 2003.

Faded Glory's Bradley is also excited about the increased level of fashion Faded Glory will bring to the table next fall.

Despite the fashion focus, core five-pocket basics business is still the meat-and-potatoes of the industry. However, growth is what companies seek, and younger styles seem the only way to provide it, since core basics remain a replenishment business.

"Though five-pockets remain dominant in terms of sales, we are definitely seeing more growth on the young men's side of the business," said Kari Emond, fashion director, Zellers.

Focusing on building up a younger apparel consumer base means giving the youths shopping Wal-Mart and Target for CDs and Playstation games something to buy in the apparel department, helping ensure that the next generation of shoppers perceives mass as a place to buy apparel.

Young men's tends to lag behind the very fast juniors category in terms of trends catching on. The outstanding growth experienced in juniors the past two back-to-school seasons has been regarded as a harbinger of good financial times for the young men's department.

"Our juniors business has been much faster, driven by trends, but young men's is primed to follow, with major growth in 2003," added Bradley.

Newness for next fall will come in the form of fabrication and finish.

"For Back To School, we expect new finishes and styles will drive the young men's business," added Wal-Mart's Berry-hill. Overall, dark rinses and moderate sandblasting are expected to drive sales.

However, producing a fashionable jean in young men's is a tricky business. There is a fine balance in coming out with styles that are eye-catching and new without being frighteningly avant-garde. Most consumers want to blend with on trend, not trend-setting merchandise. Vendors including PLUGG and OTB found that overly distressed, textured and tricked-up denim didn't sell, and retailers including PacSun and Aeropostale decided to steer clear of the edge for next fall when it comes to jeans.

"You can't get too fast--the customer doesn't understand it, and doesn't want to buy the product," said Ed Curran, merchandiser, Aeropostale.

Rises are getting lower, and sell well with younger consumers because "they're used to pulling their jeans down and wearing them around their hips anyway," Lee's Bugni commented. However, four-inch rises borrowed from juniors only work for the minority, as do cropped jeans, the men's version of the juniors capri that are a hit in Europe. Both styles are expected to be misses Stateside, and most companies are avoiding them at all costs.

"We are doing a lot of research to get consumer validation of products before they hit retail. It's too much for us and our retail partners to come to market with 100 to 200 pieces," added LaGrega. The more investment on the backend in terms of examining what makes a product hot or not, the better.

Core basics remain king of the mass-market denim business, but fashion items are next in line to the throne.

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