Back in the jean pool

Mike Exon charts the rise and fall of the popularity of jeans and asks whether the manufacturers are correct in their assumption that another rise is on the way

When the bottom fell out of the UK jeanswear market 18 months ago, it was the end of an era. After more or less 50 years of sustained growth and a spectacular array of trouser cuts it all went flat for the denim people.

Big brands looked to puppets for support. But Flat Eric, his Sta Prest clothes (no jeans) and techno beats were not tackling the jeans crisis, and sales levels were reported to be down by as much as 30 per cent.

When the public don’t buy, the public don’t buy, and no brand guru would have been bold enough to dare tackle the collective psyche of the world’s fashion capital. It was a question of sitting tight.

Years on, and chinos, combats and cords adorn the shelves of every middle market menswear and womenswear outlet looking to stay in business.

The Gap has become the flavour of the month, not just for its merchandise, but its store interiors and branding campaigns too. Even though its in-house US design concepts still remain cloaked in secrecy. But there is a glimmer of light: denim is back on the catwalk. And don’t the retailers just know it.

Levi Strauss & Co is making what it calls its “biggest UK investment in retail for five years”. Interiors by Checkland Kindleysides draw inspiration from functional environments like the traditional bakery or the butcher’s shop, says Checkland Kindleysides partner Jeff Kindleysides.

Out go the “stale” walls of shelved and folded jeans and in come simple horizontal pegs to show off inconspicuously the natural fall of the fabric. Changing rooms and cash desks on wheels figure too. Levi Strauss & Co marketing director for northern Europe Kenny Wilson says Levi’s three-monthly marketing reviews will keep the interiors and branding continually updated.

The flagship store on London’s Regent Street gets a facelift too with the extra help of Alan Kennedy of The Face and Barker Interiors. A twin-tower DJ booth, created with the help of Paul Oakenfold, stands alongside a gallery space. Large wall cupboards of clothing can be locked for launch events and the basement houses an alteration factory.

Checkland Kindleysides has designed just about everything from 3D red tab signage to the blue-lighted, workshop-themed till area in the flagship store (which reopens at the end of October). Only one question remains unanswered, it seems. Is the market ready for it?

Retail specialist 20/20 is just seeing the final implementations of its pan-European store concept for Lee Cooper jeans. One and a half years’ of market research across Europe distilled three simple findings says 20/20 business development director Yaron Meshoulam.

“The typical customer reaction shown by the research was, ‘I hate shopping for jeans; I am always confronted by a sea of denim and I can never find my size or fit.’ The work we did for Lee was to make the necessary changes in the retail space,” he says. Over 20 000 Lee outlets have now been replanned.

20/20 supports the methodology of The Gap’s store layouts, splitting and separating products first by gender, then style, then size. Meshoulam adds that one of the most off-putting things which can happen while shopping is if a man realises he is browsing jeans in the women’s range. “Men’s and women’s jeans must be kept far apart,” he says.

Meshoulam is sceptical of the Levi’s initiative and points to the fact about current trends. “I know jeans are starting to reappear in fashion collections, but street fashion is just not about denim. Jeans are more associated with Jeremy Clarkson than with street style. It is not about store design. The real question is are people going to bother walking back in through the door? It is whether or not they [Levi’s] can get back to the success of the Nick Cayman era which is the big challenge for Levi’s now.”

Other denim brands like Pepe and Falmer have not suffered as dramatically as Levi’s recently, having lost too much ground to their rival in preceding years.

According to its marketing manager Phil Spurr, Pepe UK has not been as badly affected as other jeans brands after seeing a decline in sales from the late 1980s until the mid 1990s.

Pepe has one solely-owned retail outlet in the UK – its flagship store in Covent Garden – which opened in December 1997 and was designed by Belgian design group Creneau.

“It was our main tool for our revival,” claims Spurr. “Our heyday ended in the late 1980s when we lost our market share in the UK to Levi’s. 1995 was the first year in which we arrested the downturn. Therefore, we have not been as badly affected as others.”

Spurr recognises the importance of retail space and hopes Pepe will open more outlets in the future. “We’ve had to change a lot of minds and opinions, which we achieved through shop interiors. The interiors are constantly changing and improving.

The challenge for jeans companies now is to get jeans off the catwalk and into the high street if they ever want to reverse decling sales.

Hopefully, they won’t have to wait for Jeremy Clarkson to hang up his 501s before the kids come flocking back through the redesigned doors.

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