By Melody Chu
It was the End of Summer Clearance at a local department store. Throngs of women stood outside in line before the store even opened, hoping to be one of the first to enter and grab a coveted pair of designer jeans at a steeply discounted price. For one day only, sale items were an additional 50 percent off.
Once the doors opened, the store became a madhouse.
Plastic hangers clanked together and rustling could be heard as the women quickly scanned the sale racks, where jeans that retailed for up to $210 were now just $50. Some grabbed piles to take into the open fitting room, while others simply took as many as they could carry straight to the register, knowing that whatever jeans they didn’t want to keep could easily be resold online for profit.
"We probably had at least five calls about those jeans an hour," recalled a store manager. "Until recently, we never had any brands we couldn’t keep stocked in the store."
*The Denim Phenomenon*
The American wardrobe staple of denim, known through history for being sturdy and practical, has been reborn in recent years as an accessory of choice for trend followers.
"It is a shame," said Tiffany Rohlfs, a board moderator from HonestForum, a website devoted to premium denim. "I miss spending $20-30 at a store for jeans and feeling like I look fine. I will admit that I look at other girls in their cheap jeans and cringe. Is that bad?"
Many say that the trend began in 2000 with Seven for All Mankind (SFAM), a Southern California-based company. While the brand Diesel had been a leader of the designer denim market since 1978, SFAM is credited for reshaping the image of denim by marketing almost exclusively to women.
In the past, producers of denim products would design a new line every year with different styles, washes, and logos. Instead, SFAM opted to rely to repeat a few simple and classic styles which almost always included a signature red "for all mankind" label on the back right pocket, as well as red "7" tab on the waistband.
SFAM received rave reviews from fashion magazines including Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Vogue and Glamour. What followed was heavy celebrity endorsement from the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Beyonce and Britney Spears. The company, which made $13 million in sales its first year, reached sales of over $250 million in 2005.
Driven by the media and popular culture, a slew of fashion designers also jumped on the boat over the last five years in the attempt to create the perfect pair of jeans, all hoping for their share of the fickle consumer’s disposable income. Following in the footsteps of SFAM, these new denim jean labels all have identifying logos and attention to details, making them easily recognizable for those who care.
"There is definitely a designer jean craze going on," said Chelsea Herrick, an employee of the downtown Santa Cruz boutique Jade. "Paying extra to have a better fit, wash, and name brand is just worth it."
After all, as Herrick explained, "Jeans are something you wear at least three or four times a week."*Fit and Flatter*
First and foremost, premium denim brands pride themselves on offering an uncompromised fit combined with better denim and more elaborate finishes, creating a product of higher quality.
"I am obsessed with designer denim," said Christine Lam, a third year College Nine student who has worked in Macy’s Impulse department. "I can definitely tell the difference, from the wash to the way the material looks. They really flatter in just the right way."
Marshall Benson, a third-year resident advisor from Kresge College, also agreed that he started buying premium denim as a result of the fit, and spent $160 on his first pair of Diesels after years of dealing with jeans that fit poorly on his lean frame.
"The number one reason is because they really fit me," said Benson, who now owns five pairs of Diesels. "I also think that designer denim is higher quality denim and it doesn’t fall apart."
Lin Chen, a resident of Irvine, California, fell in love with jeans after hearing about designer denim during a history class two years ago.
"They are specially crafted and in my opinion, made of the best material," said Chen, now 17. "[The jeans] form to fit my shape. They stretch out to the perfect size, and they just look good overall."
As a member of HonestForum, Chen has witnessed the denim phenomenon take place first-hand. Members of the site, the majority of whom are female, discuss cuts, washes and styles in detail, while amassing large collections of denim.
UC Santa Cruz Feminist Studies professor Bettina Aptheker explained why women are particularly susceptible to following fashion trends. "In our culture, men are not as judged on by their appearance," Aptheker said. "But women are always judged on by their appearance." *Being Popular*
With a premium product comes a premium price. Despite a high mark-up, the ‘retail’ value does work to increase the worth of the item in the eyes of a consumer.
Lines that are currently popular include Joe’s Jeans, Blue Cult, Paige Premium Denim, SFAM, and Citizens of Humanity (COH), which all have a starting price range of about $140. True Religion, whose success is arguably attributed to Jessica Simpson, starts their basic jeans at $172 with styles going all the way up to over $400, while Rock & Republic has a retail price starting at around $200.
For J BRAND, a line launched in 2005 that is credited for bringing back the "skinny jean" to the United States, putting out a premium product and limiting supply has been the key to success.
Jeff Rudes, one of the creators of J BRAND, is very selective about what stores carry his line, making sure that only top retailers receive their jeans and not allowing two stores within a certain proximity to sell his product.
"Do not oversell your brand," Rudes explained. "If a consumer wants to find your product, they will find it."According to Rudes, a brand becomes less desirable when too many people start wearing it.
"She wants it to be special," Rudes explained. "But what will keep her in it is if only the best stores have it. Then she will close her eyes to the fact that other people are wearing it because she is still only seeing it in great stores."
The current success of J BRAND, with its discrete pocket design, is a direct contrast to Antik Denim, a line which features prominent western-themed pocket designs and exaggerated stitches.
With a price range between $165 to over $300, the Antik collection received a warm welcome during after its debut in 2004 but in just two short years could be found at outlet stores for less than $40. The downfall of the line was largely attributed to the fact that by being too recognizable, their jeans could not be considered everyday wear.
"Fashion is always very fickle," said Tanika White, a fashion writer for the Baltimore Sun-Times. "One minute you’re hot, and the next minute you’re not. Today’s [brands] may very well be overtaken in 2010 by some other name."
White added, "No retailer would ever say this, but that is probably somewhere in the back of their mind."*Dirty Denim*
Every brand success is inevitably followed by fakes and knock-offs. Fake jeans are problematic for high-end designers, as counterfeiters profit directly from consumers who either don’t know or don’t care that they own fake jeans. Meanwhile, less established denim manufacturers have been known to create imitation jeans that copy certain elements of designer denim.
"I can understand that there are some people who can’t afford to buy the original jeans," Chen said. "But the companies who are making these copycat jeans are tricking people."
Chen described an instance where a friend of hers wore a pair of jeans that looked like SFAM.
"I asked her, ‘Are those Sevens?’ She replied yes," Chen said. "But something was off. The wash distressing didn’t look like New York Dark-I thought they probably were fake."
After finding out which store her friend had bought the jeans from, Chen went to check them out for herself.
"They were not fake nor were they SFAM," Chen revealed. "They turned out to be by a brand named Wax Jeans. My friend didn’t even know they weren’t SFAM! The jeans even had the red tag on the back pockets."
While consumers who purchase their denim at authorized retail stores are usually protected from counterfeits, those who turn to the consignment shops or the internet hoping to find a bargain are often unsuspecting victims of fake denim. It takes time and research to be able to distinguish a pair of fake jeans from real ones based solely on the wash, cut, fabric and tags.
"If you know really know designer denim, you can tell by the fit alone," explained Bridgette Delacy, a store manager of downtown Santa Cruz’s Rouge. "You know you’re buying a fake pair if you’re paying in the price range of Express."*Allure and Desire*
For some people, it’s the quality and fit, rather than the brand name, that comes into play.
"I didn’t even realize that I had SFAM on," said Darren Story, a Mountain View resident visiting in Santa Cruz. "I bought some because I liked them and they were on sale. I didn’t know what they were until people started pointing it out to me."
But for the most part, those who shell out for denim want to be noticed.
"People definitely associate brand with status," said Rohlfs. "You don’t have the urge to buy an expensive pair of jeans for no reason."Yet it’s not always easy being popular. The "it" brands of the season maintain a high resale value on the secondary market, but the labels that flood the market lose a sense of appeal and are suddenly sent to discount-store racks. Most of the people who shell out the money for denim don’t want to see their investment fall in value after a brand becomes too overexposed and accessible.
"Some brands are loosing their allure to some extent," said Robin Young, a member of HonestForum. "If you look at [LA-based fashion retailer] Revolve’s section on True Religion, it is mind-boggling how many different pairs they are making. I do worry they are losing popularity based on [poor sales]."
According to Benson, people shouldn’t obsess over the price they paid for their jeans. He acknowledged that the steep markup that high-end designers inevitably place upon their products is just part of the appeal of owning an exclusive item. Benson argued that if people bought the jeans for the fit and not just the label, then the value shouldn’t matter.
"The markup is ridiculous, I’d definitely admit that," Benson said. "But I only [think about the retail value] in the sense if I want to get back what I paid. I don’t care about inherent value or the market value."
But obviously, his philosophy doesn’t carry through to all denim fans. After a thread was posted on HonestForum reporting that Target stores would now be carrying True Religions, a male member of the site declared, "For the record, True Religion is already played out."Another angry poster declared, "I’m going to go burn all my True Religions." *The Bottom Line*
For Ann Simonton, a former model and Santa Cruz-based activist who challenges the images presented by popular media, it is important for consumers to recognize that there are much bigger issues in the world than fashion.
"We are too fearful of standing up against what seems like a tsunami of advertising and hype and attitude about our bodies," Simonton said. "We think we have freedom, but everyone has to look like everyone else."
Still, the majority of converts agree that they could never go back to wearing their old jeans after discovering premium denim. The fit and feel aren’t quite the same, and once they learn how to identify characteristics of certain name brands, it’s hard to stop noticing."That’s the first thing I look at," Lam acknowledged. "What kind of jeans someone else is wearing."
Money is no longer even really an issue where jeans are concerned, and even young teenagers are willing to spend the cash.
On a weekend shopping excursion in downtown Santa Cruz decked out in SFAM Glacier A-Pockets, Amalia Slovacek, a 16 year-old from Aromas, Califorina, mentioned that she had received her pair of designer jeans from her sister. But despite being in high school, Slovacek said she would be willing to work a part-time job in order to help pay for more jeans.
"I like how they fit my body, and I prefer to sport stuff made in the USA," Slovacek said. The SFAM label isn’t a deciding factor though, as "I wear my clothes for me, not for other people."
Then there those who maintain that jeans are, in the end, nothing more than an article of clothing.
Mariana, an employee at the Capitola Mall Macy’s Impulse department, admitted that she thought that designer denim was overpriced and said she didn’t own any pairs herself despite working alongside designer denim every day.
"Everyone is buying them just for the look," said Mariana, who asked to be referred to by her first name. "Everyone knows these brands. You just want to know that you have a pair, and that you can afford them."
Simonton, likewise, finds name brands arbitrary, and criticizes the media for continuing to support the consumerism without allowing people to make informed choices for themselves.
"It could be argued that [consumers] don’t want to know, they love the hype, it’s a part of their world, it’s the way they fit in," Simonton said. "But is particularly damaging that people put their trust in an object, that they somehow think [what they wear] would equate with what they get out of society."