Denim Corsets at Macy’s Push Fashion Craze to Next Level: Retail

When New York Fashion Week kicks off tomorrow, fashionistas will get an eyeful of ladies’ garments made from laser-cut leather, vibrant magenta tweed and -- denim.

Eight years after skinny jeans became de rigeur for millions of women, denim is showing up in garments as varied as corsets and pencil skirts. Designers and retailers such as Macy’s Inc. and Ralph Lauren Corp. have ample reason to cash in on premium-priced versions of an American classic: women’s jeans are selling at almost twice the pace of women’s apparel and typically generate fatter margins.

Denim’s infiltration of women’s wardrobes will help boost apparel sales, said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director at Doneger Group, a New York-based trend forecasting firm.

“It’s growing exponentially and will follow into fall and winter,” she said.

Women’s denim jeans sales grew 8 percent to $8.24 billion in the 12 months ended in November, according to the Consumer Tracking Service of NPD Group Inc., a Port Washington, New York-based market research firm. Women’s apparel sales grew 4.2 percent to $198.2 billion in the same period.

Gap Inc.’s denim helped the biggest U.S. specialty apparel retailer go from a 1 percent sales decline in 2011 to an estimated increase of 7 percent in 2012, propelling its share price up 67 percent last year, compared with a 25 percent gain for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Retail Index.

The sturdy twilled cotton cloth, said to get its name from the French city of Nimes -- de Nimes -- has been integral to U.S. fashion since the 1950s. Vogue in this month’s issue calls it “the classic American fabric” that “runs like a blue thread through our fashion history.”

Spandex Smidgen

Style updates by designers and constantly evolving denim treatments help it retain a “nothing is more modern” feel, and give consumers new reasons to buy it, said Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus Group Inc.’s fashion director. To wit, a smidgen of spandex made skinny jeans more comfortable and helped drive sales, says Marie Driscoll, a retail consultant.

Because denim is less likely to fall out of fashion, retailers feel empowered to hold the line on discounts. The average markdown is 20 percent, or half the 40 percent of dresses, estimates Driscoll, the founder of Driscoll Associates in New York. Luxury denim is even more profitable because consumers will pay premiums for certain brand names, Driscoll said in a phone interview. The sheer volume of the overall denim business also makes it hugely profitable, she said.

Downing says he expects to see denim on the New York runways Feb. 7 to Feb. 14 partly because women of all generations and lifestyles are demanding casual clothes that are more chic.

Polished Look

“The customer is saying this loud and clear,” Downing said in a phone interview. “She is looking for a polished look with comfort.”

The denim trend is endorsed by Vogue, which featured “our first ever denim guide” in its February issue. “Git along, skinny jeans,” a caption read, “Think Georgia O’Keeffe. Think circle skirts, higher waists and Navajo jewelry.”

To get women to fill their closets with blue and black denim, the fashion industry is offering fresh takes on classic looks: jackets with leather sleeves and faux-fur collars; patchwork skirts; pinafores and corsets.

For fall, designer Trina Turk is showing an elongated single-button jacket with peaked lapels that she pairs with matching skinny pants; an extra-long pencil skirt with a full-length zipper in the back; and high-waist flared trousers, all made with what she calls “luxe denim” -- a textured, medium-blue version.

Casual Luxury

“We are making it a more sophisticated than five-pocket jeans,” said the Los Angeles-based designer, who is known for her colorfully patterned contemporary sportswear. “It’s that feeling of luxurious yet casual.”

Phillip Lim, who is known for his 3.1 Phillip Lim collection, produced multiple pieces in acid blue denim with metal chain patchwork embroidery for his 2013 resort line.

Cincinnati-based Macy’s is flooding the chain with a wide variety of denim garments from different brands, said Julie Strider, a spokeswoman.

“Based on the popularity of denim, we are integrating the fabric into jackets, vests, skirts and shirts in everything from washed-down denim to rigid, structured denim,” she said.

Ralph Lauren, whose love affair with the American West has inspired him to repeatedly send cowgirl-ish denim down his runways, is expanding his Denim & Supply “lifestyle” brand that revolves around denim and that was first introduced in the fall of 2011.

Edgy Bohemian

The brand, which its New York-based parent says captures the heritage of denim with an edgy Bohemian feel, with denim corsets and patched denim maxi skirts, is rolling out to more Macy’s stores, to Hudson’s Bay Co. in Canada and to free-standing stores in Asia and Europe.

Macy’s, the No. 2 U.S. department store chain, fell 0.9 percent to $39.48 at the close in New York, while Ralph Lauren rose 5.9 percent to $174.63 after its fiscal third-quarter profit topped analysts’ estimates.

Turk says including denim in her collection is a no-brainer because shoppers easily relate to the fabric.

“Everyone loves jeans,” she says. “They feel comfortable with denim. It’s not a big leap for people, because they have been wearing it since they were kids.”

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