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Project Las Vegas: Brands Juggle Denim’s Shifting Demands

Recent news that U.S. brands and retailers imported 42.63 percent more denim apparel for a value of $2.05 billion in the first half of the year reaffirms the post-quarantine comeback that executives from denim giants including Kontoor Brands, Levi’s and American Eagle Outfitters have discussed in their earning calls.

However, denim insiders at Project Las Vegas this week were cautiously optimistic that the category can maintain this momentum for the remainder of the year.

“I think 2021 was a bit of an anomaly,” PRPS president Matt Atkinson said during a panel moderated by Rivet. The rush to refresh work wardrobes and dress up again for social occasions drove consumers to versatile yet polished bottoms. “While it may slow, I feel like it [can be] maintained as long as you’re giving [consumers] something to buy that is new and relevant,” he said.

7 For All Mankind enjoyed a “big boom” in its men’s business as returning to work picked up across the U.S. Then the premium denim brand saw gains in women’s shorts, coated denim and “dressier fabrics” as well as 2021’s back-to-school season. “Our business increased double digits early on, and we saw that trend continue,” said Salvatore Malleo, 7 For All Mankind’s head of women’s wholesale.

A new trend cycle that is not ruled by any singular item helps, too. “Anything with an alternative leg opening is taking over now,” said Danielle Emery, 7 For All Mankind sales manager. With skinny jeans being relegated to basic status in women’s, she said the brand’s high-waist wide-leg jeans are some of the first items that new accounts ask about.

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Too much of everything has its downside, however. 7 For All Mankind went in deep on embroidery last season, decorating everything from shorts to denim jackets, silk blouses and tank tops for both genders. “And everyone loved it—as a matter of fact, we had a huge ad campaign center around embroidery and Cara Delevingne was our face,” Malleo said.

7 For All Mankind’s new campaign for Spring 2022 stars British model, actress and entrepreneur Cara Delevingne.
7 For All Mankind Courtesy

Unfortunately, the entire denim industry received the same memo on embroidery and the major department stores bought into it too heavily. “So then when that happens, you’re obviously suffering because those items were bought in too deeply and customers had all price points available,” he said.

What’s next

Retailers, Malleo noted, need to focus on items that are “different enough” from what their competitors are offering. “There’s space for everyone—it’s just a matter of making [trends] a bit [scarcer],” he said.

7 For All Mankind is betting big on travel-friendly separates for Spring/Summer 2023. Specifically, Malleo said the jet-set lifestyle portrayed in photographer Slim Aaron’s work serves as inspiration, evoking a feeling of “living your best life [and] living it to the fullest” while also looking “very polished.”

“Our collections are often based on what you can wear on the plane right to the hotel to your next party,” he added.

Pops of orange, teal and yellow are featured throughout. Star motifs nod to Hollywood glamor, while bright white denim skirts and dresses exude a summery look and feel. The women’s collection is also dense with wrinkle-free knit fabrications that are comfortable to sleep in during a long-haul flight and allow ease of movement.

“Most of our spring collection is meant to be mixed and matched,” Emery said. “Throw [it] in your suitcase and go dress it up, dress it down.”

Long live the specialty retailer

Denim heads know that specialty retailers are home to some of the finest jeans, and brands rely on them to tell their story.

7 For All Mankind, for one, is growing its specialty accounts.

“If they’ve lasted or if they are opening, they clearly know who their customer is, so we do everything we can to make sure that we’re maintaining that relationship,” Malleo said. “They have a customer walking into their four walls and we want to be there to service that customer.”

After specialty retailers put PRPS on the map 20 years ago, the brand continues to work with them despite the challenges that come with some smaller businesses that aren’t factorable. “There’s a lot of credit card business, so it can be challenging because if you don’t turn it around quick something else may have gone through on their card and then they might [not] have enough credit to bring in your product,” Atkinson said.

“It’s challenging but we’re committed to working with specialty retailers and build a nice business with them, and we sincerely appreciate all their dedication with us over the years,” he said.

Denim insiders at Project Las Vegas are cautiously optimistic that the category can maintain 2021's momentum for the remainder of the year.
Panelists at Project Las Vegas Courtesy

Owning responsibility

“The world produces 1 billion jeans annually. There’s 7 billion people on the planet and the United States consumes one-third of the world’s product. Does everybody need one pair of jeans every year? I don’t think so,” Atkinson said.

PRPS uses post-consumer recycled cotton and laser finishing to produce jeans more responsibly and relies on EIM scores, which assess the environmental influence from industrial washing, to calculate its impact. “A lot of consumers maybe don’t really care about [how sustainable their jeans are], but I believe as a brand it’s important to be responsible,” he said.

“It’s not just about the jean for us, it’s about the whole cycle,” Malleo added.

7 For All Mankind recently introduced QR codes on internal labels and recyclable hangtags so consumers can learn more about the garment’s sustainable journey.

“The Better Cotton Association tracks what we do, and it’s literally from where we buy the seeds to plant the cotton plant, who plants it, where they’re planting it, how often are they cultivating it, down to where it’s shipped,” he said.

Through there’s room for improvement, Malleo said to really “move the needle” more companies need to take sustainability standards seriously.

“In denim, it’s our responsibility to give [consumers] the product that’s already perfect in terms of what we can provide them to be sustainable,” he said. “It’s a constant evolution…It’s important for us to say that we are putting our best foot forward to make sure that we’re doing everything right.”