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Niche Denim Retailers Have Storytelling and Heritage on Their Side

The term “premium denim” entered the denim vernacular 20 years ago, but it has meant many things to different consumers.

To the millennial fashionista, it means style and stretch with a hefty price tag. To the eco-minded Gen Z consumer it may mean sustainability. And as Allan Kruse, Denimhunters branding, concept development and retail specialist, explains, “premium” to a denim head means jeans that are Japanese, vintage or the product of slow fashion.

While the premium denim sector in the U.S. boomed in the early 2000s with brands like True Religion and 7 for all Mankind offering pricey jeans at retailers like Barneys and Bloomingdale’s, in Europe, Kruse paints a different picture of premium denim retail—one based on men’s retailers with a sharp eye for vintage gems, heritage and craft.

Here, Kruse offers a look at how niche denim retailers became part of the denim fold and why it’s more important than ever for these retailers to stand for something.

Rivet: What have been some notable shifts in Europe’s denim retail scene?

Allan Kruse: In the early ’90s, there were only a few [denim] stores around in Europe. They were stores conceptualized around Americana. Most premium denim at that time was real vintage and you could find it in vintage stores that specialized in Americana.

The more premium stores that offered mainly new products were stocking the traditional U.S. denim brands like Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler, leather jacket brands, workwear such as the original Carhartt and Pointer, Pendleton blankets and other lifestyle accessories from the U.S. These stores were decorated with vintage motorbikes and Chris-Craft boats and other American icons. Also they included restaurants and book departments.

These kinds of stores had already seen the light of day during the ’80s in Japan where retro and vintage were already a big thing. Rare vintage jeans, especially deadstock ones, sold for fortunes already in mid to late ’80s. A pair of deadstock Levi’s from the 1930s could easily sell for the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 euros (approximately $16,000 to $22,000).

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Trading Post and Au Vieux Continent were the first to bring this trend to Europe. It lasted only a few years because in the mid-90s luxury and fashion design became more powerful in the market.

Rivet: What was the status of Japanese denim in Europe during this time?

AK: No Japanese brands were yet present at that time. They were in Japan only. I was in Tokyo in 1991 and was blown away by the scene there. Brands like Evisu and Studio D’artisan were already established with large collections not only in denim but also jeans and jackets in corduroy and Bedford Cord like Levi’s and Lee had in the 1960s. It was mind-blowing.

By the mid-2000s, the vintage wave from Japan started to have an impact again. This time, shops started to pop up around Europe and the U.S. They were inspired by the Japanese way of staging stores, including the way they curated brands and product categories.

Rivet: Which stores took this direction?

AK: Burg & Schild and DC4 in Berlin, Son of a Stag and Rivet and Hide in London, and many more.

Rivet: What made these retailers stand out?

AK: True to concept interiors as well as tightly curated and edited brands and products. By getting into these stores, brands automatically got a blue stamp [of approval] from the fans of the stores.

Rivet: You mentioned how luxury and fashion became more powerful, but what are some of the factors that you think ultimately lead to the closure of luxury fashion retailers like Colette and Barneys?

AK: Colette was special and was a great marketing platform for brands to enter. You had to pay to have your product in the store windows. Colette managed to be among the first [that] did a lot of collaborations with brands to have exclusive products, which attracted a crowd who were on the lookout for limited-run designs.

The store became a fashion supermarket or a showroom, especially for designers from all over the world who would research the store to rip off designs. This created a weak business, and I think the whole store experience was limited to hyped brands.

Retailers like Barneys didn’t focus enough on creating ‘wow’ experiences. Cool retailers need to be wonder rooms to compete with online, because online-only retailers can’t offer this, and you lack the tactile element and human touch and contact. Barneys was sleeping and forgot to reinvent and create fantastic and exciting stores.

Rivet: At this present time, do consumers value the point of view of a retailer?

AK: Consumers haven’t changed, but retailers have forgotten the demands on retail over the last 20-30 years. It has been too easy to just offer the most sought-after brands. This isn’t enough anymore. They need to remember that consumers are citizens and human beings who have hopes and dreams of a good life. And they have a vote, and to make them vote for you, you need to be relevant and convincing.

Big data and digital fanatics have spent the last decade talking about the death of offline retail, as stores and malls around the globe turned into graveyards. But as it turns out, consumers actually do want to get off their couches, visit real stores and interact with humans. It’s just that the shopping experience has become stale.

A new generation of brands is here to remedy that, creating experiences that are more exciting and interesting than what consumers have seen in the past. Retailers must think of their stores as much more than a retail space or a showroom. They need to think of at it as a cultural catalyst and a media platform. Future retail needs to be alive, constantly offering new products, new know-how, new actions and projects.

It’s about offering stories. Future retail spaces need to be designed to be storytelling platforms, tied together by relevant quality products, services and activity offerings.

Rivet: Which retailers today add an instant cool factor to a brand?

AK: Typically, it is retailers in the niche market. Most retailers act in the same mass market. They are offering the same brands at the same prices. And their survival is mainly connected to a price battle, making them less relevant as they don’t stand for anything and therefore don’t create loyal fans and ambassadors. It is a pure suicide strategy.

That’s why relevant products, service and storytelling are crucial. We need to remember that around 97 percent of our actions are emotionally based. So, the niche market players [that] act according to their heart have a chance of being relevant in the future.

We see a new breed of both small brands and multi-brand specialist retailers acting this way. They are the new frontline for the brands acting as ambassadors. They are the new ‘influencers’ who are crucial for brands for certain opinion-leading target groups.

Rivet: Which retailers are offering denim consumers a unique experience?

AK: The retailers that are denim-based and specialized. Retailers that have the know-how of the stories woven into denim, and especially the ones that don’t just get stuck in the past but also manage to look to the future and know about their consumers’ demands.

Understanding the different sub-cultures in the denim world, together with understanding people and fashion trends in general, [is] crucial. You need this wider perspective even to navigate a local crowd to offer them the optimal experience. If you don’t, they will source somewhere else.