By Julie Earle-Levine
Published: January 12 2008
It was only a matter of time. Now that denim is a market unto itself – no longer merely a “separate” or a piece of “casual wear” but a multi-million-dollar market full of competing players, global marketers and dedicated websites – comes the rise of the “denim specialist”.
James Leslie, for example, owner of Trilogy in London, a store that offers 15 brands of jeans along with a glass of champagne or wine in a boudoir-like setting, with designer high heels for customers to try with jeans. “The sheer nature of going to a department store is quite intimidating and in-your-face, with huge racks of 20, 30 different styles of jeans,” says Leslie, not to mention the fact that at some stores, sales staff use “jeans language; if you are an expert, fine, but not all customers know what a ‘high-rise skinny’ is, and we explain that”.
“There are so many jean-victims who bought poor denim or look bad,” says Mauro Farinelli, a Savile Row-trained tailor and former denim specialist at Saks Fifth Avenue. “People think, ‘how hard can it be?’. I can fix the gap with a belt, or if they have the biggest arse in the world, they don’t realise that itty-bitty pocket isn’t going to help.”
Now, however, at stores from New York to Los Angeles and London, experts who can match style to body type, and advise on details such as thread count, weave and selvage (the edge of the fabric that doesn’t fray) are proliferating at almost the same rate as new jeans companies.
“People who buy their jeans from department stores or boutiques specialising in mass-market jeans may have no need for a denim specialist,” says Mark Sterne, an image specialist and denim fan. “But I think the more particular the customer is about fit and exclusivity, the more useful a specialist might be.”
Consider the following story from Farinelli. He recalls one customer, a woman in her fifties who was determined to buy a very low-rise pair of jeans, “something her teenage daughter might wear”. He recommended a more sophisticated, flattering style of jean and she reluctantly tried on several. “She ended up looking better than her teenage daughter might. She still looked sexy in a brand other women admire, but not foolish.”
“We have an older clientele who really want to understand what they are buying,” says Kiya Babzani, co-owner of Self Edge, a denim specialist store in San Francisco that sells designer Japanese denim, including a $450 copy of a 1955 Levi’s jean with original Scovill brand zippers bought from dealers in vintage stock. “Most of our clients are deeply passionate about denim and care about what they are wearing.”
“I depend on specialists to research what is available in foreign markets and to tell me about expected shrinkage,” says Sterne.
Yuji Fukushima, co-owner of another specialist jeans store, Blue in Green in Soho, carries more than 10 Japanese denim brands, mainly for men, that he says are impossible to buy in any other one store. For him, specialists provide expertise for “serious” jeans buyers. “I think because we are a very small store, personal relationships are key,” says Fukushima. “If a customer comes into our store, they try to find one pair of jeans they really want. Sometimes we spend hours dealing with this, and help them try on many, many pairs of jeans to find the perfect one.”
“Men might go with something made with a shuttle loom, natural indigo – they’ll pay more for it – or they want to know where the zipper is from, what mill it is from,” agrees Farinelli.
This a reason American Rag, one of the first designer denim stores, trains staff to be knowledgeable about the finest details of every pair of jeans they sell. “A lot of customers want to know why these jeans cost so much,” says Mike Flynn, a spokesman for the store. “I think it is very helpful to have someone who understands denim explaining why certain types of cotton make a good denim, or just understanding that if it is loomed in Japan and made in the US, why that will cost more.”
“People hate shopping for jeans. They don’t really want to go in,” says Farinelli, who will open a new store, called Denim Bar in Manhattan, this year, where the ethos is nightclub, and buyers can have a glass of wine or a cocktail while shopping (he already has two in Washington DC). As he envisions the future, however: “The bartender will be explaining pocket placement, triple stitching, different cuts. A few drinks later, next thing you know, the customer is in Rock & Republic or metallics by 4 Stroke Jeans, a cool new line made in collaboration with Keith Richards’ daughter Theodora.”
And suddenly, he says, they realise: “Jeans shopping is not all that bad.”