18 February 2008

Jeans and the aesthetics of invisibility.

Since the 1950s the distribution and sales of jeanswear on a global basis has changed round a few times. Consumers used to associate price, quality and reliability of apparel merchandise with the retailer rather than with the manufacturer but this tended to swing around in the past decade back in favour of the manufacturer as designer. In the late 90s came the prolific growth of even more independent labels and the designer became more important. On the back of this retailers like JeansWest and JustJeans tried to arrest the flow with the launch of their own labels, but this was not enough. In Australia department stores like Myer and David Jones already saw something of this future, moving to stock branded jeans and own labels, whereas multiples stuck to own label.

So many of these denim retailers, have mistaken the significance of their labels for a brand in itself. The fact is a label is not a brand.

Increasingly denim labels have sort to find their own niche and voice (many successfully, Evisu is a good example). They have been looking to influence consumer choice with advertising, sponsorship and merchandising for their own labels against the tide of increasing product proliferation. As the large multiples have expanded both store coverage and product range, what’s been missing is that in this pursuit has been their brands - increasingly divorced from the customer base, both in terms of relevance and subsequently acceptance. The store brands have become something consumers no longer recognize as reflecting an aesthetic they even would be interested in.

Still all the major brands (Levis, Lee, Wrangler) continue to offer a wider range, prices and margins putting further stress on the lower end of the market. One of the major issues facing the multiples is that in this pursuit of a new positioning, brand equity might be damaged and profit margins invariably chewed up as once-loyal customers migrate to even less-expensive and more commodity brands. The acknowledged wisdom for the multiples is that is there are new opportunities to take jieans to two points along the scale - higher prices points vs lower price points – in both cases these are volume plays - but what is missing in this equation is how customers can truely align themselves with the ├Žsthetic of the brand and not just the label, where that aesthetic has increasingly lost relevance with consumers

Add to this the sheer number of alternative denim labels in Australia as well as the opportunity to purchase globally via the internet, meaning there is no longer a mainstream for denim labels or indeed any mainstream for many apparel categories. The jeans market has become essentially dichotomic as customers have: invisible jeans (like Nobody, Nudie, Mavi) with no manifest branding compete with jeans that have a surfeit of branding (Levis, GStar, Ksubi), all of this because many types of customers exist simultaneously. And at the margins sit the Australian commodity brands like Jeanswest, JayJays and Just Jeans taking tilts at the newer labels while trying to sure up their markets against more overt labels. It’s no wonder mass market has an identity problem.

In the absence of what I see as a strong design aesthetic, reflected across all aspects of a brand, price becomes the only point of difference. The brand itself becomes irrelevant. invisible in the worst possible sense and the label a mere endorsement for a consumer price consideration.