In Denim, The Line Between Mass And Class Is Fading

Last week, in a bid to up its coolness factor with young men and women, J.C. Penney announced that it has hooked up with ultra-trendy designers Chip & Pepper for a new line of back-to-school denim.

While Chip & Pepper jeans retail for $200, the new line - C&P -- which will include jeans, skirts, Bermuda shorts and crop pants, will retail from $14.99 for tops to $34.99 for jeans.

Penney's move might signal a sea change in the denim market. In the 12-month period ending in November 2006, sales of women's jeans fell 10.9%, to $881.3 million, reports NPD Group, a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y., and jeans in every price point below $75 declined. In the $25-to-$50 category, for example, which is where the C&P jeans will sell, sales declined 22.9%.

And clearly Penney - the No. 1 department-store destination for back-to-school shopping -- hopes that by getting a little of Chip & Pepper's up-market cache, it can do better.

Of course, it's not like blue jeans will ever fade away.

Cotton Inc. says denim accounted for about 12.7% of total apparel sales in the first eight months of 2006, with consumers paying an average of $25.54 per pair. (In case you're secretly wondering if you're a jean pack rat, consumers say they own an average of 7.9 pairs.) And sales in the total U.S. denim market, including men, women and children, are up, gaining 3.4%, to $15.8 billion in 2006.

But, there's evidence that young Americans will make only so much room in their closets for high-end jeans. NPD reports that among women's jeans priced at more than $100, sales gained 23%, to $202.7 million, for the 12-month period ending in November 2006, up 23%. In the previous year, that increase had been 83.4%. And for women's jeans priced between $75 and $100, sales increased 16.9%, to $55.7 million, in the 12-month period ending in November. But in the prior time period, sales had increased 88.7%.

Some brands plan to stay true to their pop-star price points: Both Rock & Republic and True Religion Brand Jeans say they have no plans to offer a lower-end line.

But Levi Strauss, which has been struggling financially, reported strong results in its latest quarter, in part because it has also positioned itself in many price ranges. Consumers can buy its Levi Strauss Signature jeans, for example, for under $20 at Target, K mart, or Wal-Mart. But it's also got premium lines - such as Levi's red, and super-premium lines, including Capital E and Eco, which can sell for as much as $245.

Of course, the next growth break-out category in jeans is more likely to be designed by aging rock stars - think Barry Manilow or Wayne Newton: While Cotton Inc.'s survey found that 19 to 24 year olds are most likely to spring for pricier jeans, those aged 35 to 44 actually purchased the most pairs. And sales grew the fastest among those in the 55 to 65 category. And what's more, more of these purchases were made at department stores than at chain stores, indicating a willingness to pay more.