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The story of the denim industry over the last year has been one dominated less by style or wash or even celebrity endorsement, but by fabric, specifically types with a single performance characteristic: stretch.
The incorporation of stretch fibers in denim has evolved from a relatively minor consideration several years ago to a performance requirement this year, spurring an all-out scramble among brands to stake their claim on having the best-performing jeans in the market. The result for store buyers has been the proliferation of buzzwords among brands hawking denim crafted of seemingly miracle fibers with names like hyper stretch, virtual stretch, super stretch and power stretch.
Hyperbole in marketing aside, several years of innovation at the mill level has taken stretch content in denim from around 2 percent two to three years ago to upward of 35 percent today. The industry took advantage of the increased versatility with the introduction of ever-skinnier silhouettes, eventually making the progression to the denim legging, or jegging.
The combination of a new style, comfort and lower price point made the denim legging an almost immediate success, and helped brands and retailers weather a difficult market. Stretch performance is now becoming a nearly mandatory topic of discussion for brands and buyers, but translating the message of performance to customers remains a challenge.
Jean Hegedus, global marketing director of denim and bottoms at Invista, said so-called superstretch fabrics have been driving the stretch category.
“I think jeggings and the whole skinny trend is really helping to drive superstretch,” said Hegedus. “We’re also seeing the use of a lot of lightweight fabrics.”
Hegedus believes female consumers in particular have accepted the added comfort of stretch garments, but when it comes to denim the product has to prove that it will recover its shape after repeated use and won’t shrink in the laundry. The added level of technical difficulty required to hit all three of those performance characteristics will be what determines a winner.
Invista introduced its stretch product, a four-way stretch fiber dubbed XFit, in 2006 and targeted the premium denim segment. The company later updated XFit by combining it with its T400 fiber. Hegedus believes the stretch craze is beginning to trickle down to the moderate and mainstream markets.
“We’re starting to see brands in the upper-moderate echelon beginning to use XFit technology,” she said. “Ultimately, I think as more and more people experience it, we believe it will continue to expand.”
Several brands are banking substantial portions of their brand identity on the quality of their stretch. DL1961 began shipping in September 2008 and uses XFit exclusively. The label touts the XFit and four-way stretch message overtly on hang tags and inside the waistband in an effort to convey to consumers its advanced technology.
Will Redgate, the label’s director of sales, has watched as competitors move in on DL1961’s message, but is confident that the fabric’s performance wins out.
“I have yet to find another type of denim that performs exactly the same as XFit, so it’s my feeling that if you’re not using XFit you haven’t caught up,” said Redgate.
However, he acknowledges that with most brands marketing their own versions of stretch, it will fall on buyers to sort out the legitimate players. It’s also difficult to gauge how successful the branding of something like XFit can be at a consumer level.
“I definitely think that with the overuse of the term stretch, [store owners] will have to do some homework as to what’s a valid product,” he said.
The 17/21 Group, a company owned by L.E.I. founder Mel Geliebter, launched Sold Design Lab for spring with the aim of introducing stretch jeans that perform well enough to eliminate traditional sizing altogether. Michael Geliebter, Mel’s son and chief executive officer of 17/21 Group, said the goal from the outset with Sold was to introduce pull-on jeans available in extra small, small, medium and large. Achieving that performance relied entirely on the fabric.
“We needed something that was superelastic, that didn’t bag, that had good recovery and that could be developed and retail,” said Geliebter.
The process of developing a fabric with enough stretch and recovery took more than four months.
“To be innovative and to have some type of novel approach out there with our product we needed to offer something on the further extreme,” said Geliebter.
Sold Design Lab’s fate hangs almost entirely on whether the novelty of a pull-on jean with more moderate retail prices ranging from $98 to $128 will speak to consumers. So far, Geliebter said they’ve garnered a strong response from buyers.
“It’s understood that there’s a lot of stretch in the marketplace,” he said. “I think what’s new and what we continue to push is that level of stretch that’s in excess of what’s been traditional in the garment for the last several years. That’s the new stretch in the marketplace.”
Store owners and buyers have their own issues when it comes to stretch. Some are skeptical after the poor performance of stretchy jeans in years past. Others believe their customers understand they may want the feel of a stretchy jean, but they’re never going to understand a branded stretch technology. Some have seen sales reps for brands struggle to explain the stretch performance properties themselves, eventually dropping the approach.
Lady Fuller, owner of the Blues Jean Bar, a chain of seven stores in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif., said she’s sticking with some of the early brands that introduced stretch-specific products, including DL1961, Serfontaine and a skinny jean from James Jeans.
“There is a value as having been first to market with stretch material,” said Fuller.
Educating consumers about stretch is another challenge Fuller believes most retailers, even denim specialists, aren’t necessarily willing to take on.
“We’re able to talk about stretch as a selling point and I think it’s not a selling point in 99 percent of denim stores because it’s just too much information,” she said.
Evidence of just how difficult it is to successfully market a branded stretch product in the apparel market was seen this month when Dow announced it would be shutting its “fiber solutions” segment, which consisted of the Dow XLA stretch fiber. The company introduced Dow XLA in 2002, specifically targeting the denim market. The stretch fiber was later expanded into dress shirts, swimwear and lingerie. A spokeswoman for Dow said production of XLA would cease within six to 18 months.
“This decision is consistent with our effort to streamline and focus the company’s portfolio of businesses,” said the spokeswoman. “After a thorough review, Dow determined that Dow Fiber Solutions was unable to compete with other Dow Performance Businesses for further investment and expansion.”
Those in the denim industry who worked with XLA felt the fiber performed well.
“I think [Dow XLA] is a fantastic product and I’m really sorry that it’s gone,” said Andrew Olah, ceo of Olah Inc., a U.S. agent for foreign contract manufacturers and textile and hardware vendors targeting denim designers.
XLA was putting itself up against generic and branded spandex products, he said.
“They wanted to be in a higher bracket of a market…so they were hoping to offer a product that was superior to Lycra and more expensive,” Olah added.