Earl looks to stand out in crowd of jean genies

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In the roughly $600 million super-premium-denim category, hot brands come and go on almost a daily basis. A decade after a Hollywood stylist designed a pair of low-rise dark-denim jeans for herself, Earl Jean is in an enviable position, still commanding $150-plus a pair. But now it finds it is just one of a slew of brands vying for fashionistas' attention.

Earl has been trumped recently by newer, hotter brands such as Seven for All Mankind, True Religion and Citizens for Humanity and even newer newcomers such as Paper Denim and Chip & Pepper-all of which make it more often into magazines on celebrity rumps. The oxymoronic premium-denim market is a small slice of the overall $6.8 billion jeans segment, but a lucrative slice nonetheless. To reassert its position, Earl will get a back-to-its-roots revamp and remind consumers-and the retail trade-why they've outlasted so many others.

VF Corp. purchased Earl as part of its acquisition of Nautica in late 2003 and, while not the primary instigator of the buy, the brand fit nicely into the expansion-seeking apparel company's strategy to move beyond its core moderate and mass channels into the premium department stores and specialty shops where Earl is sold.

"We've survived 10 years in a category where brands generally survive three," said Steve Birkhold, a seven-year veteran of VF who was brought on from general manager of the company's Lee brand for women last July as president of Earl to drive the transition from survival to growth mode. The brand's sales recently have "not grown at the expected rate," because while the category is growing roughly 6%, Earl is, at best, flat.

"What's going to grow sales is having the product that services [consumer's] needs and getting through the cycle of `the jean of the month' by showing them Earl is a lifestyle, not just a single product," Mr. Birkhold said. Building retail stores and expanding to include tops, outerwear, shoes and accessories in addition to its not-for-everyone slim-fit average 27-inch waist jeans has helped, but it's not so easy to stand out when, as Hope Greenberg, fashion director at Conde Nast shopping title Lucky put it, "denim breeds like rabbits with new brands every day that I've never heard of."

But, Ms. Greenberg points out, "The [jeans] you know and that everyone has liked for a long time are still big because the jeans fit."

That history of fit is central to Earl's plan. One of Mr. Birkhold's first steps in the repositioning was to replace former creative agency Lipman, New York, with Fallon Worldwide, an agency he had long worked with on Lee, to gain strategic insights on how to find a unique position within the faddish category beyond the one-off image print ads of recent years.

Fallon has since October been hard at work developing that positioning, which is centered around the theme, "It's time to get back with Earl," to help "re-establish the interest, credibility and evangelism of the early adopters of the brand, the models and stylists in L.A. who brought it to celebrities and then the fashion elite through specialty boutiques, and remind them where it all began," said Chris Lawrence, account director, Fallon. "There have been many distractions of late," he said, "but nobody has the historical background of Earl."


A big part of reiterating the brand's heritage and back story to consumers and the trade is reconnecting to the woman who started the company, former TV and film stylist Suzanne Freiwald. Out of necessity, following the theft of her favorite self-tailored jeans from the Laundromat, she started designing low-slung, slim-fit dark denim jeans that quickly gained a cult following among the fashion and celebrity elite. Ms. Freiwald, who had disassociated from the brand after a falling out with Nautica following the sale, has signed on as a design consultant, a fact that will be a large part of efforts to drum home the brand's heritage and place in the category.

Like with any premium fashion brand, underground, word-of-mouth marketing is key. "We're an exclusive brand with a following that likes us because we're not an in-your-face, over-marketed brand," Mr. Birkhold said. That said, Earl is eschewing its modest print budget of recent years in favor of "a lot of street work pushing word of mouth about the product and design," Mr. Lawrence said. Such efforts include a major public-relations push to fashion editors and unpaid product placement on "the right people and in the right environments," Mr. Lawrence said, as well as in-store materials that reflect the breezy, unintimidating nature of the brand, postcard mailings to key customers and in-store events and limited-edition products centered around the 10th anniversary.

The challenge for Earl and others in the surprisingly long-lasting upscale denim trend is to determine how to become trendy long-term, something "brands typically don't know how to do or even to think about," said NPD Group chief analyst Marshal Cohen.

But, he said, "Earl has been able to stay in the forefront when so many other brands have come and gone because of their consistency of fit and their ability to get consumers to want to share the story of the brand."

Hot pockets

Top premium brands:

* Seven for All Mankind

* True Religion

* Citizens for Humanity

* Earl Jean

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