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It’s in the Jeans

Tanika White The Baltimore Sun

How much would you pay for a great pair of jeans? Would you shell out $25? What if they hugged your body in all the right places, and hid the places that are all wrong from the scrutinizing public? How about $50? And if they were just the perfect length and color, and looked fabulous with boots or heels or flip-flops, and would last you for years? Maybe $60? Step out of the ‘80s, people. Sixty bucks these days might buy you one leg of a good pair of jeans. Today, it’s common for a pair of everyday jeans – not necessarily designer ones – to cost about $150. In fact, it’s almost expected. Fashion experts call it a jeans “explosion” – with high-end jeans, such as Diesel, Seven for All Mankind,

Juicy, Blue Cult and Citizens of Humanity, growing in popularity and sales.

Premium jeans represent only a sliver of the $5.5 billion a year women’s jeans market, but by focusing on custom fits and washes, luxury jeans manufacturers are charging wine-and-theater-ticket prices for their picnic-and-football game products.

And women have become more and more willing to pay.

“We call it fashion math,” says Kate Dimmock, fashion director for SHOP Etc. magazine. “When you find a jean that fits you perfectly, that you love and that you look great in, you’re going to wear it three times per week. That’s why women are willing to pay that extra price.”

Taylor Choi, a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, estimates that she has spent close to $10,000 on high-end denim since she discovered two years ago that the more expensive the jeans, the more comfortable the fit.

“When you want the best of the best, you want jeans that are high quality and have high standards,” says Choi, 23. “A pair of Seven jeans, they make me look good. I’ll wear them with everything.”

Choi says she has 76 pairs of jeans in her closet, in different washes and styles, and her collection hits all the high-end highlights: five Diesel, three Blue Cult, one True Religion, three Miss Sixty, two Rock and Republic, nine Seven for All Mankind, four Citizens of Humanity, one Juicy, five Adriano Goldschmied, four Paper Denim and Cloth, four Mavi, two Chip & Pepper.

None of those jeans cost less than $120; some go as high as $180. Two Hundred dollars is Choi’s self-imposed spending limit – until she finds that perfect pair of $250 jeans.

“Whenever I go shopping, I just see jeans, and I say, ‘Oh wow! These are cool. These are trousers. These are different. These have holes in them,’ ” Choi says. “I can speak for all the young girls out there. Jeans are a big deal. They can really make or break your outfit.”

For today’s young women, jeans have become what a pair of black slacks and the little black dress were to the previous generation.

Like many of her peers, Choi wears jeans for any occasion. Her dress-up jeans are clean and sleek, worn with heels and a sexy cami or blazer. Or they’ve got rhinestones or jewels or fancy embroidery. Daytime jeans are “dirtier,” or have holes, or are cropped. They can be worn every day of the week.

Jeans have become a “fashion staple,” says Sass Brown, assistant professor in New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology’s fashion design apparel department.

“It doesn’t matter how old or how young you are, or what income bracket you are in,” Brown says. “Everybody has them.”

The premium jeans craze has even drawn in frugal shoppers. Women who clip coupons and Target-shop find a way to justify spending $150 on jeans.

Katie Rider is a legal assistant in Seattle. She drives a Honda Civic, buys generic products at the grocery store and lives in a studio apartment with one of those foldaway beds for more live-in room.

“Yeah, I pretty much sleep in a closet,” says Rider, 23.

But after she tried on a pair of Seven jeans at Nordstrom, Rider’s penny-pinching ways were severely tested. She agonized for days, and couldn’t get the look and feel of those comfortable, flattering jeans out of her head.

She broke down and bought those jeans-of-her-dreams for $120. Then some weeks later, she bought another pair of Sevens in a darker denim for about $140. Then she bought a pair of faded Citizens of Humanity jeans for $130.

“There’s nothing better than a pair of jeans that fit well that you can wear for pretty much everything,” Rider says.

But it boggles the mind of her boyfriend, Ty Rogers, 25, who has owned the same two pairs of $25 jeans for years.

“They look great on her,” Rogers admits. “But I don’t see $80 worth of difference. They should have like solid gold trim or something for $140. They should cook you breakfast for that much money.”

Premium jeans manufacturers say the high cost is justified, because of the time and attention put into each pair.

In the world of mass manufacturing, “it’s not about quality. It’s about getting the product out. It’s about quantity,” says Caroline Athias, president and co-founder of Blue Cult jeans, which retail up to $150.

High-end jeans differ in three key areas, Athias said: fabric, sewing and laundering.

“Usually, after a whole day of wearing your favorite jeans, it looks like you’re wearing diapers, and it’s not very flattering,” she says.

Blue Cult and other premium jeans makers use pricier fabrics that stretch without losing shape or becoming saggy. They also pay more for intricate sewing, usually done by hand.

The biggest factor in the high cost, in many cases, is the look of the jeans, which comes from various washes or finishes – stone-washing, chemical washing, sand-blasting, baking, whiskering.

Many mass-marketed distressed jeans get that old and comfy look mechanically. Often, that vintage look we love so much – those worn-in “whiskers” on the thighs, for instance – is sprayed on.

But many high-end jeans makers hand-distress or hand-vintage their clothes.

Paper Denim and Cloth jeans, for example – which can run between $158 and $180 – are hand sewn, the pockets are hand-set and shaped differently for different sizes, and each pair is hand-finished for that naturally worn look, and then numbered.

For Blue Cult jeans, the hand-sanding, whiskering and “vintaging” process takes about 15 to 20 minutes for each pair, Athias says.

That labor-intensity makes up most of the difference between today’s high-priced jeans and the seemingly exorbitant prices of Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt, Vidal Sassoon and Guess jeans of the 1980s.

Then, the designer jeans hovered around the $50 mark, and sensible women clucked their tongues at the “waste” and “excess.” Today, their daughters’ jeans cost three times as much. But fashion experts say they’re more than worth it.

“In the jeans craze of the ‘80s, it was really just about the label,” says Dimmock, of SHOP Etc. “It was akin to a logo. You bought the Jordache jeans because you wanted that label on your back pocket. I think this time around there’s actually a technical component to why you’re spending more money. You’re not just buying a label; you’re actually buying quality.”

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