As American as apple pie and semi-automatic weapons, denim has been somewhat side-lined, in fashion terms, over the past couple of years. In the style doldrums, denim was once the unassailable casual-wear category. 'Skinny', 'Spray On', 'Muscle Fit' or 'Ballet Fit', (I just made the last one up) are firmly out and the fugly Dad/Mum jean is a confusing ‘fashion’ concept to the average punter. Denim doesn’t quite know where it is right now.
Left - A timeless American denim image
So, it is timely that Levi Strauss & Co. launched their public offering onto the New York Stock Exchange, last week. They must know something we don’t.
The 166-year-old company first went public in 1971, but has been private for the last 34 years. The trading price of over $22 per share was well above projections and means the brand has a gross value of $8.7 billion. Before the sale, a figure of $17 per share was estimated.
“I’d say the fact the stock opened so much above the price we listed at suggests a certain amount of confidence in the company, confidence in the business results and confidence in the sustainability of our business,” Chip Bergh, chief executive, told the Financial Times.
Levi’s is the American denim original, and, like all original brands, it has considerable value. It also has huge potential. On its annual revenues of $5.6 billion, in 2018, a year-on-year growth of 14%, just 3% of it came from China. Even in a denim downturn, Levi’s made a profit of $542 million in 2018, (Adjusted EBIT). When the denim market does start to power away again, Levi’s is in one of the strongest positions to reap the benefits, being priced well below designer brands, but above the fast-fashion players.
For the rest of the denim market, it has been a struggle. Over the last 10 years, global jeans sales have climbed at a 3.5% compounded annual growth rate, slower than the entire apparel category, according to the analyst company, Bernstein. Leggings and tracksuits have replaced jeans in people’s wardrobe. Traditional denim just isn’t cool ATM.
In London, department store, Harvey Nichols, announced, last year, that its “Denim Room” would sell other non-denim products such as shirts and more casual clothing items. Once the cow-cash of the department store, the denim room is on the wane, like the category itself.
Last year, the huge American VF (Vanity Fair) Corp. was looking to sell their huge Wrangler and Lee jeanswear brands. They had previously sold premium jeans brand Seven For All Mankind in 2016. But, with no takers, VF Corp. is to spin off its jeanswear business, which includes Wrangler, Lee and Rock & Republic, into a new public company called Kontoor Brands in the first half of 2019. Kontoor Brands will remain in North Carolina, while VF will move the sports apparel and footwear businesses, including The North Face, Timberland and Vans, to its new corporate headquarters to Denver, Colorado.
Right - With skinny jeans gone, the denim industry needs a new trend/style to get consumers excited again. Not sure this style will fill denim manufacturers with much excitement for selling for those extra metres of fabric...
North Carolina was once the heartland of American denim production. Cone Mills White Oak Plant, the last selvedge denim mill in the United States, closed permanently on December 31, 2017. After 112 years in business, International Textile Group, Cone’s parent company, cited the reason as, “Changes in market demand have significantly reduced order volume at the facility as customers have transitioned more of their fabric sourcing outside the U.S.” The switch to cheaper, foreign made denim made this American denim factory unviable. It probably didn’t help that denim’s share of the apparel market and sales were declining. At one point, it was the largest mill in the world and is noteworthy for the “Golden Handshake” deal struck with Levi Strauss & Co. in 1915 to be the exclusive manufacturer of the XX denim used in the brand’s 501 jeans.
It’s not just American jeans brands that are struggling. This month, Diesel USA Inc., the American arm of the Italian Diesel brand filed for bankruptcy in Delaware. They blamed plummeting sales, a botched turnaround, pricey leases and unwavering landlords plus several instances of cyber fraud and theft. The Chapter 11 petition estimates up to $100 million in assets and as much as $50 million in debt. Diesel USA has 380 employees and 28 retail stores. It doesn’t plan to close, it wants a clean sheet in order to open new stores and refit some old ones. “Prior management began employing a real estate strategy that involved substantial investments in its retail stores,” Chief Restructuring Officer Mark Samson said in a court declaration. In an effort to put stores in “premium” locations, it entered into pricey leases, for example, its flagship on Madison Avenue in New York, just as its sales “dropped precipitously,” he said.
Left - US Jeans Sales are starting to see an uptick
On a positive note, it appears that the denim slide has bottomed out and sales are seeing a slight uptick. According to Euromonitor International, American jeans sales, saw a year-on-year 2.2% growth to over $16.5 billion in 2018.
Denim needs Americans and the rest of the world to fall back in love with their jeans. It also needs a style that resonates with consumers and gives them a reason to buy a new pair. Fashion will play its part by offering new styles and ways to incorporate this most American of fabrics. It’s just a case of seeing which options resonate most with consumers. Denim's return is not a case of if, it’s when.
Youth, beautiful youth, seems to sum up the scene at Zalando HQ. Everywhere you look, young people: sitting outside in the sun on bench tables chatting, inside large, open-plan offices developing new product and organising deliveries and logistics and vast teams styling and producing the content for the website in cavernous studio spaces.
Left - One of Zalando's many buildings based around East Berlin
Zalando feels like a microcosm of hipster Berlin: the youth of Europe drawn together over the passion of creativity, fashion and design in a mix of tattoos, coloured hair and piercings. But, these young people aren’t restricted to simply the creation side of the business, they run all the way through to senior management and is a reflection of the company’s age having only started in 2008.
In the space of 7 years Zalando has gone from speculative start-up to a billion dollar business. The biggest fashion e-tailer that nobody, well, those of us in the UK anyway, has heard of, it has grown to be the biggest fashion platform in Europe with sales of over €2.2 billion, last year. Just to give it some context, ASOS turned over £975 million in 2014.
While British brands such as ASOS and Topshop looked towards America, Australia and China for growth, Zalando was quietly focusing itself and expanding into 15 European countries and tailoring its offering accordingly.
Right - For the recent Berlin Fashion Week, Zalando opened a 'Fashion House' to showcase product, hold talks and celebrate Berlin as a fashion centre
Based in Berlin, business is conducted in English, so as to unify all 15 markets, making Zalando feel more like a international business based in Berlin rather than a German fashion company. It now sells over 1500 brands with a staggering 150,000 products in markets ranging from Austria to the UK.
Selling luxury diffusion lines, high-street brands and now, a whole collection of own labels, developed for specific customer categories, Zalando is aiming to have everything covered.
I’m here, during Berlin Fashion Week, to see inside the company and how it has developed. I first experienced Zalando’s website a few years ago, and it felt, at the time, like just another European website selling third party brands in not a particularly inspiring way. Fast forward a few years and, now, Zalando is the one of the most important European customers to some of Britain's best and biggest brands and the entry to markets many don’t have retail outlets in or websites directed to.
Dressed, today, in American Apparel T-shirt, Element cuffed trousers and Nike trainers, Florian Jodl, VP Menswear, is in charge of the menswear side of Zalando.
“When I joined - 3 years ago - Zalando was making the transition from start-up to large company. We’re, now, the largest fashion platform in Europe and we cover pretty much the whole of Europe”.
Left - Florian Jodl, VP Menswear, Zalando
What’s made Zalando so successful in what is a tough market to crack?
“Our founding team believed in the e-commerce trend at the right point in time. The drivers of the company that made it successful was the marketing, the logistics proposition - free and easy returns, we have more than 20 different payment methods, large assortment and strong relationships with some of the best brands in the world”. he says.
“How those things came together allowed the company to grow so fast. We focused on the fashion market and invested in our fashion proposition from a content perspective. The main part of the business is being a fashion retailer, but we are adding more and more additional services to the consumer and to the brands we work with. For example, we recently launched, ‘Zalon’, which is a curated shopping service: a stylist picks a selection, then you get a package and keep what you like. We don’t run it in-house, we’ve created a platform where stylists can log on to and work independently on a commission basis.”
Where many international retailers have found appealing to so many different markets difficult, and have often come unstuck, Zalando seems to have flourished.
“We have a very strong localisation mindset. For example, in Italy you have to have cash on delivery payments, in Germany, you have to allow for invoice payments. We have been successful in all these different markets by tweaking our brand marketing and efficient end structures, but, if you over emphasise it you have an extremely complex system”, says Jodl.
The most popular men’s brands are currently Nike, adidas, Converse, Reebok and Levi’s.
“Some men are still very focussed on brands, and there is a group of consumers that just want to be inspired. So, outfits work quite well, for us, particularly for men. We have a function, now, where you can buy everything the model is wearing.
“We see the men’s business accelerating even faster than the rest. When you think of buying fashion, online, it is an attractive proposition for the stereotypical, average guy. You don’t have to go downtown, be in a crowded store, you can order a nice selection of stuff and what you like, you keep. It just took men longer to take the step and try and, now, they’ve tried it, you can see it really picking up,” says Jodl.
Right - Each individual item is shot and physically moved along the creative line to be retouched, described and uploaded onto the Zalando site
I’m taken inside an old factory building in East Berlin that houses the studio where Zalando shoots all the images for the website. Not allowed to take pictures, it is the modern e-tailer factory: a conveyor belt of styling, shooting, retouching, describing and uploading.
Zalando has recently developed its own range of labels seeing gaps in the market and also higher margins. Menswear features in labels such ‘Kiomi', ‘Your Turn’, ‘Pier One’, ‘Brooklyn’s Own’ and unisex shoe brand called ‘Zign'. The own brands are currently expanding as a percentage of the business with many collections, now, running into hundreds of pieces.
Zalando, while having shipped to the UK for many years, is now turning its attention to us, and particularly menswear, seeing a fashion hungry and lucrative market.
“One key thing we need to do is build a more focussed assortment as the UK is a very developed and strong fashion market, in the past we probably missed some of the key local brands”, he says.
For Berlin Fashion Week, Zalando curated a ‘Fashion House’ in the centre of Berlin to not only display their product but to inspire and put the flag in the ground for Berlin as a fashion capital and authority. (Zalando recently bought the fashion trade show Bread & Butter, which up until a few seasons ago was one of the biggest street and casual wear trade shows in the world).
Left - Inside Zalando's 'Fashion House', a pop-up in Mitte during the recent Berlin Fashion Week
They understand that they have to make Berlin relevant in order for them to be taken seriously as a fashion authority. The key to Zalando’s success is its expertise in the markets it operates in. While not only appealing to its customers, it also appeals to other retailers and brands that want the ‘in’ to these potentially lucrative European markets.
As different parts of Europe come out of recession, Zalando will only increase its dominance and it wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t snapped up by somebody like Amazon, or anybody who wants a large and developed slice of the European fashion market.
Online retailers understand that its their own product which will offer a USP and also better returns. It will be interesting to see whether Zalando's own menswear brands will be picked up by the British male in what is a very competitive and price sensitive market. Watch this space.