A NEW JEAN POOL

The Baltimore Sun

At a shopping mall near you, chances are someone is perusing racks of high-end jeans, preparing to buy a pair that costs $100 or more.

And more and more these days, chances are that shopper is a man.

No longer solely the domain of fashionable women, premium denim has been embraced by the same guys who once asked incredulously, "You paid how much for those jeans?"

Designer denim has been popular before - remember the Jordache jeans craze? - but now jeans-makers and retailers are marketing high-end dungarees like never before. And in this era of casual office attire and come-as-you-are worship services, the trend's latest focus has become decidedly male.

"This room used to be shirts and ties, and it's all now premium denim," says Michael Macko, vice president of menswear fashions at Saks Fifth Avenue, sweeping his arm around a room in the Chevy Chase department store that is filled in every corner with $100, $200 and even $300 jeans for men. "It's the fastest-growing segment of our business."

Designer labels such as Rock & Republic, Seven for All Mankind, True Religion, Joe's Jeans and Chip & Pepper all have stepped up their menswear denim lines - as men have begun stepping up their fashion senses.

"I'm a connoisseur of jeans," says Franklin Roberson, 17, of Washington, who once worked at Old Navy, but eschews that store's cheaper jeans for designer labels such as 575 Jeans and PRPS. "For a guy that's broke, I have expensive tastes. I just like the quality of them. Old Navy or Aeropostale, they don't have any greatness to them."

Roberson was shopping at Saks recently when he stumbled on a party the department store was throwing for California-based premium-denim designers Chip and Pepper Foster. He couldn't stop gushing about how much he loves their jeans.

"They're not the most expensive," Roberson says. "But they're the best."

That's music to the twin design brothers' ears. They've been selling high-end jeans for more than 20 years, but only in the past few, they say, have their finely crafted menswear designs taken off.

"The hardest for fashion is the male customer," says Chip Foster, lounging on a sofa at Saks in a pair of slim jeans. "Men are way more loyal, but they're harder to get."

That is, until recently, with men's denim.

As the women's high-end denim market has become more saturated, retailers and designers have moved on to men. And men are realizing that, in many cases, the more expensive the denim, the more you love the jeans.

"Men's trends typically follow those of women's, especially within the denim market," says Kim Tuber, vice president of sales at Paper Denim & Cloth, a premium-jeans maker that says sales of men's jeans represent about 35 percent of its market.

"What we have now are denim experts, when before you had guys who just knew them as 'jeans,'" says Chris Mitchell, publisher of Details, a fashion magazine for men that this month published an article titled "Time to Lose the Dad Jeans."

"Our reader, we see now, he demands better fit, he demands better quality, he demands better detailing," Mitchell says. "It keeps evolving year after year."

Experts say that initially the men who were shelling out more than $100 for their jeans were the real style-hounds - those who were looking for fashion and willing to pay for it.

Those fashionistas preferred premium jeans when they looked more artisanal - with holes, distressing, whiskering and spotting.

"You almost felt like you were paying somebody to beat your jeans up for you," says Tyler Thoreson, executive editor of men.style.com. "And clearly a lot of money went into making those jeans look that way."

But the jean-jones has changed as men have gotten savvier about shopping and style, Thoreson says.

"The trend in the last three to four years, at least, has been toward a less-distressed, less-washed look," he says. "And [that makes it] harder to justify the higher price-points."

Especially since today's high-end jeans buyer isn't just the snazzy club owner or celebrity clothes-hound.

"This customer is a regular guy," says Macko of Saks, which sells more than 15 brands of denim for men. "They're your boyfriends, your husbands. They understand more than you think. The Internet has made guys so aware of what's going on. So the guys who are buying this are everyday guys, not fashion victims."

Which explains why most of today's male premium-denim buyers are shopping more for fit and feel than they are for fashion, experts says.

"They try on a jean and it fits really well, [so] they feel better about themselves, they feel cooler," says Mitchell of Details. "For most guys, fashion has very little to do with it. The [expensive] jeans just fit really well. Once they realize that, they're willing to spend $200 for it."

Men are so interested in a comfortable, flattering fit that they are now more willing to pay top dollar for custom denim, as well.

UJeans, a custom premium-denim maker based just outside of Toronto, has experienced a surge in sales among male buyers in the past year, says Daniel Feuer, the company's president.

"At the end of last year, approximately a quarter of our clientele were male," Feuer says.

Many buyers of premium men's denim want jeans that don't droop or sag in the waist, or hang too low at the hem, experts say. And they want a wash that looks good enough for multiple events, from day to evening.

"My impression is men are realizing that you have that extra utility with jeans," Feuer says. "Put it on with a blazer, with a jacket, go from home to the office to the club with only a slight change in what you're wearing."

And it's not just the higher-end department stores and designers who have joined the premium-jeans craze. Lands' End recently developed a premium line for men called Hand Crafted Jeans, which features narrower-leg styles in finer washes for $75.

There's only one problem for the men who have recently jumped on the premium-jeans bandwagon. As men have become more comfortable shopping and dressing up, the trend of wearing "dressy jeans" to formal or upscale events has begun - just ever so slightly - to taper off.

At a recent party for a Sean John fragrance launch in New York, hip-hop mogul Diddy reportedly turned guests away who were clad in jeans.

"There definitely is a shift to the more dressed-up," says Memsor Kamarake, fashion director of Vibe magazine. But, he adds, "When it's a luxury look, without the flashiness, [denim] can still fit in to the classier event."

Retailers and fashion experts say denim will never be replaced. Men love their jeans the way women love shoes.

"People have said denim is trending down," says Pepper Foster, the other half of the Chip & Pepper design team. "But I don't believe that. Denim's going nowhere."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

Buying premium denim

Here are a few tips:

Start off in a price range that suits your pocket. There are good brands out there that won't cost you hundreds of dollars. Lands' End has premium denim for $75. A company called Cheap Monday sells pairs for $65.

Don't get confused by all the new brands, styles and washes. In "Time to Lose the Dad Jeans," in Details magazine's September issue, writer Katherine Wheelock urges men not to be "paralyzed by choice." Premium denim doesn't have to come from some fancy, fashion-forward designer. Frankly, good old Levi's makes one of the more fabulous premium jeans. When in doubt, go with a dark wash in a relaxed cut.

Be kind to your high-end jeans. One of the great things about regular jeans is their durability. Throw 'em on the floor, or toss 'em in the washer. But with premium denim, the rules change. An article on denim-buying in the October issue of Men's Health recommends guys dry clean their dressier denim. Otherwise, dyes bleed and denim will fade.

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