The blue bloods of blue jeans

A primer in how some pants acquire their triple digits

November 09, 2003|By Allison Kaplan | Allison Kaplan,KNIGHT RIDDER/ TRIBUNE

Let's get one thing straight: If you're spending $200 on a pair of jeans, it's not for durability.

Long before stonewashing and distressing and spandex, basic Levi's were the clothing of choice of coal miners. These days, the most rigorous job called upon the average blue jeans is a spin on the dance floor.

As denim has morphed from staple into style statement, the prices have climbed to jaw-dropping proportions. And they show no sign of stopping. Earl Jeans, once exclusive at $120, seem almost affordable compared with some styles by Diesel that now top $200.

While denim is more popular than ever, a new study from NPD Group, a market research firm, suggests consumers are growing wary of status-oriented jeans with triple-digit prices.

Most of what goes into pricing is invisible to consumers, from the quantity manufactured to the advertising budget. In some cases, more time is spent on the design and styling of expensive jeans.

Aside from fit and brand - the most obvious influences on price disparity -here are some factors that determine denim prices:

* Fabric: Denim is a 100 percent cotton, 14.5-ounce fabric. Anything else is simply jeans wear, says Claire Dupuis, a specialist for Cotton Inc. Traditional Levi's 501s were made with 14.5-ounce fabric, but most modern jeans, including Levi's, are 10-12 ounces.

* Stretch: A little bit of spandex makes the fabric break down more easily, but it also makes the pants fit better. Spandex is an expensive fiber, Dupuis says, and adds to the price.

* Wash treatment: Oh, the abuse jeans endure to look good. Some companies pound them with rocks, others douse them in ammonia to smooth out the fibers and create a wrinkle-free finish. Then there are those that drench them in indigo. The more abuse and darker the color, the higher the price.

* Hardware: Rivets, the little copper bits you find on many jeans, were originally included for functionality. Now, Dupuis says, they're often nothing more than a fashion statement. You can tell by placement. If they're at the hip pockets, they add durability in a spot where seams tend to rip easily.

* Style: The goal with high-end brands like Blue Cult and 7 for All Mankind is to stay ahead of the trends, which means sending designers on expensive trips to Europe to find the most cutting-edge looks. In contrast, the Levi Signature line at Wal-Mart is "designed for the value-conscious mass consumer." Shortcuts are taken to keep down the price, like the bare back pockets-no embroidery, no iconic red tag.

* Stitching: Double-stitched seams, common on jeans at all price points, are sufficient, Dupuis says. Anything more than two rows of stitches is for show. The best test is to pull fabric at the seam. If it starts to come apart easily, the jeans aren't well made.

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