The competition in the denim market is severe. Italian brands such as Jacob Cohën or Roy Roger’s try to stay in the game with tailoring and customization, inspiring newcomers to follow their lead.

The man knows everything about jeans. For more than 20 years, expert consultant Antonio Di Battista has been in the denim business. The Italian designer from the coastal town of Pescara is always on the treasure hunt. Thanks to his frequent trips to the United States and Japan, di Battista has amassed an archive of more than 3,000 historical pieces. Want to know how a pair looked in the ‘50s? He’s your guy to ask.

One of his favorite playgrounds is the flea market Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. In the oval football stadium, 2,500 vendors and 20,000 visitors come together every month to buy and sell. It was here under the sun of the American West Coast that he was inspired to launch his own label, Blue Blanket. Founded in 2010, it has developed into a niche brand for connoisseurs.

Photo: Jacob Cohën

With an annual production of 5,000 pairs and retail prices of €250, it caters to the fans of a true, gritty look. Its bestseller is model P01, a five-pocket made with Japanese fabric. It’s sewn and stitched in Italy and a carryover item that’s never out of stock. “It’s a standard that doesn’t follow fashion trends. It’s a service to jeans lovers, realized with the best ingredients like real leather and cotton,” says di Battista, whose most important customers are in Germany.

For decades, Italy has had a strong voice in the jeans world. Brands such as Diesel, Energy, Fiorucci, Gas, Meltin’ Pot or Replay have had remarkable success, shaping trends on a global level. However, the denim market has become more contested, forcing the Italian companies to adapt and to find new creative ways to stay relevant in an increasingly cutthroat environment.

Not being able to compete on costs, most of the Italian brands have chosen to move upmarket. They position themselves in the premium or even in the luxury segment. Some of them present themselves as total look lifestyle brands. And others, like Blue Blanket, play the real deal card of authenticity and workwear aesthetics. The formula seems to be working. “The new Italian premium denim has been enjoying a discrete positive momentum,” says Alberto Candiani, general manager of the eponymous family-owned denim mill that counts numerous Italian brands among its clients.

Photo: Haikure

However, the challenges are noteworthy. “The Italians face difficulties to become international,” says Candiani. “Germany, the Netherlands and some Asian countries certainly value the Italian style. But it remains a niche phenomenon confined to the upper echelons of society.” Federico Corneli, who founded Haikure in 2011, talks about a “battle of market share”: “The premium and luxury market has become more and more severe,” says Corneli who describes his own jeans as “minimal, clean and raw.” Haikure has 350 wholesale clients in Europe and sells at retail prices from €145 to €190. “Only if your brand is attractive, the product coherent, the price democratic, the deliveries on time, the customer service great and the innovation constant, you’ll beat the competition.”

The premium and luxury market has become more and more severe.

Federico Corneli, founder Haikure

The luxury players: Jacob Cohën and Tramarossa

One of the winners has been Jacob Cohën. With retail prices that hover from €240 up to more than €1,000, Jacob Cohën has kind of created the luxury denim market, with 1,600 wholesale clients in Italy and abroad. “International growth is fundamental to our commercial strategy,” says Franco Catania, CEO of Giada SpA, which is the licensee of the brand*. It has recorded staggering revenue growth of 35% in 2016 and 2017, approaching the €80 million milestone.

The home market accounts just for 25% of sales so exports become ever more important. Having already opened Europe, with Germany, France and Benelux as top destinations, Jacob Cohën has recently entered the US. Giada has set up an American company and inaugurated a showroom in New York City. Distribution deals with department stores are to follow. “The luxury denim business has been constantly growing. It encourages us to experiment and to approach younger customers,” says Catania, referring to the generation of Millennials.

Other brands have tried to follow in the footsteps of Jacob Cohën, though with spotty success. One of the notable challengers is Tramarossa. The brand from the Northeastern region around Vicenza has built a reputation for details and a sartorial touch, with the main retail price bracket ranging from €270 to €450. Its revenues amount to €15 million, of which 80% are generated abroad.

Innovation is key at the company. Recently, Tramarossa launched the capsule collection 24/7 in reference to the sports car race 24 Hours of Le Mans. Targeted at lovers of fast cars, the trousers resist strong pressure and keep their shape thanks to a memory garment that remembers the original form. Its next initiative, together with art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, will be a limited denim collection. “Every pair of jeans will be a piece of art,” says Tramarossa sales director Jean Michel Wohlmann.

Photo: Jacob Cohën

Creating a lifestyle: Dondup and Jeckerson

To be noticed in a crowded market field, many Italian companies aspire to become lifestyle brands. That’s the case of the two menswear players Antony Morato and Manuel Ritz. For them, denim is just one element of a total look collection where bestsellers are jackets and suits. “It’s a niche in the context of a complete product offering,” says Federico Rosi, sales director of Manuel Ritz which belongs to the Paoloni group and is sold in 1,000 multibrand stores worldwide.

From product specialist to lifestyle, that’s the direction of Dondup and Jeckerson. Both are well known for their trousers. And now financial investors own them both. Dondup is in the hands of L-Catterton while Jeckerson is controlled by Stirling Square Capital Partners.

At Dondup, where trousers still account for 50% of revenues, a new management team is in place. The president is Matteo Marzotto, who in the past led the Valentino Fashion Group and the CEO is Marco Casoni, who worked at Valentino, Vionnet and Marni. They aim to increase revenues from €60 million to €90 million until 2020 by internalizing most of the distribution, communication and creative design. “We have to do more ourselves,” says Casoni.

He has opened a flagship store in Via della Spiga in Milan and a webshop together with an editorial site called D360. In terms of design, Dondup is moving from the model of a creative director to a studio approach. Hence, an internal team is in charge. The offering will be spiced up by collaborations with prominent designers such as denim guru Adriano Goldschmied. Casoni wants to go beyond trousers by strengthening other categories: “Soon, we’ll present a sneaker project.”

Photo: Roy Rogers

Nonetheless, trousers remain a priority at Dondup. With retail prices of €180 to €280, the denim is positioned above Diesel and Levi’s. “Eco-sustainability will be a big theme in the future. We’ve already begun our research,” says Casoni. “I’m confident that will be ready in the next few years.”

I sense a new, refreshed interest in the whole denim world.

Niccolò Biondi, CEO Roy Roger's

Jeckerson, famous for its trousers with the patch, is in the midst of a relaunch. The historic brand from Bologna has steered through turbulent times that forced it into Chapter 11. After a recapitalization and debt restructuring, CEO Gian Maria Argentini hopes to turn the brand with revenues of approximately €30 million back into growth mode, thereby relying on a bigger assortment, retail openings and new marketing campaigns.

Argentini has his eye on a customer that he defines as “smart rebel,” a well-informed individual with an independent streak: “Our client is more than 30 years old. He’s not born with social media, but uses them.” To lure his target client into the stores, Argentini plans to come up with new fits and scratches for its jeans and chinos, which account of 30% of revenues and cost €180 on average: “The current fit is rather slim. Maybe we’ll introduce wider, less elastic models.”

Photo: Haikure

The Italian Real Deal: Roy Roger’s and Tela Genova

Along with lifestyle, authenticity is one of the key words of the moment. Some Italian brands try to capture the lust for an original pair of jeans by combining no nonsense aesthetics and the high quality associated with Made in Italy. Over the past decade, several new names have come up such as The Care Label, Haikure and more recently, The.Nim.

The self-proclaimed pioneer of Italian jeans is Roy Roger’s. Founded in 1952, the brand, which is owned by the Sevenbell Group in Florence, has been sticking to several features that makes it immediately recognizable: zippers on back pockets, a coin pocket on the front, and a black triangular label on the right back pocket. Its retail prices are from €140 to €200.

Roy Roger’s has been growing by 5% in each of last two years, says CEO Niccolò Biondi, thanks in part to its bestseller, the five-pocket jean. Biondi talks about a “denim comeback”: “Denim has been present in fashion ever since. However, it was less on center stage in the last couple of years. Now I sense a new, refreshed interest in the whole world of denim.”

Photo: Dondup

The brand tries to capitalize on that trend by winning over multibrand clients abroad. Until now, foreign wholesale contributed just 7% to overall sales. To get the boutiques’ attention, Roy Roger’s has embarked on a made-to-measure adventure. Teaming up with the Florentine tailoring atelier Liverano + Liverano, Biondi and his team enable the client to personalize a pair of jeans. The customer can choose the garment, the washing, the thread, the stitching, the buttons and even the tag. Roy Roger’s has organized related trunk shows all over the world, with stops at Hankyu in Japan and El Corte Inglés in Spain. “We came up with the first Italian Jeans. Now are the first with a customized ones,” says Biondi.

Photo: Jeckerson

In a certain sense, being first is also the claim of Tela Genova. The 36-year-old brand strives to bring denim back to its origins, thereby pointing toward the port town of Genoa. Five hundred years ago, during the merchant era of the city at Liguria’s coast, the cloth was used for the ships' sails sacks and the sailors’ workwear which was strikingly similar to today’s jeans. In other words: Following the brand’s logic, the first denim came actually from Italy.

Since 2010, the Caucci Group has owned the brand. Situated in the Val Vibrata in the Abruzzo region, it has been manufacturing, washing and selling denim for more than 40 years. The Caucci family started with the Casucci brand, moving on to brands such as Re-Hash. Today, revenues have reached approximately €22 million.

International growth is fundamental to our commercial strategy.

Franco Catania, CEO of Giada SpA, licensee of Jacob Cohën

“I live and breathe denim since childhood,” says Cristiano Caucci, son of the founder Ugo. He calls Tela Genova a “selective project.” That means it’s a selvedge jean, priced at €150 to €250, distributed by a restricted group of multibrand stores–80 in Italy, 40 abroad. “It’s completely made in Italy, woven on old looms,” he says. “It’s a truthful product.”

Tela Genova has its fans. One of them is Mario Bonamigo, a well-known shopkeeper from Bassano del Grappa. His store was called Sear’s, now its name is M.BNMG. It’s a small menswear paradise, dedicated to research and originality. “I’d like to open a solo denim store which sells jeans, trousers, shirts, coats and down jackets. I’d choose ten brands and collaborate with them,” says Bonamigo. “Italy always has something to offer. We don’t need to invent something new. It’s just about studying the past and reinterpreting it in a modern way.”

*In the original print version, we have used language which might have suggested that Giada SpA is the owner of the Jacob Cohen brand. That’s not the case. The Jacob Cohen brand is instead wholly and solely owned by Jacob Cohen Company SpA. Pursuant to a license agreement which will expire at the latest with the release of the SS 2021 collections, Giada merely serves as the licensee of the brand for adult male and female apparel collections within class 25".

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Enzo Fusco
Photo: SI
Enzo Fusco

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