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Madewell Steps out of J.Crew's Shadow With Affordable Denim

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Madewell is one of the most promising young brands in mass market fashion right now. First of all, it's owned by J.Crew, which has a ton of momentum in the industry at the moment and has invested millions in developing the Madewell label. And second, it's also rumored to be a pet project of CEO Mickey Drexler. He reportedly bought the trademark himself back in 2005 and leased it to J.Crew for $1 a year until the brand officially launched in 2007.

So this week's relaunch of the Madewell denim line is epecially interesting in that is gives some of biggest clues as to the direction the brand is heading.

To recap: the brand has been looking for its niche for a while. After flirting with the heritage Americana angle (that "1937" in the logo), they tried an urban-boho vibe, stocking stocking floral print dresses and Swedish clogs in their expanding network of mall stores and enabling high school girls in Scottsdale to dress like members of the Brooklyn gentry. More recently, they've seemed to target an older, more sophisticated customer. There have been fewer twee prints and a stronger emphasis on premium materials. But the relaunched denim is a new direction altogether.

Take a look at the homepage right now and you'll find an imposing seven-page slideshow touting the revamped denim line.

First, there's an emphasis on a magical-sounding fabric that promises to stretch flatteringly and not to sag" In an interview with WWD, Drexler reiterates the technical superiority of the new fabric. The jeans "have a degree of stretch, don't bag out, have a memory and keep their shape," he says. "The yarn is made of a stretch core. It's really soft. It doesn't pinch the skin."

Also, Madewell plays up their new LA-based denim design studio (Drexler claims that Los Angeles is "the world capital for jeans"). But don't be confused by the focus on LA. Most of the line is made in China, according to the customer service representative we asked, like the majority of the 450 million pairs jeans sold annually in this country.

The message Madewell is really pushing here is value. In a market where women are willing to spend $300 on "luxury" denim, Madewell's house label jeans are priced from $98 to $135. "We made sure our jeans don't cost more than, say, a nice dinner out," reads an ad. "Sure, you can get jeans for less, but it's not worth it—they won't fit (or look) like this."

That's a hard sell (almost jarringly so), but hammering home the cost-to-quality value of the jeans is a smart move for a company that plans to be operating 80 to 85 stores—most of them in malls—by the end of next year. (It's also a smart move for J.Crew, which has been getting flack for increased prices and unrealistic styling recently.)

At any rate, lord knows someone needs to fill the cool, affordable jeans niche Gap has left vacated for over a decade. If that's where Madewell is headed, we are very much looking forward to this new era of American denim.
· Madewell Beefs Up Team and Denim [WWD]
· All of Madewell's New Denim Was Made in LA [Racked LA]
· Mickey Drexler Says J.Crew Styling Has 'Strayed Too Far' [Racked]