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Photo: JNCO
Photo: JNCO

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Gambling on Nostalgia: JNCO's Larger-Than-Life Return

Wide-leg jeans are back, and the '90s relic wants to cash in on the renaissance.

For a certain subset of '90s teens, the aesthetics of skateboarding culture were far more important than anything that actually occurred on the half pipe. Much like surfer style resonated with Midwestern kids who had never caught a wave in their lives, skater gear of that era was not utilitarian. It was fashion.

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I experienced this firsthand in my suburban Pittsburgh middle school, circa 1994. In the beginning, the single-digit consortium of actual skateboarders resented the adoption of their uniform, which typically consisted of striped T-shirts layered over waffle-knit long underwear, Simple or Vans sneakers, and wide-leg jeans. They called imitators of the look "poseurs," a cutting insult that dug deep.

But the fight was unwinnable. Skater aesthetics were being swiftly appropriated for the masses. Some of the brands that emerged (like X-Girl, Kim Gordon and Daisy von Furth’s line of ringer tees and A-line miniskirts) were just authentic enough. Airwalks, a cult skate brand founded in 1985, started selling to major retailers in 1993.

A promo image for the JNCO reboot. Photo: JNCO

And then there was JNCO, the line of wide-leg jeans embraced by novice skaters, poseurs, and ravers alike, which was generating more than $180 million in sales by 1998. It was arguably the biggest success story—and subsequent failure—that came out of that particular moment in fashion history.

The first rule of fashion is that trends repeat themselves, so it’s not too surprising that nearly 20 years later, JNCO is back in the spotlight, set to officially relaunch in stores this fall.

JNCO was founded in 1985 by Moroccan-born, French-raised brothers Haim Milo and Jacques Yaakov Revah. (The name, by the way, stands for "Journey of the Chosen Ones," not the much-cited "Judge None, Choose One.") According to a 2000 article published in the Los Angeles Times, they used $200,000 in savings to start making jeans, which were produced in their adopted home of Los Angeles. The Revahs were inspired by their father, a sales rep whose business was driven by denim, and the French appetite for Levi’s in particular.

Art commissioned by JNCO in its '90s heyday. Photo: JNCO

At first, the Revahs operated their parent company, Revatex, as a private label business, designing clothes for various retailers who in turn slapped their own names on the collars. Revatex was appreciated for the same reason big box retailers and department stores seek out private label suppliers today: quick turnaround. Instead of adhering to the typical six-month fashion cycle, Revatex could bring a product to market in just eight weeks. Along with private label, they also created JNCO. The line’s signature wide-leg silhouette was originally inspired by pants worn in the heavily Latino neighborhood of East Los Angeles, where Milo spent time. They commissioned local graffiti artist Joseph Montalvo, aka Nuke, to design the now-famous crown logo.

For the first decade of its existence, JNCO was sold primarily by the mall chain Merry-Go-Round, which was founded in the late '60s as a jeans shop in Baltimore, Maryland. By the mid-’80s, Merry-Go-Round had morphed into a trendy teen retailer, but overexpansion in the early ‘90s led to bankruptcy.

The Revahs got out before Merry-Go-Round’s last call in 1996, calling on retail sales vet Steven Sternberg to realign JNCO with skate and surf brands like Billabong and Quiksilver. The New York-based Sternberg had made his name making B.U.M. Equipment a mallrat favorite, and he thought he could do the same for JNCO.

The new JNCO is betting on updated wide-leg jeans and fashion-forward ponchos. Photo: JNCO

"When I first saw it, I told them, ‘This is not an urban line.’ I got on a plane, I went to the surf trade show in Orlando, I set up in a hotel across the street, and I proceeded to write a ticket for about $120,000 worth of business with the skate and surf stores," Sternberg recalls, sitting in the company’s new 7th Avenue showroom. "We would not sell to stores that carried FUBU or Cross Colours. We retooled JNCO from being an urban line to being strictly a suburban line."

The brand’s new direction dovetailed almost too perfectly with the death of tapered, stonewashed jeans. (This was before the days of democratic fashion; unlike 2015’s anything-goes approach to style, the '90s were an era when trends were fully buried and those who didn’t adapt were socially ostracized.) In its new incarnation, JNCO initially marketed to teenage boys, appealing to the sort of kids whose biggest crime was drinking two shots of peach schnapps before homeroom, or those who aspired to such antics but never actually acted on the impulse.

A '90s catalog shot featuring jeans with 34-inch leg openings. Photo: JNCO

The 23-inch leg opening proved to be most popular. (For reference, today's ultra-skinny jeans might have a 10-inch leg opening.) However, as the brand’s popularity soared, the options widened. At one point, you could buy JNCOs with more than a 60-inch opening. Sold at stores like The Buckle, Pacific Sunwear, and Hot Topic, JNCOs became a legitimate signifier of rebellion for both guys and girls, tapping into the rave culture that had finally made it out of the city and into the suburbs. Schools tried banning the jeans. When strict dress codes started to be instituted in public schools, JNCO began making khakis that let wearers technically adhere to those policies.

JNCO’s sales jumped from $36 million in 1995 to $186.9 million in 1998, but the momentum was difficult to maintain, thanks to fashion’s shift away from the extreme wide leg. In just a year, sales were cut nearly in half to $100 million, and Revatex decided to shut down its Los Angeles manufacturing facility, resulting in many of its 250 workers losing their jobs. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported that Revatex employed 150 people who worked on design, marketing, and sales. Production was moved overseas.

In 2001, Sternberg closed JNCO’s 10,000 square foot showroom. "I left after 9/11," he says. "I saw one of the planes hit the building and I did not want to work anymore." The business, at that point, was in steep decline and was "put on the back burner" by the Revah brothers in 2003. That same year, Sternberg started a sales agency with his wife, consulting for different brands including Milo's contemporary collection, J & Company.

Six years later, the Revahs struck a deal with Chinese manufacturer Guotai Litian to produce JNCO, and the brothers stepped away from day-to-day operations. Jacques established men’s apparel manufacturer Flamehead, Inc., while Milo pursued real estate development. (He is the principal of the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Real Estate Investors, whose portfolio at one point included the Lipstick Building, former home to Bernie Madoff’s offices.)

JNCO’s new gatekeepers began selling the label to discount retailers like Kohl’s, and the fashion world all but forgot about it, the crown logo relegated to references on BuzzFeed lists and ‘90s nostalgia blogs. To be sure, it’s not just trends that have changed since the '90s, but the retail landscape in general.

JNCO’s new gatekeepers began selling the label to discount retailers like Kohl’s, and the fashion world all but forgot about it.

Over the past decade, many of the stores where JNCO performed the best—including Hot Topic and Pacific Sunwear—have struggled to compete with fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21 and H&M, which offer crazy-cheap pricing and new designs on a weekly or biweekly basis. Teens no longer need brands specifically geared towards them: they just need newness.

So why, then, am I—in 2015—sitting in a nondescript room, staring at a rack of wide-leg jeans, their back pockets embroidered with a big ol’ crown?

For that answer, we must look to Guotai Litian Group. The Chinese manufacturer is part of Jiangsu Guotai International Group, an import/export enterprise based in China’s Jiangsu province. It deals in all sorts of businesses, from software R&D to high-end hotels and real estate, along with importing and exporting $3.69 billion worth of goods in 2014. Much of Guotai Litian’s business is private label, but in 2012, the company decided it wanted to build brands out of its U.S. division, headquartered in Los Angeles.

Extreme wide-leg denim was found on the Marques Almeida runway and in Rihanna's wardrobe last year. Photos: Getty Images

More recently, Guotai brought on retail advisor Andrew Jacovou as the president and CEO of Guotai Litian USA. Jacovou, whose past clients include Target, Ralph Lauren, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, and more, has been charged with developing standalone labels. JNCO, which Guotai has been licensing the rights to from the Revahs for the past eight years, was the first to be targeted. (While the discount-store business initially performed well, it has since declined.)

"We felt that there was so much passion behind the brand, and so much that the public continued to request, that it was worth the time, energy, and money to bring it back," Jacovou says. It's clear that while the Revahs still own JNCO, they're very much on the periphery. (Neither Milo nor Jacques responded to multiple requests for comment.)

"We were a one-trick pony. Eventually, you can only make pants so wide."

The revival has been quick. In August 2014, Jacovou was able to track down Sternberg and convince him to come on board as the managing director of sales and marketing at Goutai Litian USA. He then hired three Los Angeles-based designers to develop the product in January of this year in order to be ready for Las Vegas’s Liberty trade show in February. The hope is that, this time, JNCO’s offering will appeal to trend-driven, nostalgia-driven, and also utility-driven customers. "Back then, we never created a core business. We were a one-trick pony," Sternberg admits. "Eventually, you can only make pants so wide. That became our Achilles' heel."

To do that, Jacovou and Sternberg have split the line—which is men’s only at the moment—into three categories. There is the Heritage collection, which is made in America and features styles that will appeal to those who loved the brand during its heyday. While there are no 60-inch leg openings yet, JNCO is offering formerly best-selling 20 and 23-inch options, which will start at $140. The Fashion collection includes trend-based skinnier styles, starting at $120.

The Core collection consists of basics that could presumably fit well into any sort of wardrobe, starting at $110. Alongside the jeans are logo snapbacks ($36-$60) and tees ($30), flannel shirts ($80-$90), and more ambitious items, including a denim poncho ($155). In keeping with the Revah’s belief in local artists, the brand is hosting an open call for Los Angeles schools to contribute T-shirt designs. However, JNCO is skewing a little older this time, aiming to reach 18 to 35-year-olds, not teenagers.

JNCO isn't ignoring skinny jeans for its comeback. Photo: JNCO

While the first collection is set to hit retailers (including the first-ever store in Florida to pick up JNCO when Sternberg started selling it two decades ago) with the fall shipments, its own e-commerce site will launch on April 15 with limited-edition pieces from the Heritage collection. There are already plans to launch a women’s line (many of the queries sent through have been from women), and the label is planning to open a pop-up shop on Fairfax in Los Angeles in the near future.

Of course, whether or not JNCO will soar this time around is difficult to gauge. It does have a few things going for it. Wide-leg jeans are definitely on the upswing, with everyone from Rihanna to FKA Twigs urging on their relevancy. What’s more, high-fashion labels like Rosie Assoulin and Marques Almeida are experimenting with floor-sweeping, jumbo pants. (Former Theory designer Olivier Theyskens was also a fan of the silhouette.) Even J.Crew is getting in on the action.

Sternberg, too, is an asset: Jacovou was smart to bring back someone who understands what went wrong the first time around. The sales exec also seems to have a good sense about how the business has changed, mixing years of experience with old-school merchant instincts.

But while fashion might currently be inspired by JNCO, will shoppers be inclined to buy into the actual brand? "The kid today has no loyalties," Sternberg himself says. It’ll be up to the customer, once again, to determine whether JNCO is worthy.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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