Fitting Into The Market

AB & R; Inc. takes a home-made approach to marketing its line of Billy Blues jeans for young girls and women.

By DAVID GREENBERG
Staff Reporter

Bill Curtis and Renee Thomas know that when it comes to jeans the big challenge is getting the bottom to fit. The reason is obvious, sometimes painfully so: Everybody has a different shape from the waist down.

"There are a lot of bodies we measure and put samples on," said Thomas, who is a partner with Curtis at jeans maker AB & R; Inc. "I am always looking at people's bodies. I can look at clothes on a hanger and tell you how well it will fit."

In a competitive business dominated by the likes of Levi Strauss and Guess, it's a valuable skill one that is projected to boost revenues at City of Commerce-based AB & R; by 16 percent this year, to $7 million.

Driving this growth is the company's line of Billy Blues jeans, which offer sizes ranging from zero to 14 and styles geared for women from their late teens through their 50s.

What Billy Blues does, said Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition, a Westside boutique, is focus on the hourglass shape of a woman's body, while larger manufacturers tend to a straighter shape that doesn't take into account wider hips.

"While their daughters are trying on clothes for themselves, I show their mothers some Billy Blues pants that will fit them," said Hersh. "I've developed a whole new customer following. The mothers are coming into shop on their own, separate from their daughters."

In designing the same style across its target age ranges, Billy Blues can more effectively market its jeans, capris pants, shorts, skirts and jackets without coming up with new designs for each market segment. This keeps down origination costs.

Another cost factor is the company's proximity to its manufacturing base. The time from design to shelf can be 30 days for Billy Blues, compared to six to eight weeks for importers. "I can't control (the operation) overseas," said Curtis. "Here I can get into the car and go inspect."

Said Hersh, "That's the real edge. They stay up to the minute. Customers want the latest right away."

Earlier incarnation

The Billy Blues line had its inception in Curtis' first run at apparel manufacturing and marketing. He and a friend, Steve Powers, formed Curtis Powers Inc. in 1986. (Curtis had spent the previous seven years selling Lightning Bolt surf wear and accessories throughout Southern California.)

Curtis created the Billy Blues brand for Curtis Powers, but it was hard to break into the large department stores, which preferred to market the line under their own private label brands.

Within a decade, the pair had a falling out with their manufacturer, which Curtis said was allowing the stores to control the designs and then blaming his firm when they didn't sell. "We were at other people's mercy," said Curtis. "We wanted to control our own destiny."

Controlling that destiny meant the partners split, and Powers went into real estate.

Curtis and Thomas, who had been the firm's independently contracted designer, formed AB & R; (A Billy and Renee company), taking the Billy Blues name with them.

The business now sells its denim goods, with embroidered designs, leather trims and welt pockets, to more than 600 boutiques nationwide, as well as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.

Wholesale prices range from $42 to $90 for long pants, $30 to $50 for shorts, $35 to $120 for skirts and $50 to $90 for small line of denim jackets.

The company employs 20 at its headquarters, and it relies on as many as 15 local sewing contractors to produce the final product, which is then shipped from the 11,000-square-foot facility. It does not send any of its designs overseas for manufacture.

Breaking in

The denim pants come in 15 pre-wash styles, ranging from a dark-and-new look to the old and faded, but the cuts remain consistent. They also are available in leather trim or embroidered floral patterns running down the legs.

About half the product line is denim, the other half made from novelty fabrics, including regular cottons, stretch and poplin cottons, corduroy and stretch fabrics.

Curtis has been selling the line hard to many smaller boutiques, including Fred Segal, which has proven to be a big boost to its popularity.

The next step, Curtis said, is overseas. The line is now in a single Japanese chain store and contributes what he called a meager portion of the overall business.

To play well in Europe and Japan, said Rose Apodaca Jones, West Coast bureau chief for Women's Wear Daily, Billy Blues will likely need to shell out for a celebrity endorsement.

"We live in a culture where brands are validated by celebrity," said Apodaca Jones. "All those young Hollywood hotties walking the red carpet, when they're asked what they're wearing, they haven't mentioned Billy Blues. I think what (the company) needs right now is the kind of hype that gets a kid in France excited about the brand."



>PROFILE: AB & R; Inc.

Year Founded: 1997
Core Business: Billy Blues lines of contemporary women's pants and skirts
Revenues in 2001: $6 million
Revenues in 2002: $7 million (projected)
Employees in 2001: 17
Employees in 2002: 20
Goal: To enter the European market and expand presence in Japan within a couple years.

Driving Force: Niche market for denim and novelty fabric bottom wear.

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