J. Crew's Betting on the Bum: Why Guys Will Happily Pay $300 for Jeans

Last Updated Apr 9, 2010 5:51 PM EDT

J. Crew's Levi's Brain Dead JeanFor its next trick, J. Crew (JCG) -- that purveyor of preppy classics adored by the fashion-forward as much as the die-hard wear-an-oxford-until-it-falls-apart types -- will be peddling $300 premium jeans. To men.

You heard that right. J. Crew's targeting the gender hardwired with a utilitarian approach to clothing wrapped in a preference to those necessities at a discount. Does J. Crew know something other men's apparel brands don't? Yes. Here's what's up its bespoke sleeve.

Guys, according to a survey by the Wharton School's J.H. Baker Retail Initiative, are very task-oriented when it comes to shopping. But in the end they buy, as opposed to women who are just as taken with the experience of browsing and sampling as they are with making a purchase. Even though 51 percent of respondents reported they'd cut back spending on apparel during this past recessionary year, a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers indicated that women were holding tighter to their wallets than men.

For the past two years, J.Crew's been steadily broadening its men's wear offerings to cater both to the bargain hunter ("Instant Gratification" is a category of goods priced under $100) as well as the gent with an eye toward finer sartorial indulgences (luxurious Loro Piana Italian wool suits and the like). This has had a positive impact on the overall bottom line. Crew's sales rose 19 percent -- the biggest gain in nine quarters -- to $460.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2009. That's without the deep discounts and promotions it pushed in 2008 to clean out stock. Gross margins leaped to 43.9% from 27.6% a year ago.

Buoyed by this boost, Crew's leader of men's design Frank Muyjtens took the brand's goods a step further into pricier territory. In a special homage to Crew's "design heros," exclusive limited edition items from venerable brands such as Belstaff (leather jacket $1495) and Ray Ban (Clubmaster sunglasses $145) are sold online and at its specialty retail outpost The Liquor Store. Housed in a vintage package store in Manhattan's trendy Tribeca enclave, the shop is fitted with vintage display cases and adorned with antiques â€" all the better to showcase such high end merchandise (and have the regular Crew wear bask in the same glow).

The $300 jeans (dubbed Lot 484) carefully crafted in collaboration with Warehouse, a Japanese selvedge denim label, will be sold at the Liquor Store and online. Still think the guys won't bite? Think again. J. Crew's already done a line of six styles with Levi's, the most expensive of which will set a guy back a little more than three Benjamins. And the popularity of independent shops such as Self Edge, a San Francisco based retailer of men's premium denim, and blogs for the aficionado of indigo such as Denimology suggest that there are plenty of die-hard denim fans out there just lusting to get their butts in the next exclusive design.

In the end, J. Crew knows guys want to look good, but they place a premium on comfort. Thus Muyjtens is J. Crew's secret sales weapon. Exuding the kind of slightly rumpled cool that most guys aspire to (even if they aren't totally conscious of it) he says of the pair of Warehouse jeans he purchased in Japan last year, "I haven't been able to take them off since."