At the True Religion store in Century City, Cailf., which opened last month, customers can sit and be waited on. Some companies have made up for weakness at department stores and boutiques by selling directly to shoppers. - TPN

With fit and image, pricey denim jumps off the racks

For fashion blogger Jessica Morgan, finding the right jeans is almost a religious experience.

Morgan just bought a pair of $100 Madewell jeans, but her denim nirvana comes from True Religion Apparel Inc. of Los Angeles. Even at $170 to more than $300, the designer dungarees represent a sacrifice she's willing to make despite the fraying economy.

"They make my butt look perky," said Morgan, 33, who owns five pairs of True Religion Brand jeans. "For women in Los Angeles, who wear jeans almost all of the time, it's an investment. If I wear them every day, they really are not that expensive."

While consumer spending remains woefully depressed, expensive designer jeans have been one of the few bright spots for manufacturers and retailers, according to NPD Group Inc., a market research company.

Sales of premium brand jeans grew by 17 percent during 2008 and eked out a 2.3 percent increase in the three-month period that ended in February, making premium denim one of a few "pockets of growth in an otherwise fizzling fashion market," NPD Group said.

"That is the time period that was the most challenging in terms of consumer spending, so any growth during that time is significant," said Marshal Cohen, NPD Group's chief industry analyst.

Denim is one area in which some of the most fundamental rules of the global economy don't appear to apply. Other industries turn to the least expensive foreign labor pools for production. Jeans-makers have found the high cost of U.S. manufacturing actually is a selling point.

"In the U.S., people care that their jeans are manufactured here," said Eric Beder, an analyst for Brean Murray, Carret & Co. "To consumers outside the U.S., it's crucial. Jeans are considered an American tradition. To be considered a real premium brand, you need to have the 'made in the USA' label on it."

Denim buyers aren't going to pull the U.S. economy out of recession, but "it does show that there are people out there who are willing to pay for this sort of thing," Beder said. "It's a relative bargain. The most you are going to pay is $200 to $300. It's affordable luxury. It lasts, and it has a lot of versatility that other clothing items do not have."

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