Friday, November 9, 2018

Meet The Queens Of Jeans

Designer Sarah Ahmed (R), her sister Zahra Ahmed (L), and mother Maliha Faisal (C) attend the DL1961 campaign launch.(Photo by Donato Sardella/Getty Images for DL1961)

Denim jeans have become so ingrained in fashion culture that they’ve morphed into both the epitome and antithesis of it – they are as much a style icon as they are not, thanks to their prevalence in every wardrobe. You’re just as likely to see a 20-something fashion maven in them as you are a 70-something retiree. In a recent survey of the most iconic fashion items of the last 50 years, three pairs of jeans – the Levi 501s, bell-bottom and skinny – made the top ten.

As such, they have remained one of the biggest power players in fashion and sales have risen from $86.6B in 2012 rising to $100.2B in 2016, with an almost 30% increase projected again in the next two years.

So how does a fashion brand stay relevant in this market? How does it secure a piece of the profit pie?

For Sarah and Zahra Ahmed, the sisters behind New York denim brands DL1961 and Warp+Weft, the answer is simple: listen to the customers and deliver a product that’s relevant and reasonably priced. That means styles that reflect a variety of body types, price points that undercut competitors and a production model that is actually sustainable and eco-friendly.

Since its 2008 launch, the family business has grown organically 15% year on year through traditional distribution channels, such as department stores – you’ll find it stocked everywhere from Saks Fifth Avenue to Harvey Nichols. But thanks to the attention given to the online store in the last year, ecommerce business has grown by 56%. This currently only makes up 10% of the business but the founders are confident this figure will grow to 40% in the next three years.

For such a young business, this is quite a list of achievements. A lot of this can be put down to Sarah’s brand strategy – something she developed as soon as she joined the business full time after university. By focusing on confidence and comfort as the key indicators for sales, she was able to carve out a unique place for DL1961 in an already saturated market. This was only enhanced further when she launched a spin-off brand, Warp & Weft, which has a similar focus but for a smaller budget, selling jeans at under $100.

I caught up with her and sister Zahra, the VP of Marketing and e-Commerce for DL1961, to ask exactly how they did it.

Bianca Barratt: Your denim credentials are pretty impressive - tell me about how you got started in the denim business.

Sarah Ahmed: Our family has been a leading premium denim manufacturer for over two decades. We specialize in creating innovative denim fabrics using state-of-the-art manufacturing and sustainable processes. This results in a pair of jeans that embodies the perfect fabric, fit and function but one that uses significantly less water dyes and energy than other brands on the market. However, as a supplier, we felt we weren’t engaging directly with the consumer so in 2008, we launched DL1961, a New York based premium denim brand dedicated to building a better jean in every way.

BB: Denim jeans are sold everywhere - what is that sets DL1961 apart from other denim brands?

Zahra Ahmed: DL1961 is for the customer looking for a pair of jeans that is designed with a signature brand aesthetic and engineered using the most state of the art fabrications and processes.

SA: By making the online process seamless and solution oriented, our customers are able to ultimately find the perfect fitting jean right out of the box every time. This pragmatic approach to denim shopping has helped us gain a strong following among those who have often struggled finding a pair of denim that fits whether it is due to lack of size offerings or inseams that don't require a fortune in tailoring.

BB: What were the key components of the brand strategy you used to turn DL1961 into the brand it is today?

SA: DL1961 heritage is strong rooted in product performance. So, season after season, even though micro trends have evolved, the functionality of our product has given it longevity in a highly competitive market. Strategic partnerships with celebrities like Jessica Alba or Emily Ratajkowski have helped propel our messaging, however, our relationship with celebrities and influencers remains organic. Just like our customers, they keep coming back to our brand because they not only feel the difference in the product but can see differences in how it shapes them in the mirror. One of the biggest product successes we have had is the Instasculpt range which, like its name suggests, instantly sculpts everything from the knee up to the waistband.

Sarah Ahmed created Warp + Weft in 2017 to offer more budget friendly options to consumersWarp+Weft

BB: As your factories are in Pakistan, how does the company ensure fair working rights for the factory workers?

SA: Pakistan is a huge hub for denim. Approximately 1/3 of the world's denim is manufactured there. Our factories are considered green buildings, as they have been built using state of the art technologies, which in turn create an optimized working environment. Innovation and good working conditions go hand in hand and Zahra and I have always felt a responsibility to the community driving the innovation. As our brands grow, our global community gets bigger and we hope to create more initiatives that not only push for optimal working rights (that's a given and something we have done from day one) but also push for education, healthcare and social awareness initiatives.

ZA: From a young age it was instilled in us that with every jean sold, our responsibility to the community that made that sale possible deepens. We are truly privileged to be in a position where we can see and be accountable for the full life cycle of a pair of jeans, from how and where it’s made to when it ships directly to our customers.

What were your primary goals when you started the business? How have they changed as the business has grown and developed?

ZA: Our focus has always been on creating denim that transforms people's lives. Whether it is on the manufacturing side or through talking directly to our consumers, we love to be on the lookout for the voids in the market and how we can utilize our platform to fill them in the most considered way.

SA: For our family, the goal has always been to build great products for everyone with minimal impact on the environment. Through both brands we are finally in a place where we can do that.

BB: How do you hope to grow the business further?

ZA: Through new generations of denim, new product categories and further customer awareness campaigns that focus on how the denim industry needs to change. We want customers to be able to choose jeans that are created exclusively with them and their beliefs in mind.

SA: Authenticity, transparency and thoughtful design are more appreciated that ever. Through social media and press we are able to spread the word of inclusivity, sustainably and the idea that clothing is meant to be functional, designed with you in mind and manufactured by a global community.

BB: What are the challenges the business still faces?

SA: Surprisingly, spreading body acceptance and the idea that a perfect pair of denim jeans can be sustainably made has been one that has taken a while to catch on. That's why this year Zahra and I have made it our personal mission to use our platform to spread the word that brands that celebrate individuality and are mindfully manufactured do exist.

BB: Have you faced any prejudices as a female business owner?

ZA: Absolutely. As we transition from a male dominated society to one where women are rightfully starting to get a seat the table, there are some people who are not too happy about it. For me, ageism and sexism have been most apparent when I’ve been sitting across the table from men who have spent decades in the business but haven't evolved with the times both from a social perspective and a business one. I handle this by knowing my industry inside out and backing up my words with data. That usually sets the record straight.

BB: Describe the brand in three words.

ZA: Mindfully made, perfect denim (sorry that’s four!)

SA: Inclusivity, Sustainability, Affordability

This interview has been edited for clarity.



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