Not-So-American Denim on the Rise in Asian Markets

Blue jeans may be known for their all-American history, but they're becoming bigger than ever in Asia, as fast-growing Asian brands re-interpret the jean both to please the specific tastes of their consumers and to corner their share of a fairly up-for-grabs market. The top denim companies in Asia are Levi's, Lee, Texwood, Uniqulo, and Calvin Klein, but no single brand dominates the market quite like they do in the USA. This means the competition to be the biggest denim brand of them all is fierce, according to WWD.

While the US jean-buyer is particularly loyal to all-American brands like Levi Strauss & Co., and loves the historical aspect of denim as workwear, Asian buyers aren't coming at denim with such historical baggage. But that doesn't mean there's not money involved. The Asian denim market is expected to chart sales of $26.9 billion this year, up from $17.6 billion in 2008.

Of the top five players in Asia, Texwood originated in Hong Kong, while Uniqlo is a Japanese brand. There are also some notable, if smaller, homegrown brands that are worth keeping an eye on: Wei Peng, Zengzhi and Kipone (from China) and Edwin (from Japan) claim about 5 percent of the Asian market, combined. Some brands, like Wei Peng and Zengzhi, are hard to shop online, meaning the curious international consumer is out of luck, though every now and then something will pop up on eBay or the like.

Denim-buyers in Asia don't necessarily want the same look as U.S. buyers, and manufacturers are paying attention. David Pun, the CEO of Evisu (a premium Japanese denim brand), says consumers in Asia are more "expressive" in the way they dress; Chinese consumers at large want visibly branded denim, while Hong Kong consumers prefer subtler offerings and a lot of different washes. Esprit (based in Hong Kong) says that the Asian market prefers "slimmer, sexier fits," and is more brand-conscious than European market.

One of the main reasons that U.S. and European brands aren't doing as well in Asia is that they're trapped in the high end denim section. For example, a pair of Lee's Diamond Cut jeans is sold in the "economy/standard" price range in the U.S., but in the "super-premium" price range in China. But Asian customers simply don't see the need to pay premium prices for something that originated as workwear. That fact may charm Americans — where blue jeans are, after all, one of the only truly original inventions they can claim — but in Asia, it means denim is relegated into the realm of practical fashion, not luxury.