Still Skinny After All These Years
Daniella Clarke, founder of Frankie B. Jeans in Glendale, clothes celebrities and their fans in her rockin’ premium denim designs.
By Brenda Rees 07/01/2013
Step aside, diamonds. A slinky pair of jeans are a girl’s best friend, no matter her age group — teenager,
middle-aged mom or golden retiree.
Even with their hefty price tags, which can run from $100 to $200 or more, premium jeans often define many fashionistas’ wardrobes, since their particular design can reflect the mood of the moment. Aficionados can dress them up or dress them down and flit from a casual lunch with girlfriends to an upscale night out on the town or at a club.
Designer Daniella Clarke has been happily immersed in the world of high-fashion denim since the late 1990s, when she helped resurrect low-rise jeans (dubbed hip-huggers in the 1960s and ’70s) under the Frankie B. label. Her audience jumped for her super-sexy, super-skinny, rock star–style pants. It’s a universe Clarke knows well. She’s married to former Guns N’ Roses rhythm guitarist Gilby Clarke, and in the 1970s and ’80s, she spent countless hours backstage and on the road, absorbing the glam-and-glitter hardrock scene.
Since the 1999 launch of Frankie B. Jeans (named after her then-young daughter, now a college student), which she oversees from her line’s headquarters in Glendale, Clarke continues in her quest to make women everywhere fall in love with her sensuous jeans. “If success is measured in longevity, then [Frankie B.] is one of the more successful brands in the industry,” says Ilsa Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association, who has monitored fashion trends for more than 40 years.
Denim has certainly come a long way since the 1950s when they were embraced by rebellious teenagers — à la James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause — as well as cowboys. By the 1960s, denim jackets, skirts and embroidered hippie-inspired jeans had become all the rage. In the 1970s, designers such as Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt hopped on the jeans bandwagon, incorporating the rugged material into their collections, raising waists to, well, the waist, where they stayed until circa 2000, when they dropped again.
Metchek explains that, in general, all new premium jean brands come to market pretty much the same way: They develop a cult following drawn to fit, color, shape, etc., and are first sold only in specialty stores, not big chains. It’s not so much a David vs. Goliath match for these brands, but rather David vs. David as smaller companies scramble to define their territory in the marketplace.
Frankie B.’s signature style has been the company’s mainstay — a tight, low-waist jean inspired by singer Robert Plant, who wore the provocative pants as the lead vocalist for the English rock band Led Zeppelin. “I was looking for those particular jeans and couldn’t find them, so I just altered my own jeans,” she explains. “I ripped up the inseam, recut and shaped it, lowered the waist and resewed it. Then everyone asked me where I got my jeans. That’s how it all started.”
Word of mouth and celebrity influence can catapult a brand to the top of the must-have heap — a familiar Cinderella scenario that happened with Frankie B. jeans. The fashion media duly noted the A-list celebrities, Grammy-winning singers and leading Hollywood actresses seen out and about in Frankie B.: Jennifer Lopez was one of the first to sport a pair; she was followed by Meg Ryan, Jessica Alba, Christina Aguilera, Sienna Miller, Charlize Theron, Eva Longoria, Fergie and others.
Today, the brand is on target to triple sales by the end of the year, Clarke says, noting that Frankie B. has generated more than $200 million in retail sales since its inception. The jeans are distributed in Europe and North America, sold in high-end outlets such as Bloomingdales, Kitson, Singer 22 and revolveclothing.com. Just last month, Kitson on Robertson carved out space for a Frankie B. in-store shop — the brand’s first-ever “store.” Frankie B. is also carried by overseas boutiques, including Excelsior in Milan, Le 66 in Paris and Kitson Japan in Tokyo.
Expanding the line is vital, says Clarke, noting that Frankie B. is constantly retooling its apparel lineup while keeping true to its rocker origins. The collection now includes tops, jackets, dresses, skirts, blazers, jeggings (jean leggings) and more, in addition to its famed skinny jeans. “We have something for everyone and our new Perfect Fit has a high-rise waist with fabric that is a bit forgiving,” she says. “We have to listen to what our customers want and stay in touch.” With daughter Frankie away at college, Clarke gets first-hand reports on young women’s trends in style and taste. “This helps me keep my finger on the pulse of what is hot and fun,” she says, adding that she is considering a line of Frankie B. handbags and belts.
The premium jeans industry has had its share of ups and downs, and Clarke acknowledges that the recent economic slowdown certainly hit her company hard. “But you have to ride out the lows with the highs,” she says. “We are now back on a high and our 2013 line is seeing a resurgence of interest. You have to keep moving ahead.”
Indeed, despite the recent downturns, there always seems to be a clamor for premium jeans. They’re a relatively small luxury that some women allow themselves even in meager times. In 2008, when consumer spending was largely depressed, expensive designer jeans constituted one bright spot of growth for manufacturers and retailers, according to NPD Group, Inc., a market research company. Sales of premium jeans grew by as much as 17 percent during 2008.
The passion for a well-crafted pair of jeans is good news for Los Angeles, the global capital of high-end, hand-stitched jeans design and manufacturing, encompassing such popular brands as True Religion, J Brand, Seven For All Mankind and, of course, Frankie B. “We in Los Angeles produce 75 percent of the premium jeans in the world,” says Metchek, explaining that the L.A. area has an abundance of superior denim wash houses that jean manufacturers use to create softness, color, holes, textures and specialized treatments.
Today, however, the jeans industry is facing new overseas obstacles which may force some premium denim designers to rethink their production and marketing strategies. Since May 1, the European Union has been collecting an additional 26 percent import duty on all women’s and girls’ jeans made in the U.S., on top of their current 12 percent duty. Metchek says that the tariff hike is seen as retaliation by the EU against the U.S. for failing to comply fully with a 2002 World Trade Organization ruling against the Byrd Amendment, a law allowing the U.S. to levy additional duties on “unfairly traded” goods that undercut American competitors.
Still, the “Made in the U.S.A.” label lends prestige to designer jeans, which can takes weeks to produce since they are all done by hand. Some premium brands can have as many as 100 hands touching a single pair of jeans over the entire production process. And Clarke is determined to keep her production local, contending that “it’s important to manufacture in the United States. I was born in Israel and came to the United States. The U.S. gave me so many opportunities and I want to keep the manufacturing here and create jobs.”
Clarke explains that she constantly needs to review and renew her vision of what success means for her and the Frankie B. brand. “My work is hard and not often glamorous,” she says. “With every gain and success, I have to be humble because I know how quickly you can lose it. The best thing is to forge great relationships with people and keep your eyes open for every new opportunity that comes your way. And never give up. Nothing is easy, but you want to be satisfied with your work and product at the end of the day. And I certainly am.”