How Citizens of Humanity Is Competing in a Changing Denim Landscape

The brand that helped usher in the era of premium denim has seen sales grow in the double digits over the past 12 months.
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Dhani Mau
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The brand that helped usher in the era of premium denim has seen sales grow in the double digits over the past 12 months.
Citizens of Humanity CEO Amy Williams. Photo: Citizens of Humanity

Citizens of Humanity CEO Amy Williams. Photo: Citizens of Humanity

I purchased my first pair of Citizens of Humanity jeans back in high school, at the height of premium denim mania, when it suddenly became acceptable — necessary, even — to spend upwards of $150 on a pair of jeans with an incredibly flattering fit, status-y back pocket seam and the strategic whiskering to make me look 10 pounds thinner. But, like me, Citizens of Humanity has grown up.

As category competition has gotten tougher and denim preferences have shifted, the company has been compelled to rethink everything from product to retail to marketing. CoH has gone against the grain in several instances: selling through speciality stores like Club Monaco and Aritzia instead of just big department stores; partnering with Christy Turlington's charity Every Mother Counts rather than collaborating with a pretty model that happens to look good in denim; and publishing a print magazine called Humanity. All of which appears to be working: Sales at its flagship brand have seen double-digit growth over the past 12 months, and the company recently acquired Japanese denim label Fabric Brand, adding to a roster of brands that also includes C-of-H Man, Goldsign, AGOLDE and Getting Back to Square One. Each of those labels manufactures its products in a vertically integrated facility in southern California.

In addition to its new acquisition, the company has also made some changes to its management lineup, promoting former president Amy Williams to CEO, and hiring Kathy Kweon, previously vice president and brand director at fellow denim brand AG, to fill her old role.

We recently spoke with Williams, who is responsible for much of the company's expansion and growth this decade, about how Citizens of Humanity is staying relevant in the era of authentic heritage denim obsession.

An image from the Citizens of Humanity fall 2015 lookbook. Photo: Citizens of Humanity

An image from the Citizens of Humanity fall 2015 lookbook. Photo: Citizens of Humanity

I'm sure your job changes every day, but what are you focused on right now?

At this stage we’re evolving and rebuilding our own Citizens of Humanity website and we’re getting ready to roll out the other brands' websites at the beginning of next year.

Can you talk about the strategy behind launching, and in one case acquiring, all of these other brands?

We built most of the brands from scratch; Fabric Brand was the only one we acquired. Basically our strategy was, we love denim, we’re experts in denim, we have incredible design talent. [Founder] Jerome [Dahan] and [Women's Creative Director] Catherine [Ryu] both have a track record of building denim brands and denim product. We have the capabilities to produce product in L.A. And there’s an aesthetic sensibility we’ve done a very good job of developing for the Citizens of Humanity brand, both women’s and men's, and we really saw an opportunity for a younger customer. [AGOLDE came about because] when we look around our office there’s a range of people that work there and some of the folks that are on the younger side, that are quote-unquote millennials, the styling is a little different. What they might choose to spend money on is a little different, and what they relate to product-wise [is different]. Also Jerome has two sons that are now in their early 20s, so when you look at what they wear, the attitude and styling of it, we felt like we could create a product targeted at that demographic. There’s a lot of really talented retail partners, from Nastygal to Revolve to Urban Outfitters, that have that consumer as their focus, and so for us it allows us to work with partners that we might not for Citizens or one of the other brands. 

Fabric Brand is all created and designed and produced in Japan using the highest quality fabrications. It has the history of making really covetable jeans. There are no boundaries at all, no pricing considerations. It’s just about creating this incredibly covetable product in the best possible way.

Citizens helped usher in the era of premium denim. What have you done to keep it relevant as denim preferences have changed?

Over the last couple of years I think what we’ve done is make sure we’re developing products that are super covetable and relate to our aesthetic sensibility. I think when we go out with a product range there are certain things that Jerome’s always been kind of maniacal about: fit is one, fabric quality and wash, and the inherent consumer value. But also from an aesthetic standpoint, I think his aesthetic taste is very much driven from his own personal background: He grew up in France, so a lot of the styling that he loves is 1960s, 1970s, those French icons like Jane Birkin. When you marry that with him moving to California in his early 20s and the culture of Malibu... It's less this L.A. premium denim, a more sophisticated approach. When a brand’s been around for like 13 or 14 years, one also needs to go back and freshen up the core, but also put forward a fashion perspective each season that’s more aspirational.

I was trained well to say don’t start taking on other things until you have your house in order. Sometimes it’s easy to get distracted by other things but if your fundamental brand isn’t healthy, that’s never a good idea.

How have denim preferences changed recently? What's selling now?

There’s a range of things. Over the course of the past year and a half we’ve seen a movement away from skinny jeans. Rises are definitely higher than they were. What used to look like a high rise to us now looks like a mid rise. Boyfriend jeans and more authentic 501-type of boyfriend styling has been really strong over the past year and a half. Most recently, flares have been quite strong — both cropped flares and that ankle-length inseam in all silhouettes.

Authentic and beautifully hand-done washes have been really strong. As we look at fall, we still see some of those washes but we also see washes getting cleaned up and looking more like that whole '70s cleaner look. I think fabric innovation has been really strong over the past year or so.

Citizens of Humanity's vintage denim range for fall. Photo: Citizens of Humanity

Citizens of Humanity's vintage denim range for fall. Photo: Citizens of Humanity

Producing everything in L.A., how has the drought affected production, if it has?

We’ve been working for a while on different alternative wash techniques, and technology has definitely helped us over the last couple years. There have been new innovations in laser and ozone machinery, so we’ve been incorporating them for a while into our processing. Certainly the deign team’s been even more focused on it in the course of the last year and a half.

It's less about talking about it because it was interesting and more about, no we really need to do something about this.

What would you say is the biggest challenge the company faces now?

I think certainly the retail industry has changed, you see it every day in the paper when one talks about bigger retail store formats beating out like the Gap or J.Crew, so I think the retail environment has changed a lot over the course of the last few years. On the same token, I think customers are just much more savvy and so they want to spend their time in places and with people or stores that are doing really interesting things and we see such a disparity. Club Monaco is an example [of a store that doesn't] just stay the course of delivering the same customer experience, the same service model, the same advertising or marketing.

[Since I started working] the world definitely is much more global; the brands that are popular here in large part are European brands. Word spreads really quickly, everything is kind of seamless between brick and mortar and store and Instagram... I think what’s challenging is you have to be faster than you were, but also really stay the course of the vision that you have for a brand because I think where people get into hot water is when they try and be something else and there’s always going to be competition and there’s always going to be people doing things that are better or smarter, but I think [you have to] be clear about your own brand positioning and we have to do that within the number of brands we have. We can’t take what works for one and take it to the other because the other exists entirely to be different. 

What long-term goals do you have for the Citizens?

Continuing to perfect our men’s product range, building A Gold E women’s and men’s because we see a lot of potential on that just based on early sales and the retail partners we have lined up for it. Really beautifully defining Fabric Brand and Goldsign at the highest end of our product next and expanding certain categories for men.

Fabric Brand, for example, everyone talks about selvedge denim — there are versions of selvedge denim and knitwear that we would want to introduce to the market.

I think secondarily there’s an element of our product range that can be more elevated and more interesting. We’ve done an amazing job in women’s with our premium vintage product range and we sell it very well. We have really interesting stores that we work with for that product and I definitely think something like that in menswear is necessary and something we can build on.

'Humanity' magazine. Photo: Humanity

'Humanity' magazine. Photo: Humanity

Another trend I've noticed is denim brands collaborating with models — is that something you would ever do?

We like working on collaborative projects that feel really authentic and it’s not to take anything away from anyone else, but there are times when we’re approached or in conversation with someone we think is like-minded or has a real interest and a real point of view around a product that we might want to bring to the market with them. We tend to look at relationships that we think can be more lasting as opposed to being transactional.

We prefer to do things like the collaboration with Christy Turlington and Every Mother Counts and sponsoring the film she’s making and including her in the brand magazine, because there’s a lot of dimensionality to those relationships.