Would you pay over $500 for a pair of jeans? Before I previewed the latest collection from new Los Angeles-based denim line Jean Atelier, my answer would have been a quick, "No way." Obviously, a few brands have managed to sell jeans at a luxury price point; the once-ubiquitous Vetements jeans come to mind, though I was never able to wrap my head around spending over $1,000 for literally vintage Levi's that are tailored in an interesting way.
But somehow, Jerome Dahan and co-founder Noam Hanoch have managed to bring something new to the crowded denim market, and something that, to some at least, will feel worth the designer price point.
Dahan has a strong legacy and successful track record in premium denim. In 1999, with years of denim experience already under his belt, he helped launch 7 For All Mankind, and in 2003, he founded Citizens of Humanity. This year, he sold his shares in Citizens of Humanity and, for fall 2017, launched his most elevated project yet, which he began working on a couple of years ago and which was born out of a reaction to the very denim market he helped create. Jean Atelier remains under the CoH umbrella for now, but may separate in the future. "For the past 15 years," he explains in a thick French accent over the phone, there has been "no innovation, no creativity" in denim.
Hanoch notes that price is a big reason for that. "When you design for the contemporary market, a lot of times you are designing into a price point and that's a lot of what's happening in this category: people are so pressured into a certain pice point and margins, so people are too scared to be creative," he says. "Going to more advanced-contemporary or designer [price points], all of a sudden you kind of free yourself from those restrictions." Hence, a Jean Atelier piece doesn't come cheap, with jeans ranging from $400 to $800.
For spring 2018, some jeans have an innovative waxy treatment; some have a cool, raised windowpane pattern woven into the denim; some have (functioning) buttons going all the way down the front of each leg; some simply have an interesting stripe or zipper going down the side. Several high-waisted pieces have a fresh, appealing fold-over waistline that will likely be the first of the brand's signatures to be knocked off. There's a vintage inspiration to the whole range, particularly from the '70s and '80s, though always with a modern touch. Other design signatures include large metal buttons that simply read "JEAN" and a diagonal red/white/blue stripe that can be found connecting the waistline to the pocket on several styles.
The name came from a combination of the founders' names (JErome And Noam) and their desire to reflect the intimate, elevated feel of the brand and the way they create. All the denim is non-stretch from Japan — with Dahan notes is "expensive" — and all the washing and finishing is done in Los Angeles.
Dahan and Hanoch know that the market for high-end denim is a "smaller" one, but they feel confident their customer is out there (as do Barneys and FWRD by Elyse Walker, who carry the fall 2017 collection exclusively). Dahan explains that people are shelling out for Vetements and Balenciaga jeans for the name, whereas they'll buy Jean Atelier for the quality of the denim and special finishes.
"We feel there is that customer who is really looking for something more special," says Hanoch, giving the example of "young kids" gravitating towards vintage clothes because they're unique. "The more you have fast fashion the more on the other spectrum, what's really special, what's really unique, what's not disposable... We think of our selection as pieces you will have in your closet for the rest of your life."
Retailers are getting on board. Dahan and Hanoch opened up distribution for spring 2018 and while they can't confirm it publicly, say they have another "top retailer" on board that they're "very excited" about. They plan to launch e-commerce for spring as well.
As for product expansion, they don't feel limited by having the word "jean" in their name, and in fact launched a few non-denim pieces (tees, bodysuits) with the debut collection. For spring, however, they reigned things in a little bit to put forth a narrower focus on denim, and will slowly build from there. "Baby steps," says Hanoch.
Despite Dahan's track record and the backing of CoH (as of now, at least), they don't seem to want this to become the Next Great American Denim Brand, preferring to keep it small and elevated. But while Jean Atelier may never go mass, we have the feeling we'll be seeing it a lot in paparazzi and street-style shots. To me, much of the spring collection has "Instagirl" written all over it. Check out the look book below.