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Originally published January 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 4, 2008 at 9:14 AM

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Retail Report

Star endorsements perfect fit for Simply Blue

After years of shunning celebrity endorsements, Simply Blue Apparel in Redmond did an about-face when it hired a Los Angeles public-relations...

Seattle Times business reporters

After years of shunning celebrity endorsements, Simply Blue Apparel in Redmond did an about-face when it hired a Los Angeles public-relations firm known for its connections in the entertainment business to promote a new denim label, Pine IV.

Before long, actress Jennifer Garner was photographed in Pine IV jeans while walking in Brentwood, Calif., and Food Network personality Rachael Ray posed in a $200 pair for her magazine's September cover.

The publicity coups certainly don't seem to have hurt the two-year-old label, but Simply Blue's founder and CEO, Mel Matsui, prefers to talk about the merits of Pine IV jeans, such as the fact that they're made of comfortable stretch fabric and cut higher in the back than today's ubiquitous low-riders.

"Our philosophy is that cleavage belongs in the front and above the waist. Let's rid the world of indecent exposure," Matsui said, revealing a sardonic sense of humor. "We spend a lot of time and money on fit perfection."

Simply Blue is owned by Chicago-based Hartmarx Corp., which made its name in tailored men's suits before casual clothes came to dominate the workplace.

Hartmarx bought Simply Blue for $21 million in 2005 and signed Matsui and business partner Tom Hermann to a five-year employment agreement.

With about 50 employees in Redmond, it designs jeans for sale at Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, and about 1,200 specialty stores nationwide.

Matsui and his wife, Barbara, started Simply Blue out of their Redmond home in the mid-1990s with a single denim label, Christopher Blue. They targeted women between 35 and 50 who no longer chased trends but were willing to pay more than $100 for jeans they considered stylish.

Hermann, a clothing-industry veteran, joined Simply Blue in 2002 to launch a second, less-expensive label, Jag Jeans. Hermann recalled that two years later, Nordstrom requested jeans more daring in style, resulting in another label, Worn. (Hermann said a Jag woman probably drives a dark-colored Range Rover, while a Worn woman drives a red BMW SUV.)

Simply Blue's lack of interest in celebrity endorsements — apparently, an oddity in the premium-denim field — was the focal point of a 2006 article by Women's Wear Daily. Simply Blue reversed course when it sought to reach a slightly younger demographic with Pine IV, Hermann said. (Simply Blue, meanwhile, has introduced a fifth label, Blue House Drive, for women 55 and older.)

"The thing that put a grin on my face is that some of the celebrities got a pair of Pine IV jeans and then wanted more," Hermann said. "The word-of-mouth factor is worth something. And the amount of photographers hanging around — there is no such thing as bad press."

Simply Blue promises to donate a portion of the proceeds from each Pine IV sale to Americanforest.org, which uses the money to plant trees. NBC's "Today" show spotlighted Pine IV during a recent segment on "Clothing for a Cause," and People magazine mentioned its advocacy for the environment alongside a photo of Ray.

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Neil Silverman, who owns the Dream boutique in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, said he used to display pictures of celebrities wearing clothes similar to those on his sale racks. He said he stopped after realizing that women saw the photos and thought, "Who cares — she looks great in them, but will I?"

Pine IV is the top-selling denim label at Dream, he said, because it's "pretty reasonably priced and the fit is silly" — meaning, really good. "They're just super-comfortable," Silverman said.

— Amy Martinez

Tidbits

Brown & Cole, the Bellingham-based supermarket chain, emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 20 with the help of $43 million from Hancock Park Associates, a private-equity investment firm in Los Angeles that is now its largest shareholder. Brown & Cole closed four stores shortly after filing for bankruptcy and now has 20 stores in Washington operating mostly under the names Food Pavilion and Cost Cutter. The closest to Seattle is in Everett. — MA

B. Dalton Bookseller will close its store at Factoria mall on Jan. 19. Also, Orange Julius closed its store at the mall this week. Owner Kimco Realty of New Hyde Park, N.Y., plans to spend about $50 million redeveloping the mall, which it has renamed Marketplace at Factoria. — AM

California-based Lucky Strike Lanes will open its first area bowling alley at Bellevue's Lincoln Square on Sunday. The bowling alley has 16 lanes, a DJ booth and private bowling area for parties.

— AM

Jones Soda hired Joth Ricci as chief operating officer effective Monday. He is general manager of Columbia Distributing in Portland. Ricci, 39, will report to interim Chief Executive Stephen Jones and oversee sales, operations, human resources and customer service, including the company's relationship with National Beverage. The COO role has been unfilled since Jennifer Cue left Jones in December 2005.

— MA

Starbucks debuted in India with ready-to-drink products at movie theaters in Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi. An arrangement with multiplex operator PVR is expected to bring the products to 25 theaters, according to The Economic Times. Last year, Starbucks withdrew an application to open stores there. — MA

Butter London has expanded outside the Seattle area with a nail salon at the Sacramento, Calif., International Airport. Butter London is at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, downtown Seattle's Westlake Center and Starbucks Center. It plans to open at Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia in April, promising nontoxic products, waterless services and fashionable colors. AM

Zovo , a Seattle-based intimate-apparel and loungewear company, has hired a new head designer to expand its brand into the women's contemporary ready-to-wear segment. Jean Marie Benz will join Zovo on Jan. 14. Benz is coming from Dockers Women Division, a subsidiary of Levi Strauss & Co. Former Starbucks executive Victoria Roberts created Zovo in 2005. — AM

Retail Report appears Fridays. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. Amy Martinez covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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Retail Report is a look at the trends, issues and people who makeup the dynamic and versatile retail sector throughout the Puget Sound region. Every Friday with Melissa Allison and Amy Martinez. Send tips or comments to mallison@seattletimes.com or amartinez@seattletimes.com.

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