A new vision for Pittsburgh Jeans Company

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Few things are more iconically American than a pair of jeans. Although an old gas station with roll-open garage bays might come close.

Lawrence Scott has combined those two things with his new vision of the future for specialty retail in general, and his Pittsburgh Jeans brand in particular.

Last week, Mr. Scott launched Plus by Pittsburgh Jeans Co., an online store carrying plus-size jeans and targeting customers who could never have worn the premium denim styles sold in the South Side store that he ran on East Carson Street for more than a decade.

And, far from choosing a location with lots of shoppers walking by, he set up the new online business inside a restored former gas station on a corner of Route 837 in the small Washington County community of New Eagle. The station, which he says was in his family, is so authentic looking that people keep stopping by and trying to get their cars worked on.

The website went live around 10 a.m. Wednesday and Mr. Scott reported that within a couple of hours, customers had placed orders for eight pairs of jeans. Others were calling to make appointments for personal fittings, something that he is willing to do if people are willing to make the drive to the site that is close to an hour from Pittsburgh.

He appears to be "trend right," as they say in the clothing business, in his instincts. The plus-size market is definitely happening.

It's hard to miss the ongoing statistics showing Americans getting larger. NPD Group Inc., out of Port Washington, N.Y., this month released a report that two-thirds of females 13 years old and up describe themselves as wearing clothes that are "special sized." The highest numbers came among those who see themselves as plus size -- about one third.

More than half of plus size women said it's hard to find clothes with the same quality as regular sized clothing and hard to find the styles they want. They also said it's just generally more stressful to shop for plus sizes, according to NPD.

"I have said for years and years and years that I always wanted to do plus sizes," said Mr. Scott, whose lines now start at size 14 and go on up.

His new venture isn't hurt by the fact that some premium denim lines are embracing the market. Lucky Brand this summer launched Ginger, its first plus size denim line, and sales are reportedly exceeding expectations so far.

Mr. Scott's online store carries the Lucky line, along with brands such as Silver, Jag Jeans, Kut from the Kloth, Not Your Daughter's Jeans and C.J. by Cookie Johnson. The prices at Plus will likely average $100 to $125, although the price range offered is broader.

Mr. Scott, a native of the Mon Valley whose resume also includes time working in New York in design for the Dana Buchman clothing line, said he's careful to ask brands how they developed their fits because curvier women often need a different silhouette.

He brings in a couple of different models to try on new brands or fits. If the brand passes muster, that step allows the store to write detailed description on how a pair of jeans tends to fit, which should help online customers get a better read on what will work for them.

Some of the brands he's selling are also carried by major chains such as Nordstrom and Macy's, but Plus is meant to differentiate itself through selection and customer service.

Mr. Scott also seemed to be on trend back in 2001, when he opened what was among the first premium denim stores in the Pittsburgh market. His store on the South Side rode the wave of people investing in pricier brands that promised more flattering fits and that helped jeans earn entree to fancier restaurants and gatherings.

Around 2008, he said, the market began to change. Even before that, more retailers had stepped up the competition by carrying better denim lines. But the Great Recession slashed discretionary budgets and changed how a lot of people think about shopping.

He said customers began to want to haggle. Someone might buy one pair and ask for a discount on a second pair. A shopper who got pregnant a few months after buying jeans might want to return them.

In the end, the store wasn't profitable and he closed it before Labor Day. On Sept. 7, Pittsburgh Jeans Co. Inc. filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, estimating it had between one and 49 creditors; less than $50,000 in assets; and less than $50,000 in liabilities.

Mr. Scott said the Plus operation is a separate company. He notes that overhead is lower online, since there's no need to hire staff to keep the doors open for customers who may -- or may not --wander in. The Plus operation has just two employees at the moment, he said.

Lessons learned about selling online did translate to the new operation, including the need to be very quick to respond to customers.

Inside the old gas station, Mr. Scott has combined a collection of memorabilia and signs with piles of new denim. Lucky Brand jeans lay on a table covered in American flags, while a shelving unit holding automotive tools swings out to show a mirror.

A Quaker Oil sign decorates the front of the counter set up for packing merchandise into boxes for shipping. Plus isn't charging for shipping or returns.

Customers will pay extra to have jeans hemmed. The store, and the tailor that it hires to do the work, uses a technique that saves the manufacturer's distinctive hemline.

Mr. Scott can't say for sure if Plus will fit a changing retail scene in which customers seem less inclined to seek out boutiques than to shop by smartphone or iPad wherever they happen to be hanging out.

He is pleased to be able to help the women who were frustrated by the limitations of the lines he used to carry. "It's really a market that has been snubbed and not catered to when it comes to better merchandise," he said.

For more details, visit http://www.pittsburghjeanscompany.com/store/pc/home.asp

businessnews - fashion - neigh_washington

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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