NEW YORK - A wall of denim lines the entrance of the new AE77 store in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. There are raw-cut jeans, or brand new denim, as well as jeans in five-year wash cycles, 10-year and 15-year cycles, ranging in color from dark blue to nearly white.
"And we'll have 20-year washes in here soon, too," Chad Kessler, president of AE premium brands, told WWD. "So, if you wore the jeans for 15 years, wash them for 15 years, they might end up being this color."
On the opposite wall, a "New Breed of Denim" display lives, covered with eight out of the nine jeans silhouettes, along with the words "Artfully designed. Sustainably crafted." This is the concept behind AE77, American Eagle Outfitters' latest brand: a collection of men's and women's premium denim, along with other apparel pieces, that is either sustainably sourced or made from eco-friendly materials, but still manages to be fashionable.
"We wanted to create a brand that was sustainable, but we didn't want to compromise on design," Kessler said. "And we want to have aesthetically the best designed product, without compromising the sustainability. We really want to tell that story."
AE77's story includes customized and hand-stitched jeans, recycled cashmere sweaters and beanies, sustainably sourced and organic cotton, vintage pieces and Japanese selvedge fabric. There are also flannel, dresses, women's tops, T-shirts and "for all" pieces, or gender-neutral items. But the focus, for now, is on the denim collection.
"Jeans are maybe the only product that the more you wear them, the more they become you," Kessler said. "When you think of the life cycle of jeans, they become such an intimate part of your wardrobe. They tell a story; they change. They look different over time.
"Over time, one of the things we hope to get to is being able to buy back jeans from customers, meaning repair them, resell them," he continued. "So maybe your story goes from raw to five years [old jeans] and you're kind of done with them, those jeans. But we don't want you to throw them away. We want you to bring the jeans back and then we can sell them to someone else. We want to keep the jeans living as long as possible. That's a big part of sustainability. Our goal eventually will be that the brand is completely circular."
AE77's inaugural 204-piece collection is purposely tight (only about a third of the AE brand's regular assortment), but Kessler added that the brand will continue to add new pieces and categories as it continues to test and learn.
"We just want to see what the response is, how people like the product, what they respond to in the product [assortment], and then we'll take it from there," he explained. "This is almost an innovation lab that we can become even more sustainable in years to come."
That's why there are also 70 percent post-consumer recycled bags and hangers made from sustainable wood production inside the stores, while the production process includes green chemistry to help eliminate hazardous wastes and the use of factories that meet the company's water recycling and waste management requirements.
"We're really trying to think about being planet-first," Kessler said. "Sustainability is very important to all of us, to the executives, starting with Jay [Schottenstein]. We all believe that we have a responsibility to treat the planet better. And I think Jay, especially, believes that in this day and age, it's really up to corporations to lead on these issues.
"There's been a sort of stalemate throughout the world on making progress on sustainability," he continued. "We want to hold ourselves accountable to be leaders around carbon use, water use, all of that. So we're committed, both in our internal practices and in launching this brand, committed as a company to try to show how we can be more sustainable."
"AE77 is an exciting new opportunity for AEO Inc., which leverages our leadership in jeans and capitalizes on our strong innovation in style, fit and fabrications and incorporates our best sustainability practices," said Jay Schottenstein, American Eagle Outfitters' executive chairman of the board and chief executive officer. "I believe AE77 is a great addition to the portfolio of brands as we seek to inspire new customers and expand our offerings."
The new AE77 store, which opens on Wednesday, is located at 83 Spring Street in New York. An e-commerce shop, AE77denim.com, will launch on Oct. 15. Kessler said the brand hopes to use the New York store, which was created by design agency Stefan Beckman Studio, to host events and activations on the weekends. A second AE77 brick-and-mortar location will open in November at the King of Prussia mall outside of Philadelphia.
Denim prices for the AE77 collection range from $168 to $188. Kessler said the hope is to reach a slightly older consumer - mid-20s to mid-40s - compared with AE's teen to early-20s range.
"We just feel like it's a part of the market that we aren't serving as well as we could today," he said. "And for this customer, it's more of the planet-first mind-set. It's trying to build really seasonless, classic, ageless pieces. Or just pieces that are going to be in style for [some time].
"A big part of our philosophy is that it's actually good to buy less," he continued. "It's similar to the idea of slow fashion, of buying less. This idea of curating a wardrobe over time and not necessarily looking at what are the trends of the moment, but what are these really sustainable pieces that you can build upon, build a closet over a number of years. Because the more you buy, the more you're naturally using more raw materials and water and all that.
"This is just the beginning for us in the sustainability conversation," Kessler said. "We've made a really strong effort for launch and we'll continue to have these conversations around sustainability and the tension between sustainability and great design."