Local denim store expands to Rockville


Liquid Blue carries jeans for men and women, including brands Hudson and Citizens of Humanity. The store also sells T-shirts, sweaters and accessories. (Eric Lovell/Courtesy of Liquid Blue/Eric Lovell/Courtesy of Liquid Blue)

Washingtonians, Jo Akin says, don’t wear a whole lot of denim — and she’s hoping to change that.

Akin, who founded Liquid Blue, a designer jeans boutique in Fulton in 2010, opened her second store in Rockville Town Center last week.

“D.C. is more of a suited, buttoned-up place,” said Akin, 45. “It’s behind other big cities when it comes to contemporary fashion.”

Premium jeans — which often come with price tags of $200 and up — have gained popularity in recent years, with the rise of companies such as 7 For All Mankind, Joe’s and Rock & Republic.

The global denim market is expected to reach $65 billion by next year, with much of that growth being driven by designer jeans that cost $75 and up, according to research firm Global Industry Analysts.

In the Washington area, it’s been a slower sell, Akin says.

“We try to do a lot of education with our customers,” she said. “We find that many of our customers, especially the men, tend to be first-timers.”

During a slow economic recovery, $200 jeans can sometimes be a tough sell.

“Let's face it, clothing tends to be a luxury item, so it’s the first to go,” Akin said. “You’re going to pay your mortgage and feed your kids before you buy jeans.”

The rising cost of cotton, coupled with the recent barrage of snowstorms, hasn’t helped either. A few years ago, Akin says the typical mark-up for a pair of premium jeans was 2.4 times what she paid for it. Today, she sells most items for two times her cost.

“We end up eating some of that cost,” she said. “Fabrics are more expensive, but at the same time, most customers are more price-sensitive than they used to be.”

Revenue, which grew 30 percent in the early years, has been all but flat for the past year, Akin said. She would not disclose sales numbers, but said they were in the six figures.

“It’s been a tough couple of years,” she said. “ The reality is that all retailers have been hit.”

Even so, Akin said she had no reservations opening a new store. The new location in Rockville Town Square will also offer a venue to host trunk shows, charity events and personal stylists.

“Finding a good pair of jeans is not necessarily something you can do on the Internet,” said Robin McBride, a vice president at Federal Realty, which oversees the development. “Their offering of blue jeans is unique to the marketplace.”

Each Liquid Blue location carries about 1,000 pairs of mens’ and womens’ jeans by the likes of Hudson and Citizens of Humanity. The stores also sell apparel, including T-shirts and sweaters, and accessories.

Akin, who used to work in marketing, funded the company with her own money. Each store cost her about $200,000 — half for the build out of the shop, the other half for inventory.

“The challenge for us has been that you can’t cater to everybody,” said Akin, who owns about 40 pairs of jeans. “People are much more cost-sensitive these days. We try very hard to keep our items below $200.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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