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In the European market, though, Lee has an entirely different identity.
In the United States, Lee markets jeans worthy of mockery on Saturday Night Live. But in Europe, its products are considered stylish and high-end.
"Why are Lee jeans totally terrible here and yet totally excellent in Europe?" she wondered. "We thought Lee was as American as apple pie, etc. Apparently they are as American as extremely awkward-looking high-waisted jeans."
Accompanying the write-up were screen shots of the jeans from Lee's American and European Web sites. The American photos showed denim-clad models from the waist down, while the European site had full-body shots of its models in cool-looking poses. (Lee in Europe sells tops in addition to pants.) The U.S. site looked stodgy compared to its European counterpart.
Vadino wrote that she might not have noticed the difference between the U.S. and European versions except that her favorite pair of jeans, Lees that she had bought in London, were beginning to fall apart. When she began shopping for a new pair, she discovered a "sort of bizarre transatlantic rift."
In an e-mail from Bali, Vadino tells The Pitch that her Lee jeans, which she bought at an Urban Outfitters in 2004, are still her go-to jeans. She can't remember how much she paid for them, but she thinks it was less than $100. "They're the perfect jeans: a bit of stretch, slightly boot-cut, narrow through the leg but not skinny, a low waist that's not obscene."
The 33-year-old Vadino, who has written for magazines such as McSweeney's, Marie Claire and NYLON, says the Lee store on Carnaby Street in London draws a crowd that's similar to Abercrombie & Fitch's in the United States. The European Lee styles are "sleek and inspiring," she says.
"My American heart breaks just a bit when I see the difference — the chasm — between the U.S. Lee and the E.U. Lee," she says. "Lee is such an amazing brand, and I don't care what anyone says about Japanese denim — Americans do jeans better than anyone."
Angela Primavera, a project manager for Lee's misses denim, speculates that the European jeans, which are for boutique shoppers, sell for around $150. That means the design team in Brussels can put more into the fabric, the wash treatment and the fabrication. In addition to the European division in Belgium, Lee operates an Asian division in Hong Kong; both branches are separate from the Merriam operation in terms of design and sales.
"Everyone in America can buy and afford our products," Primavera says. "We definitely have our core base product that, as someone would say here, they pay the light bills."
"We don't want to mess with them," Moley says of the mom jeans.
It takes a unique balancing act to incorporate the latest trends while keeping prices down.
On the second floor of Lee headquarters near Interstate 35 and 67th Street, in large rooms filled with natural light and low-walled cubes, design teams come up with clothes for men, women, boys and girls — everything from a children's size 4 and up. The Merriam office employs 123 people, and another 19 work around the country in regional sales offices.