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Solid Gold Medallions


"When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance." — Chuck Prince, CEO of Citigroup, dismissing fears that the leveraged-buyout market will soon hit a wall, as reported by Financial Times.

Looking to trim her two-dozen-pair collection of designer jeans, Julie Mathis, a Los Angeles public relations executive, recently tried to sell her $400 Antik Denim jeans to a local secondhand shop. She figured the store would snap them up. It didn't. "They were like: Nobody's wearing these anymore,'" Mathis says.

The five-year-old denim craze, which has juiced sales for apparel makers and department stores alike, looks to be fading at last.

Sales of women's jeans declined 1.8% last year, to $7.5 billion, the first pullback in five years, says market researcher NPD Group. Two years ago the women's jeans business was on a double-digit tear, driven largely by the premium category of $100-plus jeans. Blame consumer fatigue and an influx of cheap jeans that even connoisseurs acknowledge aren't half bad.

Denim crazes have come and gone. Los Angeles-based 7 For All Mankind kicked off the latest frenzy in 2000 with its $114 derri?re-hugging jeans. Before long, tony Italian and Japanese denim became commonplace, and regular folk were obsessing over styles (boot cut vs. flare), washes (dark denim vs. stonewash), and elaborate embellishments (Swarovski crystals on the rear). Paying $200 for a garment with blue-collar roots became as acceptable as laying out $3.50 for a Starbucks (SBUX) Venti Latte.

It's been a great ride. True Religion Apparel (TRLG) in Los Angeles had sales of $139 million last year, a fivefold increase from 2004. The company generated operating margins of 28% last year. Polo Ralph Lauren (RL) managed 15%; Liz Claiborne (LIZ), 9%.

Perhaps the premium brands should have figured out that things were winding down when industry stalwart Levi Strauss finally got its mojo working again, launching new lines last year that have eaten into sales of designer jeans. True Religion's sales inched up just 1.5% in the first quarter of this year, to $36 million. Sales for Blue Holding, makers of the Antik brand, fell 28% in the same period.

Another hit came when inexpensive but stylish denim caught fire in Europe. Cheap Monday, a brand hatched by a Stockholm clothing store that led the way, are now available in the U.S. at fancy boutiques for a relatively inexpensive $65 a pair. Other companies are following in lockstep. J.C. Penney (JCP) will start selling $35 jeans this fall from Los Angeles designers Chip & Pepper. And Guess (GES) is selling $50 jeans at its new, lower-priced G by Guess chain.

Meanwhile, women are diverting their denim dollars to dresses and bags. True Religion now sells shoes and shirts; 7 For All Mankind, $500 purses. Both also offer sweaters and jackets. Loretta Soffe, head of women's apparel for Nordstrom (JWN), says the designers have yet to prove they can make the transition. "I'm not going to lie to you," she says. "Their expertise is in denim."

Taxi medallions—the licenses required in certain cities to operate cabs that pick up fares curbside—are fetching big prices: A New York cabbie recently sold his for $600,000—20 times what he paid for it 25 years ago. (By comparison, the price of a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (NYX) rose thirteenfold from 1980 to 2005, when the NYSE went public and converted seats to shares.)

Andrew Murstein, president of Taxi Medallion Financial Group, the nation's largest medallion financer, predicts a value of $1 million by 2012. Supplies of medallions are limited by law, he notes, and hacking is still an attractive job for many immigrants.

The gains aren't as grand in Boston, where prices are at $350,000 (up from $100,000 a decade ago), or in Chicago ($80,000, up from $45,000). Still, with $30 million in annual medallion-related revenues, Murstein wants to expand. He recently wrote to Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., where there is no medallion scheme, suggesting the city sell 7,000 medallions at $100,000 each. D.C. Council member Jim Graham, however, says there are no plans to start a medallion system.

Pat Neshek has a mean fastball. But these days his cleverest pitches often come at patneshek.com. That's the Web site where the Minnesota Twins' pitching star, an avid collector of baseball memorabilia, presides over a major-league swap meet of sorts. Inspired by the Internet's ability to cut out the middleman, Neshek and his Twins teammates are offering jerseys, mitts, and bats used in their games in exchange for collectibles they're seeking, usually autographs of former greats."I'd rather go right to the fans," Neshek says, adding that the gear traded was used and owned by the players.

Recently offered: a Boof Bonser bat used on May 18 against Milwaukee—complete with the pitcher's No. 26 scrawled on the knob—and a Michael Cuddyer 2006 outfielder's mitt. Game-used bats fetch at least $450 at Twins retail stores, but a Twins spokesman says Neshek's auctions "are not that big an issue for us right now."

Once fierce rivals, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade have joined up. The new CME Group, O.K.'d by shareholders on July 9, will rule the futures world just as NYSE Euronext, a transatlantic alliance just formed in April, dominates in stocks. For exchanges, size and reach are crucial in these days of electronic trades and cross-border investing. Next, expect a blurring of stocks and futures markets. NYSE Euronext is considering buying a U.S. futures exchange—perhaps the Intercontinental Exchange or the New York Merc. Amid the merger wave, here are today's biggest players.

When it comes to car seats, cloth is standard, leather cozy. But eggshell membrane? Nissan Motor (NSANY) says fabric coated with the thin translucent inner lining of eggshells is super comfortable.

In January it introduced a textile coated with eggshell membranes as an option on its special-edition Bluebird Sylphy, making it standard for the midsize sedan in May. To develop the coating, it tapped Japan's Idemitsu Techno Fine, which uses membranes harvested from the discarded eggshells of a mayonnaise maker. The powdered membrane is applied to the cloth used for seats, head rests, and door trimmings. Idemitsu claims the coating absorbs moisture and reduces static electricity. It already markets the fabric for use in shoes, clothes, panty hose, and bedding.

Japanese sumo wrestlers apply eggshell membrane directly to their skin to get rid of scars—a practice that originated with traditional Chinese healers. Nissan hopes the qualities it's claiming for the membrane-coated fabric will lure female car buyers. The move is also part of a push to incorporate more eco-friendly materials into its vehicles, says spokeswoman Pauline Kee. Other carmakers, too, have played up the natural origins of their auto interiors to bolster their green credentials: DaimlerChrysler (DCX) uses coconut fibers, hemp, and sisal to stuff seats and head rests. Mitsubishi Motors has developed a bamboo-based plastic. And Ford (F) is experimenting with seat foam made from soybeans.

What happened to the phone Samsung said it would issue as a promotion tied to The Simpsons Movie, which opens on July 27? At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the company unveiled its plan to design a limited-edition phone. Its exhibition booth ("Samsung Mobile and The Simpsons Movie Promotional Partnership") even showed three prototypes. The phones, to be preloaded with content from the film, soon got Web buzz. ("Paragraph the potential to be the geek phone of the year," wrote one blogger.)

Now Samsung says that the phone has been "canceled," with Twentieth Century Fox Film, (NWS) which is releasing the movie, confirming that "Samsung is not one of our partners on this movie."

Kim Titus, spokesman for Samsung Telecommunications America, says Samsung is focusing instead on product placements in movies such as Ocean's 13—adding that it made the January announcement before lining up a carrier. But it declines to say if carrier or studio negotiations scotched the deal.

Whatever the reason, Samsung may be missing out on a marketing juggernaut. 7-Eleven is grabbing attention by making 11 of its U.S. stores look like the TV show's fictional Kwik-E-Marts. Sales at those outlets have since doubled or tripled, the company says. Next up: JetBlue's (JBLU) July 17 launch of a Homer Simpson-emblazoned plane. Meanwhile, some Simpsons fans still await the Samsung mobile: A recent posting on Yahoo! Answers: "I have been searching for this phone since I heard about it."

Most of us (69%) think taking home stuff from the office is wrong, according to a recent survey of more than 2,100 employed adults. But almost 20% of us admit to doing it.

The office theft poll, conducted in May by Harris Interactive (HPOL) for recruiter Spherion (SFN), also found that filching supplies—mostly pens, pencils, rulers, file folders, and Post-It Notes—is more common among workers making at least $75,000 a year (23%) than it is among those making $15,000 to $34,999 (11%). A Spherion managing director, Brent Short, says that may be because higher earners see themselves as leaders who "pay the bills in the office." And the No. 1 explanation from those who said they sneak out supplies? "I needed them."

Slide Show >>

The iPhone fans who lined up for hours or days to get Apple's (AAPL) latest gizmo aren't the only patient consumers. Here's a look at other products that people wait months (and sometimes years) for.


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