Despite recent uninspiring sales trends, apparel company Hanesbrands (NYSE: HBI) has a number of profit-motivated tricks up its sleeve, and investors are starting to notice. Total first-quarter sales fell 5%, but reported earnings nearly tripled to $0.38 a share on cost-reduction efforts, lower debt, and share repurchases, which proved to be a nice encore to the improving profit trends the company reported to exit 2007. No wonder the stock has risen 23% so far this year.

Quarterly sales, though, were anemic across the board, with innerwear falling 7.9%, outerwear down 4%, and hosiery plummeting 9.4% Management said the results are "consistent with broad-based macroeconomic point-of-sale trends," which is another way of saying that, for a number of reasons, consumers are shopping less, and department stores that carry the company's products are feeling the resulting pinch.

Meanwhile, the international segment posted a decent 15.3% jump in sales but accounted for only 10.6% of the top line. The company said the big gains for the quarter came from "cost reductions, supply chain initiatives, and lower interest expense." The latter item was a welcome development, because investors have been preoccupied with how Hanesbrands was going to be able to handle the hefty debt that Sara Lee (NYSE: SLE) saddled it with during a 2006 spinoff. Interest costs fell almost 22% for the quarter, and there is plenty of room for further reductions as management pays down its indebtedness.

Hanesbrands doesn't offer quarterly guidance, but I think management has a plan to further boost profits. Of course, cost cuts can last for only so long, so the company will eventually have to post more inspiring top-line growth. But as it stands, returns on invested capital already exceed 10%, and free cash flow is bumping up against $3 per share, to put Hanesbrands at just past 11 times trailing free cash flow. So even with the current stock run, the company is quite reasonable for a market leader, and it's really starting to prove that it can excel as a standalone company.         

For related Foolishness:

Fool contributor Ryan Fuhrmann has no financial interest in any other company mentioned. Feel free to email him with feedback or to further discuss any companies mentioned here. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.