Opinion: Levi’s Tour de Forth

It was the buttons, I tell ya. They drew me across the street like a Kardashian to a paid appearance.

One morning while walking in New York City, I spotted a Levi’s bus-shelter ad featuring a deconstructed work shirt. It had six white buttons gleaming on the right, like perfect little teeth.

Though I was heading in the opposite direction, I went to take a look. Up close, I just stood and stared at the bits and pieces of the disassembled shirt-materials that could have been the same in 1988, or maybe even 1888. It lived under a plexiglass cover, like a museum exhibition.

All of the elements were art directed for maximum tactility, and yet, in this format, they were untouchable. Something about that inherent tension seemed to be a real brain tease: the simple chambray work shirt as art, craft and archeological find.

I was awed by the drama of the pulled-apart shirt. There are other versions touting Levi’s “Trucker” denim jacket and various types of jeans and cords. And these bus-shelter ads (or more properly, “out-of-home installations”) are only one small part of Levi’s latest iteration of its “Go forth” campaign, from Wieden + Kennedy, now in its second year.

Last year’s Walt Whitman recording of “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” and scratchy film is gone, as is the dark, sexual energy of the video. With the new sub-theme “Ready to work” (a play on “ready to wear”?), this year’s campaign is grounded in something tangible, and each of the parts contributes to a more cohesive and powerful whole. There’s print, out of home, online, cinema and TV.

The spotlight is on Braddock, Pa., an old steel-mill town outside Pittsburgh, now bankrupt and almost ghost-like, suffering from years of industrial decay. The remaining population is definitely ready to work. The corollary is Detroit, or any other American city, big or small, in which 20th-century industry has shut down. Out of the abandoned buildings and rubble, a new crop of pioneers is popping up — artists, craftsmen, musicians, small-business owners, specialized farmers — building their own post-industrial revival.

The Levi’s work chronicles the town and its blue-collar people as the apparel company also contributes financially to the rebuild: The brand funded the rehabbing of a community center and is supporting an “urban farm” that supplies local residents with beautiful produce at reduced prices.

The campaign easily could have resulted in something heavy handed or patronizing (how about an unemployed fashion show!) not to mention depressing, but instead it’s heady, intoxicating stuff. I’m obsessed with the photography of Walker Evans and the history of the Works Progress Administration, which included putting an array of artists, writers and photographers to work documenting America during the Great Depression. Again, this is analogous.

What made Evans’s photos of Alabama sharecroppers so great was his almost self-effacing scrupulousness. He didn’t exploit his subjects for his own fame. He was mining a vein of humanity and hope.

So yes, this is a bit different, in that all the people photographed are wearing Levi’s clothing. But the photographer, Melodie McDaniel, shoots them in a way that is beautiful and meaningful, not exploitative. It’s not overly emotional, dramatic or fabricated — she follows them in their everyday lives. An African American dad with dreads lifts his young son up with only his bicep, for example. It’s a classic that jumps off the page.
 
What is dramatic and emotional is a 12-page gatefold ad in this month’s Details. It mixes the out-of-home product pages with the black-and-white photos, and the result is fantastic.

A TV spot launched in early July was shot by John Hillcoat, who directed The Road. We get gorgeous shots of Braddock in its death-like trance state-the natural beauty of the rows and rows of theater seats from the 1930s, looking about as ancient as anything in a sarcophagus. Those are followed by shots of artisanal rebirth. The voiceover is a young girl who says, “People think there aren’t frontiers anymore. They can’t see how frontiers are all around us.”

The ending is a reworking of the opening shot of The Searchers. I got chills.

A second spot, shot by McDaniel, will run later this summer.

A documentary, made in conjunction with IFC and The Sundance Channel, will be released later this year, and parts of it are running on the Levi’s Facebook page, among other places.
 
There are many ironies here. People call Obama a “socialist” when he’s probably too much of a middle-of-the-road guy. In reality, the modern-day socialists are prime capitalists — giant corporate brands getting involved with doing social good and giving back.

Rebuilding a sad, post-industrial town in the East is a 180 in terms of frontiers. Historically, the West was America’s frontier, the place of open spaces and new possibilities. (And that’s indeed what drew Mr. Levi Strauss to the mining towns in Northern California.)

And of course, the biggest irony is that the brand that’s running this knock-out “Go forth” campaign outsources factory work to Asia. I guess advertising can’t solve all the problems of the global economy, but it can start with one small thing — like helping to rebuild a town.

In all, “Ready to work” is a tour de force — and also a tour de forth. Not only is it a work of art and culture, but it makes the clothing seem new and compelling. I’m buying it.