Red, White And Blue – Levi Strauss & Co.

An American Icon Fades Away
As Levi Strauss celebrated The 125th Anniversary of its blue jeans in May 1998, the company boasted “The world has changed much since 1873. But little has changed about Levi’s Jeans.” Guess again. The status quo mentality the company applauded was contributing to the demise of its legendary brand. While parties were held throughout the country, sales plummeted. Ironically, even as it planned festivities, Levi was massively overhauling its management ranks. Plant closings, layoffs, unflattering press scrutiny and repeated interim ad campaigns by its new agency TBWA/Chiat/Day would soon follow.
“Levi has been traumatized by the false security of having a recognizable brand,” says well-known San Francisco branding consultant Alan Brew. “In the meantime, the world has changed. The recognition the brand still enjoys is nothing more than the afterglow of a nuclear explosion.”
Explosion is right. Levi Strauss’ ’98 global sales decline was the worst the company has seen since World War II. In the last two years, its sales have skidded from $7 billion to $6 billion in a flourishing market. While companywide sales sunk 13 percent, jeans in the U.S. were hit much harder, according to industry estimates, with a 15-20 percent decline.
At the same time, sales for men’s jeans were up 4 percent and sales for women’s jean enjoyed a 5 percent gain, says Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research group NPD Group.
Moreover, Levi’s market share of U.S. jeans was sliced from 31 percent in 1990 to 16.9 percent in 1998, according to Tactical Retail Monitor. Picking up the slack are VF’s Lee and Wrangler brands, which control 25.3 percent of the market, up from 17.9 percent in 1990. Gap jeans’ share almost doubled to 4.9 percent last year, while designer brands grabbed about 7 percent of the market and department-store brands zoomed to an impressive 20.2 percent.
Ironically, during a sales slump in the early ’80s, a previous marketing team worked on and ultimately discarded a doomsday scenario in which denim fell out of fashion and consumers stopped buying blue jeans.
In order to save the venerable jeans brand, Levi Strauss now intends to reposition its star brand beyond recognition. It plans to put distance between new products and the category it invented.
The latest Levi Strauss mantra is “segmentation,” shattering the Levi Jean’s moniker like a mirror, breaking it into multiple apparel products and brands. When pressed, officials support the classic jeans line but the company’s new mission statement, “to be the casual apparel authority,” suggests otherwise. Instead of running its own jeans factories, the San Francisco jeans maker is trying to morph into a brand-management company in which blue jeans and the Levi’s name are one part of a larger whole. Say goodbye to Levi’s Jeans and hello to clothes by Levi’s, L2, SilverTab, Red Line. Retailers report that SilverTab and Red Line sales are growing steadily.
In fact, many marketing experts publicly profess faith in the strong heritage of the Levi’s Jeans brand, but privately agree the company has been coasting for years. Says Brew: “We are seeing the inexorable decline of the Levi’s Jeans brand. It is heading toward oblivion. I’m afraid recent advertising has only emphasized its irrelevance.” Consumers aren’t sure what these hip ads mean, he says, because “the brand has become so hollow.” As he props his denim-clad legs on his desk, a West Coast agency chief executive concurs: “Levi’s Jeans is running on fumes.”
Yet advertising was the component of Levi’s success. Levi’s Jeans was an American icon the San Francisco office of Foote, Cone & Belding built, guarded and burnished for 67 years. FCB copywriter Mike Koelker, who started on the account in the early 1970s and later served as executive creative director for 12 years, was insightful and driven. He devoted his career to Levi’s Jeans, ignoring management duties and other clients. Koelker understood the brand’s essence and fought for it in the executive suites of Levi Strauss and FCB.
Koelker shared a unique understanding with Bob Haas, the great-grand nephew of company founder Levi Strauss, who was named chief executive in 1984. Haas built an organization that valued consensus and teamwork. Haas would regularly walk across Levi’s Plaza to FCB at six in the evening to hang out with Koelker. They talked about everything. Koelker was known to show up at Haas’ office unannounced to hammer out marketing problems.
In some ways, sources say, Koelker helped Haas run the company. Because of Koelker’s special chemistry with Haas, “The normal impediments that a shop faces were removed,” says Peter Angelos, an executive creative director at TBWA/C/D, who worked under Koelker for three years a decade ago. “We knew if Mike wanted to do a campaign, it would go through according to his vision.”
Koelker’s vision can be seen in many success stories throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. The “501 Blues” ads in 1984 combined gritty, urban street scenes with richly varied musical styles. Later, Spike Lee’s “Button Up Your Fly” campaign equated the jeans with the American spirit. Levi’s Jeans for Women ads used Matisse-like illustrations and animation to show female figures breaking out of the mold. “Koelker understood trends and had an instinct for predicting what would come next,” recalls former FCB chief executive Jack Boland. “He operated outside of things to a degree, [he saw] where the culture was going.” Koelker left the agency on medical leave in 1994, without a clear successor. In June 1995, at the age of 56, he died of lung cancer.
It would take years to realize the effect Koelker’s absence had on the brand and the agency. As 1996 wound down, the world seemed problem-free for the company and its next-door ad agency FCB. The client had enjoyed a decade of uninterrupted growth and Brendan Ryan, FCB’s new worldwide chief executive, jetted in from New York to put his imprimatur on the situation. In an agency officers’ meeting insiders remember Ryan draping his arms around the shop’s top executives, Jack Boland and Koelker’s successor, Paul Wolfe, with the reassuring words: “These are my boys.”
His words stupefied FCB staffers. To them, the corporate support was an omen of impending doom. Both Ryan and the agency knew that executive creative director Wolfe was persona non grata at Levi Strauss. Sources confirm FCB managers told Ryan the situation with Levi Strauss was untenable, yet he brushed them off.
Bold and aggressive, Wolfe was known to loudly peddle ads the client opposed from the start.”Eventually, the Levi’s people got tired of being shouted at about work they didn’t like,” says an FCB source. Indeed, agency employees were convinced Ryan had come to town to announce the company’s decision not to renew Wolfe’s contract. Instead, Ryan supported his loyal lieutenant Boland and the creative leader Boland endorsed.
For Levi Strauss, Ryan’s stubborn refusal to change leadership at its agency could not have come at a worse time. While sales figures didn’t yet show it, competition from designer labels and lower-priced mass retailer brands had begun to squeeze the jeans leader and soften its brand identity.
After years of loving attention by Koelker and his backer, former chief executive Jack Balousek, the advertising, though ambitious, was missing its mark. At the same time, the privately owned jeans company was winding down from a massive retail-oriented reengineering and plagued by its own vacuum of leadership.
FCB insiders can’t explain Ryan’s indifference to the concerns of the San Francisco office; Ryan refused to discuss the client. Those close to him say he was distracted by other global FCB matters, including the Publicis dispute, and the unsuccessful fight to retain the Citibank account. Colleagues add that Ryan is uncomfortable with the subtleties and eccentricities of the laid-back California scene. Yet it was only natural the family-owned company turned to FCB for help in staying hip and fighting off interlopers at a time of crisis.
When Wolfe, a partner and copywriter at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG in New York, was imported by Boland in March 1995 to step into the empty post of executive creative director, he carried out a new mandate for the San Francisco office. Unlike Koelker, he was to oversee all agency accounts and take an active role in winning new business.
From the start, it was clear Wolfe’s brash East Coast attitude and unfamiliarity with the Levi’s brand grated on the agency and the team-oriented, progressive-minded Levi Strauss, say agency sources. Key Levi’s Jeans marketing executives, such as Mark Hogan, U.S. director of consumer marketing, avoided him and some Levi Strauss bosses asked creatives to keep Wolfe away from the work, according to former FCB and Levi Strauss officials.
While Levi’s Jeans was the $700 million agency’s signature account-and a showcase for the entire FCB network-it was still primarily a domestic account that billed only about $150 million at its peak.
“When Koelker died, so did the possibility of FCB ever again having its top-level creative executive work solely on Levi’s,” says one manager.
Until Boland and Wolfe took the reigns, the agency and the apparel maker worked in tandem. The shop was involved in key marketing, retail and product development decisions. Within months of Ryan’s stunning announcement of support for Wolfe, jean sales started slipping and relations between agency and client disintegrated.
“Our shop was running on a flat tire; we all knew it. But Boland didn’t seem to have the clout to change it,” says an agency manager. Boland, although well-liked during his 20-year tenure which ended in March, was viewed as an operations man who didn’t understand the discipline of advertising.
“Paul was a strange accident,” says Chuck McBride, who served as creative director on the Levi account under Wolfe before accepting his current post of creative director at Wieden & Kennedy. FCB worldwide account director Jack Rooney, who provided some continuity with the Levi’s Jeans account after Koelker’s departure, resigned a little more than a year after Wolfe arrived. Though many thought Rooney’s post crucial for selling work to the client, it wasn’t filled until mid-’97, 10 months after he departed.
Meanwhile, the account floundered. From the time Wolfe arrived through 1997, the client struggled through three major, high-budget FCB TV ad campaigns. The “501 Reasons” effort started with an edgy, underground feeling, such as the Prague teen who trades his jeans for a car. It evolved into a sexy and cinematic approach, influenced in part by the European Levi’s ads by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London.
“Levi people wanted something big with cultural impact,” says Wolfe. Naysayers complained the stories had little reference to the jeans. The most ambitious and expensive spot in the campaign was seen by only a few consumers. It showed a woman going to a voodoo priestess to get revenge on a cheating boyfriend; the 90-second story was tied together with an African American boy tap-dancing on a New Orleans street corner. The NAACP claimed the depiction of the boy was racist, and Levi pulled it at the last minute, frustrating the creative department and embarrassing the agency. Eventually, the ad ran in a few U.S. and European movie theaters.
In early 1997, storm clouds continued to gather on the sales horizon. Trendy teens were abandoning stores where Levi’s were sold in favor of the hip, entertaining new specialty outfits. Levi continued to be hamstrung by its 1970s settlement of a federal price-fixing case, in which the jeans company agreed not to pull its business and ad support from retailers, even if they sold jeans at deep discounts.
Rivals not subject to such a consent order were getting choosy about the places and prices at which their pants were sold. In addition, every brand but Levi’s Jeans seemed to have more innovative pant designs for kids uninterested in wearing the blue jeans their boomer parents sported.
Levi’s response? The company decided to take another swipe at the baggy pants trend with new ads for its Wide Leg line. McBride and his staff hunkered down to develop the work. The result included an outrageous ad showing a young guy going into cardiac arrest being operated on by dancing doctors. While FCB was finetuning the work, a new wind blew through Levi Strauss: Gordon Shank.
Shank, a Levi Strauss veteran, was named president and chief executive of the Americas in early 1997. Described as a gambler and a maverick, some say his unspoken agenda from the start was to find another agency for Levi’s Jeans.
Sadly, the fate of McBride’s Wide Leg work was sealed before the ads ever hit the airwaves. McBride recalls Shank saying that if the company had to run ads like that to snare the teen market, he didn’t want that market.
Geoff Thompson, FCB’s worldwide chief creative officer who has since taken over the San Francisco office, told colleagues the work was dead-on in tapping into teens’ psyches. Critics thought they were seeing new, irreverent life injected into the Levi’s Jeans brand. But Shank made sure the work ran only about six weeks. By spring 1997, Shank spelled out a new marketing agenda.
Instead of advertising different categories of jeans, the company was going to “reinforce Levi’s brand values across all consumers in all categories,” said company officials. During that period, media spending for Levi’s Jeans in the U.S. was trimmed to about $54 million, with more spending on the company’s Dockers and Slates lines, also handled by FCB.
Perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, FCB began making plans to move out of Levi’s Plaza by fall. To carry out Shank’s direction, all FCB’s creative teams in San Francisco were solicited for ideas.
“It was a huge deal for the agency; we were under a microscope,” recalls Wayne Buder, a managing director at FCB at the time. McBride and his group put together an ambitious 30-spot effort built on some of the ideas in the “Wide Leg” campaign.
Buder, now president of Odiorne Wilde Narraway & Partners, San Francisco, says insiders thought McBride’s work was the best since Koelker. “He tapped something real for teens; he winked at them,” says Buder. Yet without a veteran account director to sell the work, it fell by the wayside, prompting an exodus of creative talent from FCB. Instead, the shop produced the “They Go On” effort, an attempt “to celebrate the brand without celebrating the bland,” says Wolfe.
A half-dozen spots broke in August 1997. They showed a parade of unusual characters of various ages, with stories bleeding from one spot to the next. Shank’s universal approach turned out to be a huge strategic error. “Teens thought one overall brand that tried to work for everyone was, by definition, irrelevant to them,” says a Levi marketing source. John Flanagan of youth marketing consultancy Thermostat says at that stage, Levi Strauss “wasn’t monitoring the streets, they fell asleep.” Jeans sales started to decline. Ad shops could smell blood and started making overtures to Levi Strauss. “Shank was the prom queen,” says an agency executive.
Finally, in October 1997, the client called it quits and held a review of its $90 million jeans account. Levi management voiced gratitude for FCB’s dedication but also disappointment that the shop had ceased being the “total business partner” they once had and still desperately needed.
To save the business, Ryan called in Thompson, who had worked on Levi’s with Koelker for 16 years until the early ’90s.
During FCB’s presentation, however, Thompson droned on for four hours, say sources, attempting to sell work positioned around the theme of self-expression using the tag “It’s on you.” He showed ads for TV, radio, outdoor and print for every brand, “until the client wanted to kill themselves,” says a source. Wolfe, who returned to MVBMS in February 1998, was not involved in the review. He decries the “rumors” about his relationship with Levi and says he’s proud of the work he and his team produced.
Interestingly, one option pondered during pitch discussions was the radical notion of phasing out the well-known 501 jeans brand in the U.S. According to sources, outsiders were surprised to find out the company had considered that possibility before the review.
TBWA/C/D’s team, led by creative leader Lee Clow and chief executive of the Americas Bob Kuperman, played loud hip-hop music from a van outside Levi’s headquarters for three hours before their presentation. Inside, they screened a video celebrating the brand’s role in American lore and showed creative work that later became the shop’s first campaign. Clow interrupted the proceedings to spend about an hour waxing rhapsodic about his feelings for the jeans brand, sources say. When Levi Strauss’ Steve Goldstein noted that Clow seemed to be promising clients more than 300 percent of his time, Clow reportedly responded, “I’ve done this for a long time. At this stage of my career, I can work on the brands I love.” It took little prodding to recognize that Haas and the rest of the client committee saw in Clow the committed marketing guru they once had in Koelker. The shop was hired.
After all, Levi’s was an iconic American brand any creative leader would relish. Invented in the 1850s during the California gold rush and named for a German-born Jewish immigrant, the durable denim pants were worn wherever hard work was done: in mines, factories, cattle ranches and family farms. In the ’30s, the uniform of the working class was recognized as fashionable by Vogue magazine, and in the ’60s, “Levi’s,” as all jeans were called, became a political statement.
“Levi’s Jeans are the consummate American icon,” writes Richard Martin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a Levi Strauss publication. “They are a symbol of frontier independence; they [express] the American craving for history and sensuality.”
After two outdoor campaigns that mocked Levi’s designer jean competition, TBWA/C/D unveiled its first television work. The 1998 campaign for Hard Jeans focused on the uncomfortable denim fabric with sarcastic humor and close-ups of stiff jeans.
“Why does Levi’s seem to want to pick a fight with everyone?” asked critics. Angelos says the disparate campaigns actually had another common thread: The dark denim Hard Jeans line was designed to have the retro styling of jeans in the earlier billboards. “People want instant results,” says Angelos, who now collaborates with creative director Rob Smiley, a former FCB, San Francisco, colleague. “But there is a method to all this. The client understands it is a process,” Angelos says.
“It’s not like we can turn on a light switch to cure all of Levi’s ills,” says Carisa Bianchi, chief executive of the agency’s San Francisco office. Because Levi Strauss learned that advertising was only one piece of the youth marketing puzzle, TBWA/C/D also assumed the role of strategic partner, getting involved with sponsorships, product development, distribution plans and retail co-marketing. As brand steward, it became a “gatekeeper” for all other resources, such as interactive and point-of-sale.
When the Hard Jeans advertising broke, Levi Strauss was in the final phase of transforming from a manufacturing to a consumer-oriented brand management organization. One by one, almost all the executives who hired the agency were reassigned or resigned.
Controversial figure and TBWA/C/D supporter Shank was promoted to chief marketing officer worldwide and no longer had a direct role in U.S. advertising. Into his position came another agent of change, Rob Holloway. Named vice president of marketing for youth in April 1998, Holloway was charged with boosting sales to 15-24-year-olds. An articulate Brit with years of experience with Levi’s Jeans in Europe, Holloway can project the casual, personable Levi Strauss corporate image. Yet those who work with him say he is impatient and demanding. He believes the problem with the brand in the U.S. is due to laziness and a lack of original thinking; he’s not particularly interested in company traditions of gentility and consensus.
“Levi Strauss has gotten complacent and lost focus,” he says. “The company believed its needs could be met with one brand. That didn’t work well 20 years ago, and works even less well now.” By summer, he changed the game plan from selling Levi’s jeans to marketing a portfolio of segmented brands to different niches of the teen audience. He promoted Sean Dee, an FCB account executive in the early 1990s, to work with TBWA/C/D’s 80-to-85 member San Francisco office on a daily basis. Under Holloway and Dee, the agency crafted the “What’s True” campaign, which debuted in November ’98 after months of stunning sales losses. The work takes a different direction from Clow’s tough-guy blue jeans ads, showing earnest young people in stylish denim or khaki pants holding placards and telling viewers provocative “truths” about personal issues, such as drug use, sex, racism and homosexuality.
This time the roar from the critics was even louder, charging that the print and TV ads are too serious and a turnoff to young people who don’t like to be mimicked or mirrored.
“They are nowhere near Chiat’s high standards. You’ve got to wonder why the shop seems to be pandering to the client,” says a longtime TBWA/C/D supporter. The agency has been snared in a strategic struggle, say sources. Account planners advocate the gritty, funky, authentic approach seen in Hard Jeans.
But many Levi executives lean toward a more sexy, attractive and aspirational approach. Holloway’s vision of a palette of brands may be a solution, say agency officials, because it allows room for both approaches. In any case, Holloway says, TBWA/C/D has his full support. “It has been a challenge for them to work with our company through some difficult times. They are working with us as we revamp the brand.”
Levi Strauss’ once-undisputed dominance and marketing prowess have been challenged by Gap, Lee, Hilfiger and others.
With no lag between product positioning and its chains, “the Gap brand has gotten so strong you don’t know where the ads start and the brand begins,” says BBH’s John Hegarty. Gap execs say much of the credit for the runaway success of its Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic stores-net sales grew 39 percent in 1998-is thanks to the distinctive look and feel of its ads and marketing.
Lee Jeans, once the dark horse in the category, is now one of the darlings. Its new fashionable Dungarees brand is touted by an odd-looking doll named Buddy Lee in offbeat ads by Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis. Lee Jeans president Gordon Harton, whose company enjoyed 10 percent volume growth in 1998, says the company became convinced “young consumers wanted to be individuals rather than part of a mass brand, [requiring] lots of attention to keep brands relevant for them.”
Tommy Hilfiger, a pioneer in cross-promoting street music and his clothes expanded into the movies by dressing the cast of the sci-fi thriller The Faculty in samples from his new denim collection.
It was into this demanding environment that TBWA/C/D unveiled its initial Levi’s billboard campaign a year ago. Headlines in the ads alluded to designer-jean brands with lines such as “Tommy wore them,” accompanied by the red Levi’s label. That effort was followed by more billboards and posters showing vintage shots of Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and other retro stars in Levi’s jeans with the headline: “Our models can beat up your models.” The agency tried to place as many ads as possible near designer jean ads portraying “those emaciated fashion models,” says Angelos, creative director on the Levi’s account.
Marketing observers questioned the comparison approach, maintaining that a brand leader with iconic status should be setting the agenda, not comparing itself to lesser brands. Youth experts say today’s teens could care less about Marilyn Monroe.
Clow, who lives in shorts and Levi’s jeans, has a different, more personal take on Levi’s youth appeal, which explains the retro strategy. For him, resurrecting Levi’s is a crusade.
“I don’t think of myself as a 55-year-old guy wearing jeans,” he says. “Everyone who pulls on a pair of jeans wants to be young; we want to feel like we are 18.” That’s a truism for the 35-plus generation who grew up with images of James Dean and Bruce Springsteen, but it’s possibly out of touch with today’s skateboarders and college kids.
The company’s marketing struggles are old news to retailers that have been watching the brand waste away for more than a year. In an informal March survey, New York City store clerks reported that the biggest buyers of Levi’s jeans were European tourists, with American teens still infatuated with designer and urban street styles. And customers who sought a favorite Levi’s style often couldn’t find it.
Holloway and his team’s scheme to put Levi Strauss clothes back on the bodies of young people begins this spring. In many ways, it marks the end of the Levi’s Jeans brand as we know it. Two new spots in the Levi’s “What’s True” campaign, employing more humor, sexiness and nondenim clothes, will break in May, say agency sources. In June, TBWA/C/D and Levi Strauss will start separate marketing programs, including back-to-school ads for the premium SilverTab and more affordable L2 lines, with little or no reference to the Levi’s brand name. “The three brands will have a distinct strategic persona from ads to retail,” says Bianchi. “Think of Levi’s, SilverTab and L2 as separate companies,” Holloway advises.
Like other youth marketers, Levi Strauss will be promoting the new brand offerings with sponsorships, events, street postings and movie tie-ins, in addition to ads. The hip characters in the movie Mod Squad, for instance, are wearing Levi’s clothes. A key component of the diverse marketing mix is an emerging artists’ music program with companies such as MTV and SFX Entertainment, a chain of concert venues.
Levi’s youth marketing division, in fact, plans to spend as much on music sponsorship as on traditional advertising. “We want to be a part of teens’ lives. We want to surround them 360 degrees,” Holloway says.
The retail outlets where consumers can buy the new product lines will also change. Last summer, Levi Strauss’ restrictive consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission expired, giving the company the control it needs to determine where its clothes are sold and for what price. Dee says he has doubled the company’s co-marketing efforts with important retailers and Levi Strauss has lined up new outlets. Reflecting on the myriad elements in Holloway’s turnaround plan, Bianchi remarks, “We feel privileged to be part of one of the great case histories of marketing.”
But several ad and branding experts are hesitant about the direction of the new initiative. Gary Stibel, founder and principal of New England Consulting Group in Westport, Conn., says introducing new brands is not enough. “If Levi’s goes too far away from jeans, they ‘ll fail,” he says. Levi’s Jeans must once again be “the icon of cool. They did such a brilliant job for 100 years. Now they need a draconian action, a revolution. They need to rethink what Levi-ness is all about.”
“On the street, Levi’s is no longer a statement,” says Martyn Straw, president of New York consultancy Interbrand. “Now denim is the statement” and there are lots of choices for denim. “The company should re-establish its ownership of all kinds of denim without depending on nostalgia,” he says.
Other experts question the wisdom of presenting youth brands as if they are separate from the Levi’s brand, even though they come from the same company. One youth marketer asks, “Why not use the Levi’s name? It’s like you are mocking teens or like you are ashamed of the name. These kids know they are from Levi’s.”
Such qualms are brushed aside by client and agency. “It’s no longer about Levi’s Jeans, it’s about Levi’s brands,” says Angelos. “That’s smart because you define an icon as always constant but continually surprising you. A brand follows; an icon leads.”
Clow, who has overseen the business since early 1998, insists Levi’s is now in a turnaround mode after a difficult period. Clow’s agency will be at the center of the brand’s counterattack.
“We are going to reclaim what is rightfully Levi’s,” he says, noting the brand needs to act like the leader it is. “We’ve got to rise above those other fad jeans and talk like Levi’s. That will be the formula for reclaiming it creatively.”
Clow says it’s frustrating for both the client and the agency that Levi’s is the authentic source for “the mythology and romance of denim” but “right now, there are a bunch of counterfeit brands taking their piece of what Levi’s truly is.”
The brand has been allowed to be characterized as a commodity, Clow adds, while it should be about “rebelliousness and sexiness-everything that jeans stand for.” The creative formula is “to stand up and be Levi’s. The brand will endure.”
Dee insists that denim is still critical to the company, but in a range of styles and cuts. “Product innovation is a revolution for us,” says Dee. “We are a denim-based brand,” he says, “but if we do not surprise and engage kids, then we’ve failed.”
FCB executive Tim Elliott, who stepped in to help run the San Francisco office when the jeans account went into review, is “fed up with being told the Levi’s brand has had it. It’s a great brand that has bottomed out. It will revive and have its day in the sun again soon.”
As Levi’s prepares to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, one of the greatest American brand icons is passing into a new era in its history. Classic Levi’s Jeans may find its greatest influence, much like the American cowboy, is more myth than reality.
-Michael McCarthy and Emily Fromm contributed to this story.
They’re not going the way of the dinosaur.
Scrounging through relics at antique boutiques won’t be the only way to find them. But it’s going to get tougher.
Levi’s 501s and other classic jeans styles, which have been prominently displayed in stores for decades, will take a back seat at local malls this summer. The company is busy revamping its retail presence.
Traditional jeans will be clustered with an expanded line of Levi’s branded clothes, such as khakis, cargo pants and nondenim tops and jackets. Gone will be the miles of denim that offered finicky Levi’s devotees the chance to find the perfect fit.
“We must get away from the stacks of jeans along the wall,” says Richard Kelly, Levi’s director of retail environment for the youth category. The stack-free Levi’s zones, promises Kelly, will be hipper and more distinct.
Three other Levi Strauss youth brands will make a big splash at the mall this back-to-school season, promise company officials. The premium, fashion-forward SilverTab line and the lesser-priced L2 line will offer more denim and nondenim styles.
Red Line, an elite line of jeans, will expand in trendy specialty stores where the Levi’s brand is not sold. Straight leg, dark-blue denim Red Line jeans come with a $100 to $125 price tag and a recommendation that they be dry-cleaned. None of the brand’s labeling or outdoor marketing remotely relates to the Levi’s name or look. The company is silent about its plans to grow the product line.
“The secrecy of Red Line is all part of an anti-corporate, anti-marketing, in some ways anti-Levi’s brand identity,” says a source.
Levi Strauss will finally be able to compete with the styles its retail rivals offer thanks to changes in its stifling manufacturing structure. The company focused on its core straight-leg jeans in part because that’s what its North American factories were set up to produce. But half of those factories are closing this year.
Contracting with overseas factories gives the marketer more flexibility. It allows Levi Strauss to develop new, teen-oriented styles cheaply and quickly.
It’s the new products that will get the bulk of Levi Strauss’ marketing attention.
The once-undisputed denim champ, now thrust against the ropes, is paying close attention to the younger demographic that has shunned its classic styles.
Where does that leave loyal 501 fans?
Not completely out in the cold. Internet savvy shoppers can always point and click to to secure the pants that helped define a generation. ƒ