How Levi's fell out of fashion

With a 163-year-old pedigree and rock 'n' roll provenance, Levi's possesses the sort of authenticity that most brands would die for. But the weight of tradition causes its own problems.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 21 Mar 2019

Earlier this year a brown leather ‘Cossack’ jacket by Levi Strauss & Co came up for auction at Christie’s in London. Described in the catalogue as ‘an incredibly worn, rather pungent jacket that seems to capture the owner’s mood as he embarks on a new life in the US’, it had been owned by Albert Einstein who lived – and smoked his pipe – in the garment for years. Having sold it to the genius of relativity back in 1935, Levi’s themselves reclaimed the jacket for a cool £110,500.

A colleague of Einstein’s at Princeton, Leopold Infeld, explained the physicist’s pragmatic dress sense. ‘The idea is to restrict his needs and, by this restriction, increase his freedom. We are slaves of millions of things… Einstein tried to reduce them to the absolute minimum. Long hair minimised the need for the barber. Socks can be done without. One leather jacket solves the coat problems for many years.’

Levi’s loves yarns like this. Heritage is Levi’s USP and the brand oozes the sort of authenticity-rich provenance beloved of posh auction houses. Levi Strauss sold the first ever jeans. In 1853, when the Bavarian migrant opened a wholesale dry goods business in San Francisco, he saw a market for work trousers that could endure the rough conditions of the gold rush and the Wild West. He and Jacob Davis, a tailor in Reno, created the first pair of denim strides and in 1873, they received a US patent for ‘waist overalls’ reinforced with metal rivets at points of strain (including in those days the crotch).

The first garments with the celebrated ‘501’ pattern number were created in 1890, and the patch on the back of a modern pair still shows two horses locked in a tug of war trying to rip them apart. 

Although denim originated in Europe, Levi’s are the jeans that built America. The sails of Christopher Columbus’ ships heading for the New World were made of serge de Nîmes.

Levi’s appear on Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits. They are in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and on the album cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. They were the pants of the 60s – an embodiment of the rebellious, free-loving easiness of the times. ‘We did a technical measurement that we had 96.3% market share at Woodstock,’ said a Levi’s spokesman, ‘And the other 3.7% were probably naked people.’ They were a coveted, forbidden and frequently smuggled item in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, perfectly symbolising Western decadence – and desirability. 

Move on to 1984 and Bruce Springsteen had his on when snapped for Born in the USA. Two more decades and another sexual revolution saw Heath Ledger’s 501s from Brokeback Mountain – legendarily removed in the famous tent scene –sold for $21,013 at auction.

All that heritage, all that history. What of the future? For Levi’s, it doesn’t look quite so bright at the moment. Peak Levi’s is long gone and showing little sign of coming back. Sales reached their zenith at close to $8bn in the 1990s. But net revenues in 2015 were only  $4.49bn. Today, running shoe upstart Nike – born in 1971 – has six times the sales. The denim heritage can look like lead in the cowboy’s saddle.

The problems are many and varied. Eric Musgrave has been a close, professional watcher of and consultant to the apparel business for 40 years. He knows his threads. ‘On London’s Oxford Street in John Lewis a pair of 501s is £75. You can then go down to Primark and buy a pair of jeans for eight quid. Then you can go online and upmarket to Mr Porter’s website and see jeans for £600. So eighty quid looks like entry level for the premium market.’ And the middle market can be a perilous place to be – just ask M&S. 

Expensive US manufacturing is long gone, outsourced to the Far East, South America and Asia. At one point Levi’s even relocated the R&D to a plant 70 miles west of Istanbul – a move since reversed. Older diehards moan online about the quality of the modern denim  – too light and skimpy. 

Musgrave goes on: ‘Levi’s had a potency for my generation, which is very hard to replicate now. And how many young consumers in Europe want to be associated with such a strongly American product? Are there not as many negatives currently as positives? Are UK youth impressed by cowboys and pioneers? No. And, in addition, they have a very disposable attitude towards clothes and value them less because they pay less for them. They wear something a few times and then chuck it away. ’ Not the Einstein way at all. 

The battle has raged for decades. In the 60s and 70s, Levi’s withstood the attack from Lee Cooper, Mustang, Fiorucci, Wrangler, Falmer and Chipie. Then they were challenged by the likes of the classless Gap. Now Zara plus H&M are piling on the agony with own label. And trendier, pricier labels like Diesel and True Religion are stealing the action.

The old incumbent endures the cyclical vagaries of fashion which spin ever faster as globalised supply chains are fine-tuned. Heritage equals old. In recent years, being seen as more of a ‘dad brand’, Levi’s hasn’t fared well in the skinny jeans era of low-slung crotch tourniquets beloved of pipe-smoking Shoreditch hipsters. As the fashionistas at 

The New York Times recently put it – ‘no self-respecting bearded mixologist is going to be caught dead in the loose fitting, pancake-rump jeans favoured by over-50 suburbanites.’ Ouch. 

Levi’s has been in difficulty before. Way back at the beginning of the 80s, sales were diving in the UK in the wake of a punk maelstrom of safety pins and bin liners. On this occasion the company found temporary salvation in the form of an advertising agency to sorts things out: the upstart Bartle Bogle Hegarty. In the days when such a thing remained possible, BBH applied pure magic dust and produced one of the most iconic, sustained and successful campaigns ever.

Its creative director, John Hegarty, is now 72 and still hangs out in a Soho office on Dean Street. ‘Punk had completely blown them apart,’ he says, ‘But I wanted the brand to live above fashion – to be iconic. The music we put to the commercials wasn’t fashionable – Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’. And the ‘Mad About the Boy’ song was an old Noël Coward song about gays. But that wasn’t the point. It was about originality. That was the core of it: originality in behaviour. That and making the product the hero.’

The most famous ad – ‘Launderette’ – sent the ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ soundtrack to Number 1 and made a star of unknown model Nick Kamen, stripped to his undercrackers. ‘I had the idea of a guy who had got to have the jeans the way he wanted them – stonewashed,’ says Hegarty. ‘Worn a bit. But he must do it himself.  And there were lots of little undercurrents in that commercial – it was a catwalk with people watching him, looking at him. He’s then going to take all his clothes off, apart from his boxer shorts, put them in the machine, because he hasn’t got any other jeans – "I don’t have six pairs of jeans". So it spoke in lots of different ways.’ 

The product flew off the shelves with sales of 501s up by 800%. The ad eventually had to be taken off the air because the factories couldn’t  meet demand. By 1987, sales of Levi’s jeans were 20 times what they had been just three years earlier. The commercial, incidentally, also boosted sales of boxer shorts to a record high. Kamen had only been dressed in the archaic, unfashionable underwear because BBH wasn’t allowed to show their Adonis in a pair of Y-fronts. 

The relationship endured 28 years until 2010 before the magic faded, sales dropped and it fell apart as all client/agency bonds do. What would Hegarty do now? ‘I’d tell them to go back to their roots. Whenever a brand gets into trouble you go back to what made you famous. Why? What was it? People will always wear jeans. But they’ve forgotten the art of persuasion. But that’s the story of the advertising industry today.’   

Those who remain Levi’s-persuaded and loyal are mostly men, and of a certain age. US males remain Levi’s most important customers. Americans buy two and a half times as many Levi’s as the whole of Europe. But a threat is the current trend towards greater formality at work. Even if it’s not suits, guys wear tapered slacks to the office rather than 501s. 

There is another, more menacing, development , ‘athleisure’ – wearing gym kit as everyday attire. Its main advocates are female who prefer the prospect of lounging around in yoga pants rather than jeans. The market is now 50/50 in the US. The Canadian upstart lululemon athletica, for example – some of whose products are made of seaweed – soared inside a decade to sales of getting on for a $1.5bn despite a ‘fat shaming’ scandal caused by its founder Chip Wilson. He made some tricky comments about women wearing his clothes wrongly or worse having body shapes that didn’t pass muster. 

Women are also a bit of a problem for Levi’s. Unlike many clothing makers who get the majority of business from female customers, Levi’s can manage only around a quarter. 

Last year Alicia Keys was hired to push the Lady Levi’s 701 product in an effort to remedy the situation, the first time Levi’s went down the celebrity endorsement route. Existing styles – including skinny, slim, bootcut and straight – were re-worked with innovative stretch fabrics and new fits. Getting the rear end, never mind the thighs, to look good in jeans isn’t straightforward if you’re a woman (or a man for that matter) but stretch is one of the answers. 

A focus on women has been one of the strategies of Chip Bergh, the CEO who joined in 2011. Bergh is an ex-US army captain and former P&G president in charge of global male grooming – he sports a regulation short back and sides. He’s also a vegan and a triathlete. He fired nine of 11 senior executives and set about getting $200 million of costs out of the business.

‘We’re scrambling,’ he admitted frankly in 2014, ‘I mean there is a big difference between the product we’ve got on the floor today and what the consumer is looking for. And we just flat-out missed it.’  

The company has allied itself to the philosophy of slow fashion. Traditionally very liberal, it has gone big on sustainability and corporate responsibility.  A pair of 501s uses 3,781 litres of water in its full life cycle – from growing the cotton, through manufacturing with all that indigo dye to washing them at home. Don’t wash your trousers, was the message sent out and Bergh appeared on stage in a pair of jeans that hadn’t seen a launderette despite being worn for over a year. ‘I have yet to get a skin disease,’ he proclaimed although what the olfactory result was isn’t recorded. 

In 2014, it collected 18,850 donated pairs of Levi’s to create a message about recycling on the San Francisco 49ers football field – it is the stadium sponsor. Afterwards, the jeans were donated to Goodwill where their sales benefited its job training programmes. 

A vast proportion of its market share also lies in the secondary market. But the fact that Levi’s is number one globally in second-hand stores and on eBay where tens of thousands of pairs of jeans are traded, does not help the struggling bottom line of the mother company. 

Denim is certainly an oddity as a fashion fabric: it was originally the material of manual labourers’ clothes, and it is the only one which is deliberately made to look old when it’s new. A massive industry of artificially distressing the stuff has grown up all the way from simple pre-ripping to weird fetishistic stuff like throwing pairs into cages containing tigers and bears who maul them. (This happened in Kamine Zoo in Hitachi City Japan and they were sold in the shop under the label Zoo Jeans.)  

Ownership of the company has been for many years in the hands of the Haas clan, the distant descendants of Levi Strauss himself. They performed a leveraged buy-out to remove it from the market in the 1990s, and it is now effectively a family business. When Bergh took over, there was still $1.9bn in gross debt of which $750m was paid down in three years. It now earns more than 25% of its revenues from nearly 600 company-owned stores all over the world. It can control the sales environment here and more importantly not beat itself up on price as mass-market retailers such as Walmart will do.

From Einstein to a flawed genius of a different kind – Steve Jobs. Jobs had a uniform of black turtlenecks made for him by Issey Miyake and he also had his ever-present Levi’s. Jobs chose Levi’s precisely because he didn’t want to have to think about what to wear each day. He quite literally launched the iPod out of the pocket of a pair of 501s in 2001. 

But even this became a double-edged endorsement. As Jobs grew more unwell, there was something deeply troubling about how the jeans hung from the coat hanger of the unfortunate man’s emaciated hips as he secretly battled the pancreatic cancer, which was to kill him. 

So, are things really so bad? A $4.5bn company ain’t peanuts. It makes more profit than the vast majority of Emperor’s New Clothes Silicon Valley start-ups. And if they have some spare fabric, there is always a passing sumo wrestler to give a free pair to for some publicity. Last year Yama, the heaviest Japanese sumo star in history at 584 pounds with a 76-inch waist, was fitted out at the flagship store on San Francisco’s Market Street. Levi’s had a new customer – it was the first pair Yama had had since he was a boy. Those jeans must have required a lot of Christopher Columbus sail cloth, if not an original-style riveted crotch. 

Why the Vice generation has gone off Levi’s

Ah, Levi's. The jeans your grandad wore when he was tunnelling into East Berlin to drop more delicious Coca-Cola into the mouths of the oppressed. Well, nowadays, we take our fashion cues more from the Commies than Team USA, and we like it like that. Shapelessness, blackness, drab normcore-ism – the fashion pendulum is about as far out from good ol’ boy Americana as it could be right now.

Levi’s is a half-submerged cultural myth for Gen Y – something you heard was cool once. It owns the brand space marked ‘authentic’ and ‘heritage’, but it mines it so ruthlessly that its own self-awareness has become a turn-off. It is the brand always banging on about its past, to the extent that you’re forced to ask: well what have you done for us lately? And the answer generally seems to run out around Flat Eric – the dinky yellow puppet that spawned a number one hit for Mr Oizo’s ‘Flat Beat’ in 1999, marking the end of a run of genius commercials that had made advertising itself cool again as much as Levi’s. 

It’s been a long time since Levi’s seemed invincible. It reclaimed its crown in the mid-80s via a hot stick of manflesh getting tastefully naked in a launderette, then sent The Clash to their first (posthumous) number one, then maintained a remarkably unchallenged supremacy until the late-90s, when the demotic feel of baggy and Britpop fashion finally started to give way to something more aspirational. 

All that Cold War cachet soon seemed a long time ago. Suddenly, jeans were supposed to cost the better part of £100. Diesel stole a march on everyone via a series of brilliantly nonsensical ‘ironic’ campaigns. Then Japan’s Evisu created a mania for its big-bummed denim by severely rationing stocks (and by stoking false rumours that it had bought the original Levi’s looms, at the exact moment when the narrative of Japanese quality supremacy versus US Rust Belt decline was at its height). 

At the same time, closer to the high street, the ‘high street designer’ likes of D&G and Katharine Hamnett came back into phase, and the trend-line craned towards the Croydon nightclub chic of FCUK – boosted by just the sort of genius campaigns Levi’s had once been able to rely on. 

Eventually, the pendulum in both music and fashion swung back towards simplicity, Yet even when drainpipe denim roared up every boy’s legs in the post-Strokes 2000s, Levi’s wasn’t left holding the lion’s share. Topshop/Man grew explosively, flogging their own lines. Then Primark specifically and the general Aldi turn in modern shopping meant that the middle was cored out – you’d either buy super cheap jeans you could waste, or something proper nice. The 60 quid mark was the hollow centre of the pie chart it was left holding. 

In the 2010s, the premium end has become the market-maker for a generation who don’t spend money on records any more. APC, YMC, AMI and Acne have all taken the designer jeans from the garish chunk-of-change product of 20 years ago into a more subtle, soft, artisanal, ‘humble’ direction. Full Commie, in other words, albeit with a Qatari price tag. 

Besides, beyond the brand, the stylist has become an ever-more important driver of the cool economy. Post-ASOS, post-Thread, recommendation engines and street-style blogs tell you precisely when to wear your brogues with chinos, when you want to mix white trainers with your ‘shacket’. Be it 501s or 511s, they’re items you can incorporate into a balanced wardrobe of ‘classics’ or ‘essentials’ alongside your Clarks and your Barbour jacket, rather than the foundation text of a youth uniform. Will work with some stuff, less with others, accessorise for the win. 

It’s not an easy terrain to make headway in, as much because Levi’s success is at the heart of its problems. It’s platinum chip, the one thing in denim everyone knows and trusts. Which is precisely why when your mum takes your dad down the Arndale, there’s a strong likelihood they’ll emerge with some of San Francisco’s finest. Is there actually something beautiful about Jeremy Clarkson and Joey Ramone occupying the same cultural trouserspace? Not particularly. 

Heritage can’t help it either. It came back once by selling 50s nostalgia to the 80s generation, but to try and sell that ideal on again to the 2010s would to risk fashion BSE. James Dean’s about as relevant as Rudolph Valentino from this distance. 

Could that little red tab make the fashion world gurgle again? Perhaps. If it fell into advanced disrepair. If Levi’s made it as far into laughing-stock territory as New Balance, it could come roaring back just as hard. But that’s not a strategy any exec could pursue. As it stands, it’s solid and stolid. Decent price, decent quality, OK cuts, still plodding along making clothes for everybody and nobody

Gavin Haynes is a freelance journalist and staff writer for Vice

This article was originally published in September 2016.


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