Levis Gets A New Sheriff

Telegraph, Apr 2013

The world’s leading brand of jeans for 140 years, Levi’s appeared to have lost its mojo – until a new sheriff rode into town.


Photograph by Amanda Marsalis

Also at the Telegraph

The Haus of Strauss is a discreet building a stone’s throw from the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Typically, this is where Levi’s invites celebrities for private fittings and such, but tonight it is celebrating the 140th anniversary of the 501, the first ever blue jeans; there will be dinner at the Chateau, followed by a Levi’s-sponsored gig by Frank Ocean down the road. This is the Friday before the Grammys, and Ocean is only a couple of days short of collecting on two of his six nominations. But tonight Ocean sings for Levi’s. And he’s not the only one. ‘Come gather round people wherever you roam!’ A tall, bearded man is belting out The Times They Are A-changin’ by Bob Dylan. ‘And admit that the waters around you have grown!’ Introducing the president of Levi’s, James Curleigh.

It’s risky for a corporate type to appropriate ‘cool’ like that, particularly someone as revered as Dylan. But Curleigh’s no stranger to danger, having been to Everest Base Camp in 1995; that’s the kind of executive he is. Besides, he has good reason to sing. Levi’s has been the market leader ever since it secured the patent for ‘Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings’ – adding copper rivets to reinforce work pants – way back on May 20 1873 (originally known as the XX jean, the 501 didn’t earn its tag until 1890), though when Curleigh joined in July 2012, Levi’s appeared to have lost its mojo somewhat. ‘We were still number one,’ he tells me later, ‘but it didn’t feel that way, you know?’

Curleigh – ‘Call me JC’ – is a rangy and commanding presence, with a powerful voice and unruly hair. He has the appearance of an outdoorsman or a music executive, and his hiring makes a statement of some sort; that Levi’s is the kind of global corporation that isn’t run by a traditional suit, but by a customer, a loyal one at that. ‘I gave a presentation with Bill Clinton last year at the White House,’ Curleigh says. ‘Everyone was wearing a suit, but I was wearing Levi’s. And this was before I got the job.’

He has other credentials besides his wardrobe. He came to Levi’s from Keen in Portland, Oregon, a 10-year-old footwear company whose revenues he doubled over the course of four years. Before that he spent 12 years at Salomon Sports North America, which he transformed from a skiwear and equipment firm to what he described as a ‘freedom action sports brand’. Two young firms, in other words, which he took on a steep growth trajectory.

But Levi’s is a different matter entirely. A heritage brand almost as old as slavery – 501s were patented 10 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (other lines were introduced later) – Levi’s is sewn into the cultural fabric of America. It is to denim what Coca-Cola is to soft drinks. And yet Curleigh says he wants to treat Levi’s like ‘a 140-year-old start-up’. ‘The denim landscape has shifted dramatically over the last 20 years,’ he says.

Workers in the Levi’s factory, c1880. Photo: Levi’s

We are at the West Hollywood venue where Frank Ocean is due to play, and where the Levi’s team has hastily constructed a 501 museum, charting the brand’s story from the gold rush to now. ‘You’ve got more premium players than ever putting pressure on from the top. There are more value players at the bottom pushing up. You’ve got the traditional competition in the middle, like the Lees and Wranglers and Diesels, and then you’ve got the verticals – the H&Ms and the Gaps who make their product to sell in their own stores, so they’re what we call “vertically integrated”. Here we are in the middle – and don’t forget, 20 years ago, regardless of industry, the middle was the strongest place to be, whether you’re Ford or Nike or whoever. But now?’ He tucks his arms close to his chest, doubles over and grunts. ‘You’re getting squeezed.’

Levi’s hit its commercial peak in 1997 when sales exceeded $7 billion. By 2003 sales had dropped to $4.1 billion. By the time Curleigh arrived, this drop had subdued the mood at Levi’s and it had become more focused on the competition than its strengths.

‘Remember The Wizard of Oz ? The moral of that story is that you do have a heart, you do have courage and you do have a brain,’ Curleigh says. ‘Well, it’s the same thing here. We have our premium line, with the Vintage Collections. We have our own stores, so we’re vertically integrated. We have our fashion expression, with the Made & Crafted line. So Levi’s has everything that you could want. The real question is, how do we amplify that? We tell our story.’

A wooden shop display board from the 1950s. Photo: Levi’s

All brands need a story, but few are as epic as that of Levi’s. There is even a Levi’s archive on the ground floor of the head office in San Francisco, where the tale is finessed by a dedicated company historian, Lynn Downey. All new staffers are sent to Downey for orientation. The story of Levi’s is the story of blue jeans, which is the story of America – at least that’s how Levi’s sees it. And it is hard to deny, as Curleigh walks me through the exhibits, each one depicting a momentous era for the brand: the gold rush, the construction of the Empire State Building, the Depression, the war, Woodstock, and the Berlin Wall.

Curleigh has a talent for buzzwords, such as ‘original’, ‘authentic’ and ‘progress’, but this isn’t a story that needs selling. It is remarkable enough that in the 1870s a Bavarian immigrant, Levi Strauss, should have created a product that not only became an emblem of America for 140 years and the most popular manufactured item of clothing in the world, but did so more or less unchanged. There have been tweaks along the way, some of which you’d notice – such as the move from one back pocket to two, or from the cinchback to belt loops via buttons for braces – and some that only a denim nerd could spot, such as the switch from a big ‘E’ to a small ‘e’ in Levi’s or how, as the story goes, the crotch rivet was abandoned after cowboys, who like to squat in front of campfires, complained of burning.

But the strength and magic of the brand lies not in its mutations but in its consistency. (Still today the company is privately held by descendants of the founder, two of whom sit on the board of directors.) And consistency is built on its immense, almost overwhelming popularity. Today Levi’s are sold in an impressive 55,000 stores in 110 countries. Revenues in 2012 were $4.6 billion, of which $3.9 billion were exclusively Levi’s brand sales. It may not be as many as in the late 1990s, but nevertheless that is a lot of jeans.

‘Everyone from the President to the coal miner wears jeans,’ Curleigh says, ‘but people style it in so many different ways. It’s one item interpreted many ways over many years.’ There’s something charmed about 501s, the way their popularity appears to transcend anything the company effected. In some respects the company is more of a curator than a creator of the brand’s success. As Curleigh admits, the Levi’s story is full of quirks and associations that, while immensely profitable, came about more by accident than design. He stops in front of the Second World War exhibit by way of example. ‘During the war American soldiers would leave their Levi’s behind in France,’ he says. ‘And guess what? Today our number two market in the world is still France. Think of that! We didn’t have an export strategy, it just happened.’

At the time, the brand was considered workwear, the uniform of labour, poverty even; Elvis shunned blue jeans for that very reason. But that changed postwar, when returning soldiers formed biker clubs and counterculture began its rise. Again, Levi’s was perfectly positioned. When Marlon Brando epitomised rebel cool in The Wild One, he was wearing a pair of 501s. ‘We didn’t ask him to,’ Curleigh says. ‘Or James Dean. This was their choice.’

Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1954), wearing a pair of 501s; James Dean in 1955. Photos: REX

At the time Levi’s shied away from its rebel associations, choosing instead to promote a more clean-cut collegiate look. It wasn’t until 1967 that it dared to tap into counterculture by booking Jefferson Airplane to record a radio commercial. But by then 501s had an irresistible momentum of their own. By the 1970s blue jeans were more or less universal; the rich wore them for the authenticity of the working man, the young wore them for the fashion and rebellion. And the 1980s was a decade of unprecedented growth in which the brand’s resonance worldwide could scarcely have been more positive; until the end of the Cold War, blue jeans were considered such a symbol of America that they were often used as currency in the Eastern Bloc.

It may seem odd that such a steeped American brand was born on the west coast and not in the heartland where cowboys roam. Its global headquarters, Levi’s Plaza, is a large brick building near the water in San Francisco, and Levi’s is keen to stress its Californian roots – particularly now, given America’s tarnished reputation. ‘If I say America, we can talk about pros and cons,’ Curleigh says. ‘But if I say California, what do you think of? Progress. The edge of the modern frontier.’

An in-store sales ad from the 1950s. Photo: Levi’s

This isn’t just marketing (though the company does a fine job of that, too). Levi’s is a San Francisco company at its core, and a proud advocate of the kind of left-coast liberalism for which its home city is renowned. In a very real sense 501s are not just the uniform of progress, but of progressive values. When the Aids pandemic broke in the early 1980s, Levi’s announced that none of its HIV positive employees would be dropped from its insurance. In 1992 Levi’s was the first Fortune 500 company to give gay partners the same full company health insurance benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. And on sustainability, Levi’s is taking a pioneering role with two major programmes – waterless jeans (which require on average 28 per cent less water to produce) and wasteless jeans (which employ thread made in part from recycled plastic bottles).

The quintessential Levi’s ad with Nick Kamen from 1985. Photo: Levi’s

I’m of the generation that will always associate Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it through the Grapevine and Nick Kamen undressing in a launderette with stonewashed jeans. But that was the 1980s, a decade of commercialism when Americana retained the romance of the American dream. Today the national mood has been deformed by wars, recession and a climate of unrest and frustration. And so Levi’s has had to pivot accordingly, a task that fell to its creative director Len Peltier, a bubbling enthusiast of music and culture who arrived in 2007 after a long spell at Virgin Records. ‘We realised that what we were doing wasn’t working,’ he says. ‘Coming out of the 90s, the ads were playful and wry, with a flirtatious, sexualised humour about them – the girl stealing the guy’s 501s, that kind of thing. But the kids weren’t responding to it. So we created Go Forth to get the spirit of the brand back.’

Perhaps because Levi’s had already survived one depression, in the 1930s, the Go Forth campaign (the first ad in its campaign aired in 2009) evoked the moment beautifully. It launched with a dark commercial featuring young people getting up and moving forwards while a sign spelling AMERICA sinks into a marsh. Peltier calls it a ‘brand restart’. ‘I thought I was in trouble with that commercial,’ he says with a laugh. ‘But there was an honesty that I think kids responded to. Kids aren’t really chasing the American dream, they just want to do something that they like.’

2013’s ‘What’s your interpretation?’ ad campaign is part of 501s’ ‘brand restart’. Photo: Levi’s

Now Go Forth is a mantra at Levi’s. Curleigh talks about Frank Ocean as a ‘Go Forth artist’ having his ‘Go Forth moment’. He insists it’s ‘more than just a tagline for us. It’s a call to action.’ The other mantra of Curleigh’s (and therefore Levi’s) is ‘uniform of progress’. It has become the company’s way of unifying its narrative and mood and threading together all the eras of its history, from the gold rush to the digital revolution.

I ask Curleigh how this sense of progress applies today – how ‘the fabric that built America’ can remain relevant at a time when there’s precious little building going on. ‘No, we’re still the uniform of progress, look around!’ he says. ‘We’re in the same city as Apple, Instagram and everyone else. And guess what the uniform of progress is for Silicon Valley? You’ve seen Mark Zuckerberg. It’s 501s and a hoodie. It’s still their modern day workwear.’ He smiles. ‘And we’re not paying him to wear it, either.’