It has been a stretch, but Levi’s is driving back into the women’s market
The California denim company is going retro into the future
To entice more women to buy its jeans, Levi’s is looking to the past and the future all at once.
Following a 2015 update of its women’s collection, which included a refresh of fits and fabrications, Levi Strauss & Co is diving into the white-hot vintage jean market with the global launch of Levi’s Authorized Vintage.
This collection of 50,000 jeans from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, priced at $US300 ($393) a pair, aims to compete with purveyors who have made a killing selling archival denim — much of it Levi’s. Both moves are intended to catapult Levi’s out of several years of stagnation.
“We were sitting on an aged icon,” says James Curleigh, who was hired as Levi’s president five years ago.
Silhouettes were in need of updating and the overall collection was lacking in vitality, he says. He says Levi’s global businesses were idling, without a focused strategy, and it was slow to leverage the surge in online shopping.
Levi’s revitalised its e-commerce business, investing more significantly in overseas markets, particularly Europe.
It also put new emphasis on casual wear such as T-shirts, shorts and trucker jackets, which has boosted sales in that category by double digits. But enticing more women to buy Levi’s was critical.
Blame it on yoga pants: once “athleisure” entered their vocabulary during the past decade, women weren’t about to slip back into stiff skinny jeans. In 2015, Levi’s started quizzing women about their favourite pair of jeans.
“We learned how important fabric was and how important comfort was,” says Karyn Hillman, Levi’s chief product officer. The company began weaving stretch into the jeans’ cotton. Today, 80 per cent of Levi’s jeans contain stretch, including the 711, a 2 per cent stretch pair that has become the bedrock of a women’s line, which posted double-digit sales growth this past year.
When Jen Sey, Levi’s chief marketing officer, joined the company 18 years ago, women made up 30 per cent of jeans customers. Today, that number is closer to 60 per cent.
Levi’s is benefiting from the rise in female customers, racking up four straight years of growth; third-quarter sales were up another 7 per cent.
Levi’s also has capitalised on the broader cultural focus on nostalgia. “Levi’s is the core, pioneer denim brand and people are really attracted to that,” says Bloomingdale fashion direction vice-president Heather Shimokawa.
Millennial shoppers in particular are contributing to a growing vintage fashion trend, according to Ayako Homma, a senior research analyst at Euromonitor International, a market research firm. “Jean companies are using vintage styles to attract consumers who are new to the brand,” she says.
Levi’s introduced the Wedgie, a high-rise jean reminiscent of Charlie’s Angels- era hip-huggers, and a revitalised 501, which has been in production since 1873, with tapered and skinny iterations that echo its iconic 70s and 80s style.
Current ad campaigns feature jeans worn by classic male rockers but modelled by contemporary female musicians such as Alicia Keys, Haim and Solange.
Indeed, Levi’s’ vintage appeal helped inspire ReDone, a threeyear-old specialty denim label that tailors vintage men’s jeans to fit modern women and sells for upward of $US300 at 350 stores in 27 countries. But rather than send a cease and desist order, Levi’s saw an opportunity. It began its Autho- rized Vintage program in 2015, with ReDone as the first approved partner.
Last week, Authorized Vintage went global: at a trade show last year, Curleigh was approached by a man claiming to have a collection of vintage Levi’s. Not just a few pairs but a stash of more than 50,000 mostly US-made jeans. Levi’s scooped them up and will sell and tailor them at Levi’s retail outlets nationwide. The jeans will also be available for designer partners such as Virgil Abloh of OffWhite and Diane Von Furstenberg to recycle as part of future collaborations. Says Curleigh: “A pair of jeans that someone bought 30 years ago for $US30 can now be worth $US300 because there’s value in authenticity.”