JAMES Curleigh recalls exactly the moment he saw the way forward for legacy brand Levi’s.
The newly appointed president and executive vice-president was flying in to San Francisco at 9.38pm on July 4, 2012. There were fireworks to celebrate US Independence Day but what Curleigh noticed was how, across the sprawling Silicon Valley, names such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook were visible from above.
“I thought, let’s make a 150-year-old start-up,” Curleigh says.
“What do start-ups want? They want scale and awareness and they want to be global. And what big companies want is agility, and the focus and the entrepreneurial spirit of the start-up. What if you could do both? It’s about leveraging our icons and leading with innovation. And getting that balance right is not only something that’s within our reach, but also critical to our brand and our business. And that’s the journey we’re on.”
Curleigh admits the company had lost its way in the past couple of decades, despite the fact that it has always been – since manufacturing the 501 in 1873 – the world’s top denim brand, with no obvious second in line.
“There are a hundred number twos,” he says. “I’m not sure that Levi’s did the best job this century of breaking through the clutter and stamping its leadership and authenticity on lifestyle (as a category). More jeans companies have been born this century, in the past 15 years, than in the previous 150 years. So that means noise, clutter, confusion, competition.”
He believes the company has been attacked on all sides – by premium denim, traditional denim, fast fashion, value and own-label categories. His answer? To rebuild the brand by leveraging the icons from the past as a premium alternative to fast fashion.
Branding has been reinforced by sponsorship of Levi’s Stadium – the high-tech home of the San Francisco 49ers football team. There will be a $220 million investment over 20 years in this 68,500-seater hub of sport, music and events in Levi’s hometown. “It was one of those very serendipitous moments where we were thinking of a big move,” Curleigh says. “We understood the opportunity, we looked at the investment, looked at what we could do to activate it. The single biggest insight was that in a stadium, whether it’s concerts or sports, 90 per cent of fans are wearing blue jeans. So why wouldn’t you connect with that fan base through Levi’s Stadium and be in the centre of culture?”
The brand still looks to its heritage when moving forward, such as with the recent release of the 501 CT – “Custom Taper” – for men and women, which customises the classic shape according to feedback from stylists and fans for a more modern silhouette. There’s also its commuter range for urban cyclists that takes classic shapes such as the 511 and women’s skinny jeans and adds details such as reflector linings on cuffs, as well as denim jackets that let water bead off in the rain.