America gasped last week when Levi Strauss announced it would close half its U.S. plants, lay off one-third of its employees and begin manufacturing its all-American pants on foreign soil.
This was the company that literally invented blue jeans in the 1850s, when Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss made riveted work pants for gold miners out of cloth used for ships' sails. Since then, Levi Strauss has evolved into just-plain-Levi's, a brand name known, like Coke, around the globe, and the single most potent symbol of American style on planet Earth. Levi's always meant simple, rugged, rebellious, sexy. But sales of the jeans have been sagging recently, which the company says is necessitating drastic action.
Is this the end of Levi's as an icon right up there with the flag and apple pie? To those who love style, does this signal the end of denim as America's bedrock fashion statement? Does the number 501--which for decades has defined the essence of cool--now mean nothing more than an area code for Arkansas?
Not to worry. Denim, the fabric, is thriving. It's a staple nationwide from top designer runways to truck-stop diners on Route 66. Most of us still wear jeans, at least part of the time. Children wear them, like uniforms, to school each day. Oceans of jeans fill Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart and all the nation's great department stores.
"Denim is one of the fastest-growing apparel fabrics and has been for the past 10 years. Retail sales have grown nearly 10% per year since 1990," says Berrye Worsham, president and chief executive of Cotton Inc., a research and promotion firm. Its recent surveys show that women, on average, own about 17 denim garments, including six or seven pairs of jeans; the rest are shirts, skirts, shorts, jackets, blouses. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed said they would buy more denim this year.
The big problem at Levi Strauss, industry experts say, is that the company may have grown too big for its britches. As the largest apparel company still manufacturing in the United States, it was so beloved for so long that no one in the family-owned firm believed its prowess could erode. Just last April, Levi Strauss' director of global marketing, Robert Holloway, was asked whether the company was coming unglued.
"We own jeans," he crowed.
Hubris wasn't the only factor, though. The company, based in San Francisco and well-known as a good corporate citizen, had offered fair wages and health care benefits to American workers long after all its major competitors moved their plants to countries where low wages and no benefits are the rule. As a result, many of Levi's competitors can sell their jeans for less.
Levi's basic women's jeans cost about $40 a pair, compared with store labels such as Old Navy, which cost about $23. Even if Levi's jeans were lower priced, retailers say, their styles are not all that current. And shoppers want more variety than they used to.
"Just take the subway and look at people's legs. A few years ago, you'd see a sea of blue denim. Today, you see khaki as well as other things," says Kurt Barnard, president of a retail trend forecasting report. "Cargo pants, baggy pants, women in leggings. . . ."
Those who are sticking with jeans--kids mostly--"want bell-bottoms, hip-huggers, the newest, coolest styles," Barnard continues. "Levi Strauss doesn't make that kind of thing. Levi's are what their stodgy baby-boomer parents wear."
Herb Fink, whose Theodore store has been a fashion fixture on Rodeo Drive for decades, stifles a yawn when asked about jeans.
"Quel bore," he sniffs in mock French. Upscale 90210 types are into "tight, sexy little pedal pusher types of things," he says.
At Sears, where Levi's are menswear staples, Chairman and Chief Executive Arthur Martinez recently said that when men came in looking for the new cargo and carpenter's pants, they found that Levi Strauss offered few of them. Martinez says Sears' own private label brand, Canyon River Blues, will fill in that gap from now on. J.C. Penney has had success with its trendy Arizona brand.
Indeed, Levi Strauss has been losing ground to all sorts of labels, private and otherwise. From high-priced stores specializing in designer jeans by Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, to mainstream outlets like the Gap and low-priced mass markets like Wal-Mart, consumers are shopping for the look and fit they like, rather than for the label. And there are thousands of jeans manufacturers, big and small, coming up with variations on all the current hot denim looks for young and old.
There are still millions of men and women who only will settle for Levi's. Christine Dinola, 28, of Glendale, was buying 501s at a Miller's Outpost the other day. She says she "fell in love" with 501s as a teen and never fell out of love.
"They're the best denim out there. They fade to the greatest shades. The older they get, the better they look. Nothing can touch a good-looking tush in Levi's 501s--man or woman. You show me a man in Armani and a guy in Levi's--I'll take the Levi guy any day."
But--right now, anyway--there just aren't as many Christine Dinolas as there used to be.