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Levi Imitates Art: Warhol's Work to Pop Up on Clothes

The apparel maker hopes that a line of $250 jeans, $300 jackets and other pieces will help it turn around its business.

August 25, 2005|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Four decades after Andy Warhol made Campbell's Soup cans chic, San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. is betting that he can help boost business by getting shoppers to fork over $190 for a cashmere T-shirt.

Eighteen years after his death, the Pop artist remains part of the fashion scene -- thanks to his nonprofit foundation, which licenses his artwork on clothes, china, luggage and even rugs.

Joel Wachs, a former Los Angeles councilman who is president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York, said the artist's name still resonated with young people.

In the biggest deal for the foundation to date, the jeans maker is creating a Warhol Factory X Levi's line of men's and women's clothing, including $250 jeans and $300 jackets. The collection will be unveiled to prospective retail buyers at a trade show in Las Vegas next week.

Levi's relationship with the artist dates to 1984, when it commissioned him to create art for its "501 Blues" ad campaign. "He wore Levi's most of his life," said Amy Gemellaro, a spokeswoman for the jeans maker.

The deal comes as the 152-year-old Levi is working to turn around its business, which lost ground to competitors over the last decade. The company has worked in recent years to regain its footing by laying off thousands of workers, closing its North American manufacturing plants and launching its low-priced Levi Strauss Signature brand that sells in Wal-Mart and Target stores.

Although the company does not release sales information about various segments of its business, Gemellaro said the apparel maker had been successful with its higher-priced jeans, which range from $70 to $500. (Its lowest-priced jeans sell for about $20.)

Levi and other premium jeans makers -- many of them based in L.A. County -- have been buoyed by what seems to be an insatiable interest in high-end denim. But some analysts have continued to worry about a "denim glut." Although jeans are a must-have in the back-to-school selling period, now at full throttle, an oversupply could drag down prices and hurt profits for Levi and its competitors. Some retailers have been cutting prices on jeans, analysts say.

The Warhol line wouldn't affect Levi's sales or profit this year because it will debut next spring.

Wachs, the foundation president, said it was not surprising that the apparel maker was embracing Warhol's images.

"Levi is synonymous with American culture in the same way that Warhol is," Wachs said. "Levi is an iconic brand and Andy Warhol is an iconic artist."

Levi said it would direct design and marketing while a foundation consultant would manage sales, execution and logistics.

Warhol, who started out as a commercial artist in New York in the 1950s, drew raves in 1962, when he exhibited silk-screen paintings of Campbell's Soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles and wooden replicas of Brillo soap pad boxes. He quickly became a style maker, influencing a host of visual artists and fashion designers.

"Fashion," Andy Warhol once said, "wasn't what you wore someplace anymore. It was the whole reason for going."

Gemellaro said Levi would use some of Warhol's most famous images, including those of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, in its new collection.

That's simply a reprise of Warhol's work. The artist put his images on T-shirts and tote bags in the 1980s and helped design a line of clothing based on a series of paintings.

Wachs said the foundation's licensing program had been growing "steadily and significantly in the U.S. and worldwide" over the last four years. Money generated from the royalties is used to support "cutting-edge contemporary arts," he said. Beneficiaries have included the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Self Help Graphics & Art in East L.A. and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Wachs said.

Wachs declined to reveal the terms of Levi's deal beyond saying it was the foundation's largest to date.

This year, the foundation struck a deal with Costa Mesa sportswear maker Paul Frank Industries, which is as inextricably linked to a monkey's face as Warhol was with a Campbell's Soup can.

Designer Paul Frank took a different approach with his Warhol collection, which arrived in stores last month. Instead of using the better-known images from Warhol's archives, the sportswear and accessories designer selected from Warhol's earlier works as an illustrator.

"Creatively, we didn't want to just choose Campbell's Soup and Brillo and all the things Andy Warhol is most known for," company President Ryan Heuser said. The Paul Frank line includes T-shirts, zip-up hoodies, pajamas and accessories. Prices range from $28 to $68.

Sales, Heuser said, "are incredible."

Connecting with Warhol made sense for privately held Paul Frank because the Costa Mesa artist shared "design sensibilities" that include the use of humor and a bright color palette, as well as "a certain kitschiness," Heuser said.

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Artwork placement

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