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The Past, Present, and Future of Denim

A conversation with the president of Levi's

Published April 25, 2014
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A few years ago I was invited to give a talk at a summit hosted by my colleagues at Women's Wear Daily. Scanning the schedule beforehand, I saw that the speaker slated to go on ahead of me was the CEO of Keen. Keen? The company that makes those funky-looking rubber shoes? How granola would that guy be? I figured he'd give a dry, wonky presentation that would serve as a nice warm-up for my rhetorical fireworks. Boy, was I wrong. James Curleigh turned out to be a rock star of public speaking: funny, articulate, electric even. Following him was like following Bob Dylan. Two years ago, when Curleigh—or J.C., as he prefers to be called—was named president of the Levi's brand, I wasn't surprised. It seemed he had the energy, the vision, and, most of all, the balls to steer a $4.6 billion behemoth into the 21st century. This week, I called him up to talk about the past, present, and future of denim—and the company that started it all.

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It's denim week on Style.com, a subject you know a little bit about. When you look at the denim market today, what do you see?

I see three things happening. I think there's nostalgia—i.e., brands and denim trying to connect to the past through vintage dynamics, through wear and tear, through customization, all sorts of reference to the past. I see novelty, meaning what's hot right now in terms of novelty. Is it decoration? Is it some type of material that will come and go relatively quickly as a look? It's not true innovation, it's more just novelty and look. And then I see also the future unfolding in terms of what I call next evolution. That includes a lot of material evolution, that softness that comes with this whole notion of leisure. We're seeing categories that a few years ago were not even considered a true category, like yoga-inspired lifestyle product. Comfort, practicality, and versatility are being offered through the sporting good world, but why can't it be offered through denim in terms of evolution? That's what I'm seeing. I've never seen it more past, present, and future than it is now.

How does a brand like Levi's address those areas? Where do you see yourself fitting into that spectrum?

I think we've probably always had that appropriate balance of looking back to our past, our heritage, our authenticity. We have a platform called Levi's Vintage Clothing, and Levi's Vintage Clothing is always our very specific nod to the best of Levi's from the past, and we continue to evolve that collection. It's exact replicas of the 501 in the years that mattered most, from ’46 to ’66. We have that in place. In terms of being on trend right now, we have products like Commuter, which is our performance platform designed for cyclists. We really put a lot of thought and attention into how we deal with performance needs for both men and women. In terms of what's next, we've actually built an innovation center here less than a year ago, in San Francisco. We call it the Eureka Lab, Eureka being the very first town that discovered gold years ago. We've just decided to take innovation literally into our own hands, to build the what's-next product through fabric, through sustainability, craftsmanship, taking different products and trying to put variations on them for the future.

Is there any limit to what you can do with denim?

I always say that there is a fine line between novelty and true innovation. Very few denim brands can truly claim to innovate. If you look at 99 percent of any pair of jeans today, there are typically five pockets, there are typically rivets, there is typically some type of leather patch or design on the back pocket. All of those literally came from Levi's over a hundred years ago. So the ability to innovate, a lot of it has been through fabric, through fit, and through finish. I think where it goes from here, I think there are going to be all sorts of interesting fabric conversations. There are also going to be finish conversations, where you can take denim to a much more sophisticated level. Think of what casual Friday did and how we're seeing that now it's acceptable for denim to be in more places. I actually went to an event, and literally they sent me an invitation and at the bottom it said, "No jeans allowed," and I started thinking to myself: At what point does that just sound ridiculous, you know? Like jeans could be ubiquitous everywhere. We just relaunched the Bing Crosby tuxedo for LVC, and I could imagine denim being appropriate for almost every occasion. And not just to be a rebel with denim but actually as a material. The way it's being worked on now is going to be really, really interesting. I think more consumers are looking for very simple solutions with denim, but they want to know that there is sophistication built into it. I think that's what's happening in consumer goods. Think of your smartphone. You want to know that it's super-simple to operate but the sophistication is built into it. Think of the coffee that you drink. You just want a cup of coffee in the morning, but the sophistication and the story that go into creating that coffee is part of the experience. I think people want simple, simple solutions in their denim and their jeans, but they want to know that it's built with sophistication and that some type of craftsmanship went into it. That's where I think the future goes. At all price levels, by the way, not just in premium.

Talking about price level and premium, how does a brand like yours stay consistent to its voice and continue to stand out when you do have to address all these different areas? Obviously it's easier for a small brand that can say, "We are just about premium denim."

Yeah, that's a great question, it's one we ask often. I call it the modern-day Wizard of Oz story at Levi's—you know, we actually have everything we need to succeed in the future. We just have to reveal it to ourselves. The way we're going to reveal that—and we will reveal it—very few denim brands have a unique product. Very few denim brands have a named item that resonates with the past, the present, and, hopefully, the future. We have, for instance, the 501. The 501 is synonymous with all sorts of relevancy to the past. It's our heritage, it's the original, it was the jean that started it all, and it continued to be relevant for the last 150 years. So one of the ways we can actually positively differentiate from all the other brands is still to celebrate iconic status. Most brands wish they had one icon. At Levi's, we have multiple icons: We have the 501, we have the trucker jacket, we have the Western shirt, the one-pocket T-shirt…We do have a unique advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it. We have names of products that matter to people. Can you name any named item from [goes off the record to name two Levi's rivals]?

What is it about denim that makes it so versatile? Its appeal goes across generations, and every subculture seems to be able to adapt denim in its own way.

We talk about denim but also Levi's as being the uniform of progress. If you look at the last 150 years, somehow denim—and by virtue of denim, Levi's—has always been relevant at the edge of the modern frontier. It was gold miners, it was the uniform of cowboys, and then it was the non-uniform of soldiers. In the war, after they got out of uniform, they put on a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt. Postwar, it became the rebel with or without a cause movement, then music, and then it was synonymous with freedom at Woodstock and peace, and then synonymous with democracy as the Berlin Wall came down. So, somehow, denim has always represented more than just a style point of view, it's represented progress for the next generation. And, to your point, the next generation then interprets that style of denim in their own way. What's great about that is very rarely is it a marketing effort on behalf of a brand, it's usually a fan-driven dynamic that brands then react to. Think of the simple dynamic of leg opening. How does it go from wide-leg in a certain era to super-skinny tapered? I guarantee you in our lifetime we will see wide-leg again!

Photos: Courtesy of Levi's

Maybe not personally, but you never know.

Again, it won't be because brands say that, it'll be because a certain group—just think, it wasn't that long ago when the baggy, relaxed fit was truly the street look, and how fast has that changed!

They're building a new home for the San Francisco 49ers and it'll be called Levi's Stadium. How did that come about?

It was one of those very simple conversations. You know the mascots that people have? The mascot for the 49ers is a guy named Sourdough Sam and he wears jeans. And we said, "Why doesn't Sourdough Sam wear Levi's?" And all of a sudden we opened a conversation with the 49ers, and next thing you know, it's going to be Levi's Stadium.

So you just wanted to get your Levi's on a mascot and you ended up with a stadium?

Pretty much, yeah…The city loves it, the team loves it. It's not a bank or an insurance company or some tech company that no one's ever heard of. It's Levi's Stadium, it's going to be our living room.

I assume that didn't come cheap?

No, it's out there in the public domain. It's a twenty-year deal, $220 million for twenty years, but this was widely perceived to be one of the best deals in stadium naming rights ever. We signed the deal, and then a week later we got Super Bowl 50, which automatically made the deal look even better.

Was your first pair of jeans Levi's? Tell the truth.

Absolutely. I tell people I've only been at Levi's for two years but literally have been wearing Levi's all my life. We didn't have much money growing up. My dad was a Navy helicopter pilot, but my mom always had us in Levi's. My first pair was orange tab in the seventies, which, ironically, now we brought back through LVC. I walked into our LVC showroom, I saw this T-shirt, I saw this orange tab, and I had a real flashback to 1978. I was like, "Oh, my God, I had that T-shirt, I had those orange tabs." That was my uniform when I was 12 years old.

You mentioned sustainability before—that's a concern across the industry now and obviously specifically with a huge company like yours. How do you address that and how do you balance that to where you could turn completely sustainable? It's a challenge, I imagine.

I'll try to give you the sort of rapid version because this could be a conversation to its own, but I fundamentally believe that Levi's has always been a leader of sorts in sustainability. Since Day One we were born through a specific design challenge: Can you make a pair of pants last longer, i.e., more durable, more sustainable? Just the rivet alone made the product last much longer than originally intended, which is a pretty good definition of sustainability. Then, if you look at other dynamics of sustainability, I think it's fascinating that most people when their clothes wear out, they move on. They either throw them away or they give them away to Goodwill, but at Levi's, people would patch their jeans, and then when they couldn't patch them anymore, they would cut them off and make cutoffs. And then, I don't know if you know this, but we are the number one market share leader in used clothing stores around the world. So our product even gets sustained beyond its original purchase into the used market. That might not be a measure of scientific sustainability, but it certainly is a consumer-driven sustainability dimension that I think is very real. And fast-forward to this century, now almost $1 billion of our sales is through our waterless jeans. Waterless was a program where we said how could we use significantly less water in the process. So we drove that and it's no longer just a side project. Last year we launched our wasteless series. We took eight recycled plastic bottles, blended them with cotton to make our own proprietary blend, and launched our wasteless series. So really trying to get on the forefront of sustainability with materials.

When I first met you, you were with Keen. I'm curious, what was the biggest change coming to Levi's?

Well, I don't know if it's a surprise but sort of the revelation is—at Keen, we truly were born in this century. We were less than ten years old and the future was ahead of us. We by our very nature were entrepreneurial. We truly were a startup, and at Keen we dreamed about global scale and building an authentic brand and having innovation drive it. Then all of a sudden you come to Levi's and you realize that Levi's has everything that I was trying to build at Keen. It already has authenticity, it has innovation as a platform, it has originality, it has global scale, it has high awareness. But what Levi's, I think, was missing was the entrepreneurial spirit of survival and challenge and risk and courage and making decisions on a daily basis that mattered. And so I realized after a few months that, especially being in San Francisco, maybe the simple sort of solution is how can we drive Levi's toward being a 150-year-old startup. How can we take the scale and authenticity and heritage and blend it with the speed and the agility and the innovation and the dynamic of a startup.

Has that been a challenge?

Initially, I think. It always sounds good for a new leader to be like, "Let's be a 150-year-old startup," but at the same time we've put real plans in place. We built an innovation lab—I mean, we literally now have a place where we can innovate. And that's what a startup would do: A startup would have a place where they can make things. So we have that in place. I think also startups would understand how to get the right balance of talent and organize yourself in a simple way, so I've rebuilt the leadership team for the Levi's brand by getting some of the best merchants and designers from around the world but also really encouraging the people who were here to think a little bit more simply about the future, but then back it up with the sophistication of a $4 billion-plus brand like Levi's. One of my favorite expressions is we're being aggressively patient.

How do you go about maintaining the cool factor in all this? Is that something that crosses your mind?

It's a great question because if you try too hard, you're contrived. If you don't try hard enough, you become irrelevant. So it's trying to get that balance right…We don't drive it through a contrived marketing platform, it gets driven by our fans. We didn't have a store outside Woodstock in 1969 selling Levi's, yet we probably had 90 percent of the market share, and if you weren't wearing Levi's, you were probably naked.

Photos: Courtesy of Levi's
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