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Strauss, Levi and Company

levi’s business jeans apparel

B. February 26, 1829

D. September 28, 1902

Birthplace: Buttenheim, Bavaria

Awards: Smithsonian Institution, Levi’s preserved, 1966
         German Apparel Supplier of the Year, 1990
         National Business Hall of Fame inductee, 1994
         National Business and Labor Award for Leadership on HIV/AIDS, the United States Centers for Disease Control, 1997
         Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership, 1998

There is no more distinctly American item of apparel than blue jeans. For close to 150 years, Levi’s jeans have captured the attitude and spirit of Americans of all ages. Levi Strauss and Company spans five generations of American history, witnessing economic, social, and technological changes including war, space travel, the telegraph, the automobile, and the Internet. Levi’s blue jeans have the unique distinction of being the only item of apparel developed in the nineteenth century that is still made today.

Levi (Loeb) Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant, came to New York with his mother and sisters in 1847 to join his brothers in their dry-goods business. In 1853 Strauss followed the migration of miners and settlers west to San Francisco to open his own dry-goods business. His business prospered, but it would be almost twenty years before Strauss received the business proposition that would change fashion forever. A Nevada tailor, Jacob Davis, who frequently purchased fabric from Strauss, had developed a pair of pants with metal rivet at the stress points on the pockets and fly, but he lacked the funds to apply for a patent. In exchange for a one-half share of the company, Strauss agreed to fund the patent application and on May 20, 1873, the patented was granted and Levi’s waist overalls were officially “born.”

The new waist overalls were immediately popular, but not just because of their durability. The waist overalls shrank to fit the body; the loose fit of other pants caused blisters when riding horseback. Strauss’s success allowed him to expand his business and he bought Mission and Pacific Woolen mills in 1874 to develop a line of blanket-lined coats and pants. In 1890 Strauss incorporated his dry-goods business as Levi Strauss and Company and continued to prosper as a manufacturer of sturdy work apparel. Strauss died in 1902, leaving the business to his four nephews, who had been working with him since 1876.

The history of Levi Strauss and Company (LS & Co.) reads like a chronology of U.S. political and social history. During World War II U.S. soldiers who wore Levi’s jeans overseas, introduced them to an international audience. As America moved into the television age, Levi’s were there, making their first television commercial in 1966. During the birth of the women’s liberation movement, Levi’s expanded into women’s apparel in 1968. In 1984, LS & Co. was the official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic Team. The introduction of Dockers in 1986 and Slates in 1996 revolutionized menswear and blazed a path for the now standard casual Fridays.

Levi Strauss and Company is privately held. Public shares were issued in 1971 to finance expansion, but in 1985 the shares were all repurchased by family members. LS & Co. is one of the largest manufacturers of men’s, women’s, and children’s jeans and sportswear, employing nearly 30,000 people in three international divisions in the United States, Europe, and Asia. As a corporation, LS & Co. has contributed over $20 million internationally to educational scholarships, HIV/AIDS programs, and community support programs, and has developed global sourcing and operating guidelines that established standards for fair labor practices and business operations for all companies conducting business with it.

However, LS & Co. has seen its share of problems and has sustained losses in market share. The first blow to Levi’s jeans came during the 1980s designer jean craze, when jeans by designers such as Calvin Klein became an important status symbol. During the 1990s, Levi’s jeans suffered from the growth of private-label lines carried in department stores such as J.C. Penny and Sears, Roebuck and Company, and the rise of private-label retailers such as The Gap, Inc., and Eddie Bauer. Levi’s also failed to incorporate new fashion trends into their product offerings, and designers such as Tommy Hilfiger came to define the new classic American image.

Since the late 1990s Levi Strauss has made a concerted effort to redefine its image and regain lost market share. The company discontinued its sixty-seven-year relationship with advertising agency Foote, Cone and Belding and hired the Chiat/Day agency to create new advertising campaigns targeted at Generation X. The one-time uniform of youthful rebellion, which was worn by James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Marlon Brando in the Wild One , (1954) was now abandoned by Gen X. Levi’s were not “cool” anymore. They were replaced by The Gap, Inc., among the college set and FUBU among the hip-hop crowd. To reach these lost audiences, Levi Strauss began to sponsor a wide range of events such as Lillith Fair, Lauren Hill concerts, and skateboarding expositions, and created a line of clothing for the Mod Squad remake. However, the split focus of these new advertising and public relations events only perpetuated the existing brand confusion and saw little regain in lost market share.

LS & Co. was also late in establishing an Internet retail business. The first site they established had features such as a “Fit Calculator,” “Style Finder,” and “Changing Room,” which provided custom-fit ordering and a virtual dressing room but not on-line sales. They also refused to allow any of their retail outlets to sell Levi’s through their websites leaving online shoppers with only one choice—to buy private-label jeans. When companies such as Eddie Bauer and The Gap went online in 1995 and 1997, respectively, Levi’s jeans suffered yet another blow. When Levi Strauss finally decided to accept online sales transactions in 1998, customers were already conditioned to purchasing private-label goods from other sources.

A traditional pair of Levi’s jeans requires one and three-quarter yards of denim, 213 yards of thread, five buttons, and five rivets. Very few changes have been made to the design of the original Levi’s jeans. The rivets on the back pockets were removed in 1937 after complaints that they scratched school desk chairs and saddles. Later, in 1967, thread bar tacks were applied to the back pockets as a substitute for the rivets. The Arcuate Design on the back pockets, made from a double row of stitching, is the oldest apparel trademark currently in use, and it was painted on during World War II materials rationing. However unchanged this quintessentially American garment is, it has stood witness to monumental changes in world history and will continue to provide a substructure for American society.

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over 5 years ago

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