How Levi’s Built the Most Authentic Clothing Brand in the World

It’s hard to be cool when you’re old, but the 162-year-old company has leveraged its heritage into relevancy.

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Complex Original

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Inside Tosca Cafe, a 96-year-old San Francisco bar where the ambience is perpetually dim and the white-shirted bartenders mix cocktails with affected names like the “Oaxacan Firing Squad” and the “White Nun,” Levi’s President James Curleigh—he goes by “J.C.”—is telling a story about the night when actor Sean Penn (who helped save the bar in 2004) shot a hole in the wall. According to J.C., Kid Rock was hanging out in an alcove above the kitchen that had been fashioned into a private V.I.P. room, intermittently strumming an acoustic guitar. Penn arrived later, and an altercation occurred that led to the Oscar-winning actor firing his pistol into the otherwise-empty restaurant floor below, leaving a small .22-caliber bullet hole underneath one of the paintings hanging in the main dining room.

J.C. talks about hanging out in that same room more recently with Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine. When he talks about Tosca Cafe and why it’s one of his post-work watering holes of choice, it becomes apparent that it isn’t about the celebrities that hang out here or the preferential treatment he gets as a regular, it’s because of the undeniable authenticity it offers that Curleigh can’t quite find anywhere else.

When Curleigh joined Levi’s in July 2012, he was instrumental in channelling the Levi’s brand’s heritage to differentiate the company from its competitors. His biggest move thus far? Facilitating Levi’s purchase of the naming rights to the new stadium of the San Francisco 49ers in 2013. The recently christened Levi’s Stadium is set to host Super Bowl 50 in February, which will propel the Levi’s brand name to 100 million-plus viewers.

Before that, Levi’s Stadium will host an eclectic lineup of concerts, ranging from One Direction, to Taylor Swift, to the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. As a child of the ’60s, music is especially important to the 49-year-old Curleigh, and in many ways it’s intrinsic to how he views the brand.

“That notion of ‘living in Levi’s’ has been with me all my life,” he says.

J.C. was born in Nova Scotia to a Canadian Navy helicopter pilot and a mother he describes as a “free spirit.” He remembers wearing Levi’s since he was 6 years old. In particular, he remembers the white Levi’s corduroy pants he wore at his eighth-grade graduation, and the Levi’s cut-off shorts he wore at 16, when he and his brother went on a backpacking trip in Europe with nothing but a Europass train ticket and the money in their pockets.

James “J.C.” Curleigh, President, Levi’s

It's hard to imagine that in 1853, when a Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss had a stroke of genius to use rivets to reinforce the construction on indigo-dyed denim dungarees, the inventor of Levi's could foresee a day when his product would become a platform for self-expression. Or that his jeans would become arguably the best-selling clothing product of all time. Not that the modern-day Levi’s is making money hand-over-fist, though revenues have been reported around $4.7 billion in 2013, much of its market share is on the secondary market, where used Levi's jeans are the number-one seller in secondhand stores globally.

The appeal of the Levi's brand is layered. First, there’s the notion of timeless style, ranging from Bing Crosby, to the Ramones, to Kurt Cobain.

“Every crowd surfing shot of Kurt Cobain is in a ripped pair of 501s," says J.C. proudly.

Since its inception, Levi’s jeans have been associated with pioneers on the frontier. From the literal frontiersman panning for gold in the West Coast and cowboys whose spats would tear away at the fabric, to more figurative pioneers like Marlon Brando and burgeoning rock stars at the forefront of counterculture.

“Denim became a sought after, democratic material that represented freedom and rock ‘n’ roll,” says J.C. “And if you think of the culmination of that it’s probably Woodstock.”

The 1969 music festival was hugely influential in shaping the fashion trends of the ’70s, and many countercultural looks today. Repurposed military jackets, bold psychedelic prints, and, of course, denim, still have a place in modern wardrobes.

“We did a technical measurement that we had 96.3 percent market share at Woodstock, and the other 3.7 percent were probably naked people,” says J.C.

Levis Eureka Innovation Lab San Francisco

That subcultural connection persisted through musical and style trends. The Ramones and punks favored the straight, slimmer leg of the 505 jeans, and as hip-hop culture grew, groups like Run D.M.C. wore Levi’s over their adidas shoes.

“Look at Snoop Dogg today,” adds J.C. “He’s all about the 501 original and he styles that up and he rolls it perfectly.” Levi’s has managed to be an intrinsic part of numerous distinct styles because of denim’s inherent attitude, but also because of the transcendent nature of the fabric. As you wear them, the less they becomes a pair of Levi’s jeans, the more they becomes your pair of Levi’s jeans.

“For all genres, the common denominator is authentic self-expression with an iconic brand called Levi’s,” says J.C.

Levis stores jeans from as far back as 1879 in its archive inside a practically apocalypse proof safe.

Second to Levi’s appeal is the promise of quality. The famous back patch logo depicts two horses locked in a tug-of-war with a pair of Levi’s between them, and the brand has recounted numerous stories of people who are amazed at the life of some of the denim. The oldest pair of jeans in the Levi's archive were found in the Calico Mines of Nevada and probably belonged to a miner (as the telltale wax drippings on the jeans that would come from a candle on a miner’s hat would indicate). They are purported to be from 1879. Levi’s bought them on eBay in 2012 for a staggering $40,000.

There is also the 1917 pair of Levi’s that belonged to Arizona miner Homer Campbell. He sent them to the company in 1920 complaining that the hard-wearing pants simply weren't hard-wearing enough, and had DIY-ed a plethora of patches and additional layers on top, resulting in a wabi-sabi patchwork pair that you’d see today from Japanese fashion nerd labels like visvim, and that would probably run close to a grand per pair. Levi’s Vintage Clothing—the company’s line of ripped-from-the-archives-old-is-new-again goods, which launched as a Japanese (of course) offshoot in 1987—reproduced Campbell’s homemade jeans in 2003 in a limited edition of 501 pairs and sold for $501 each. Now those limited pairs can demand upwards of $2,000 on the collector’s market.

The point is this: There are two ways that a pair of Levi’s becomes special. It’s either the meaning the user puts into a pair through everyday wear, or buying into a certain authenticity by purchasing a pair that looks like it’s been washed and worn for you.

“If you buy a pair of raw rigid denim, what you’re saying is, ‘I am going to authenticate these myself,’” says J.C. “If you’re buying a pair of destructed, stonewashed denim, what you’re saying is, ‘I want to connect with authenticity every time I put them on—I want them to feel like they were always my favorites.’ And that’s really what that tries to do.”

Barack Obama Levis Jeans

One thing J.C. loves to talk about is how Levi's jeans tend to accrue an “earned favorite status” from the people who wear them. It’s why during some of the watershed pop cultural moments that have occurred in a pair of Levi’s, the jeans aren’t necessarily the center of attention, but remain noticeable nonetheless.

“Steve Jobs literally launched the iPod out of the pocket of a pair of Levi’s,” points out J.C., referring to the 2001 Apple Music Event that changed the music industry forever.

“These are not contrived style decisions,” he asserts. Eight years later, when President Barack Obama threw the first pitch at the MLB All-Star Game in St. Louis, his stonewashed jeans became the spectacle themselves.

“I’m pretty sure Obama didn’t have a stylist say, ‘Hey, make dad jeans cool,’” says J.C. 


“It was his pair of favorite jeans. He said, ‘I’m going to the ballgame, I’m going to pull my favorite pair of jeans out.’ And guess what? They were a pair of Levi’s.”

Levi’s experienced some turmoil in the market throughout the ’90s because of the decline of American manufacturing and increased competition from a variety of fronts. The rise of premium denim brands like True Religion, fast fashion empires like Zara and H&M, and fashion brands with thriving denim lines, like A.P.C. carved out their respective pieces of Levi’s indigo-dyed pie.

“Twenty years ago, it was us and maybe two or three others, and it was obvious who the competition was,” J.C. says.

By 2007, things had improved enough that the company was reported to be profitable again after almost a decade of sluggish sales, though they lost about $3 billion in the process.

Homer Campbell Levis Jeans at the Levis Archive

In the time of J.C.’s presidency, Levi’s is more than thriving. If anything, it’s achieving a heightened sense of relevancy, especially among young consumers.

“What’s happened is the youth movement is waking up and saying, ‘If I pay 200 bucks for something that wasn’t as durable, and a year later was out of style, who’s the idiot?’” says J.C.

As teenage mall brands like Abercrombie, American Eagle, and Aeropostale are losing money, Levi’s strategy is to push its realness across a multi-tiered business that appeals to young consumers who want to access the brand’s authenticity at well under $100 per pair, while pursuing a modern fashion aesthetic with its Levi’s Made & Crafted line, and offering something for the more discerning denimhead and new-nostalgic customer in its Levi’s Vintage Clothing brand. It also doesn’t hurt that Levi’s regularly collaborates with cult brands that range from high-end Japanese designer Junya Watanabe to hype-inducing skate label Supreme.

“In a post-Abercrombie, post-Hollister world, the kids are saying, ‘I want authentic self-expression, and I’m pretty sure Levi’s can give it to me at all price points,” J.C. says.

Levi’s latest style coup is the perfect example of the brand’s sweet spot. The 501 CT takes the perennially cool jean, with its regular rise, button fly, back pocket arcuates, and unmistakable red tab, and features a slim-but-not-too-skinny tapered leg. It’s available in a raw indigo, a stonewash, and a plethora of distressed finishes. In addition to its base offering of jeans that clock in around $75, Levi’s also partnered with MR PORTER on a capsule collection of high-end selvedge denim 501 CTs made using the covetable redline fabric that denotes old-school shuttle loom manufactured jeans. The particular fabric is sourced from North Carolina’s Cone Mills factory, with which Levi’s partnered in 1915 in a fabled “golden handshake,” ensuring that all of Levi’s shrink-to-fit fabrics would come only from Cone Mills. The collection also commemorates the now century-long deal.

“As the most authentic brand in the world—probably—we need to assert the heritage and the authenticity,” says J.C. “But we also have to match that with a little bit of innovation and forward-thinking.”

That’s why Levi’s opened the Eureka Innovation Lab in the spring of 2013, in a nondescript building a stone’s throw away from its main headquarters, Levi’s Plaza, near San Francisco’s Embarcadero district. Inside, Jonathan Cheung, Levi’s Head of Design, and Bart Sights, Levi’s Director of Global Development, have the means (and a near-endless supply of denim) to work on taking jeans into the future. As Cheung puts it: “It’s kind of a denim torture chamber, but in the nicest possible way.”

The Eureka Lab’s mad denim scientists are working with Google on Project Jacquard, a quest to make “smart jeans” that can interact with electronic devices. They also spawned Levi’s successful Commuter Line of clothes, which is geared toward urban cyclists and utilizes technical fabrics, from state-of-the-art companies like Schoeller, that repel water and stains and even possess anti-microbial capabilities. But in keeping with the customization and personalization aspect of their core products, the added features are ancillary to the fit and feel of the clothes. At the end of the day, they’re still 100 percent a pair of Levi’s.

“People’s lives are getting crazy,” says J.C. “Technology and entertainment are going at breakneck speeds, but the offset of that is what? Authenticity. And no one can deliver it better than Levi’s.”

Lasers at the Levis Eureka Innovation Lab can imprint logos and emojis on denim fabric.

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