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Levi’s Fights for Youth Market

November 15, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Kathy Britton’s biggest fashion faux pas was buying a pair of black Levi’s for her 15-year-old daughter last Christmas.

Kayla Britton didn’t know how to tell her mother that kids today just don’t wear Levi’s.

``Moms are the kind of people who wear Levi’s,″ said the girl from Woodland Hills, Calif., who quietly passed the jeans off to her 27-year-old sister. ``And dads, too. Like, all old people wear them.″

It wasn’t long ago that it was hip to be seen in a pair of Levi’s. But not today, especially among 15- to 24-year-olds who instead favor those that are less expensive or more fashionable _ with flared legs, dark denim or baggy all over.

That left Levi’s scrambling to woo young people to its brand again. This week, the San Francisco-based company is expected to unveil a new advertising and marketing campaign that will aggressively target just the youth market.

Levi Strauss & Co.’s roots date back to 1873, when Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis crafted the first pair of blue jeans when they added rivets to work pants. For more than a century, Levi’s was considered a mainstay _ not just in American fashion but also an important part of U.S. culture.

But times turned tough in recent years as Levi’s struggled to hold off increased demand for rival labels. Levi’s sales fell from $7.1 billion in 1996 to $6.9 billion last year.

Among the best sellers: well-known labels from the Gap and Tommy Hilfiger, newcomers like MUDD, LEI and JNCO and lower-priced jeans from Sears and Wal-Mart.

``The other brands have been able to establish a sense of fashion and fashion excitement and newness even though it’s the same old same old,″ apparel industry consultant Harry Bernard said. ``Levi’s has not figured out how to differentiate themselves.″

A year ago, Levi’s said it would lay off 7,400 workers, more than a third of its North American work force, and close 11 of its 27 U.S. plants, to compensate for lower demand in the overall jeans market.

Recently, Levi’s said it would halt all production of five-pocket jeans for 60 days beginning Dec. 1. Some 4,000 workers at seven of Levi’s 20 U.S. plants will be affected.

``Jeans remain the single most popular item in young people’s wardrobes, but the days of the classic, five-pocket model are over,″ said Irma Zandl, who runs a youth marketing firm in New York. ``Something classic sends the clear message that Levi’s are only for older people.″

The sinking demand for Levi’s is clearly seen in Helen Bulwick’s strategic retailing class at the University of California at Berkeley, when she asked how many of her students were wearing Levi’s.

``I’ve got 60 of their core customers in my classroom and not one was wearing a pair of Levi’s, and not one even owned a pair,″ she said.

Meanwhile, Michael DeLeon, a 24-year-old from San Francisco, says he favors J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch jeans to Levi’s.

``Clothing kind of expresses your attitude and stuff,″ DeLeon said. ``Levi’s clothing doesn’t say too much to me. It’s just kind of plain.″

Levi’s acknowledges that it’s struggling to recapture the teen and young adult market, and trying to win back young customers. The company has expanded its market research, even going so far as giving cameras to teens to photograph what they wear each day.

``Levi’s is still the No. 1 jeans brand in the world, and although we have experienced a loss in market share, we’re taking aggressive, proactive steps to become stronger than ever,″ said Levi’s spokeswoman Cassie Ederer, who declined to give details of the new marketing plan to be announced this week.

Still, Kayla Britton, who prefers baggy pants and cargo jeans, isn’t going to run out for a pair of Levi’s anytime soon.

``I basically just stopped buying them,″ she said.

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