New image aims to to lift Levi’s blues

Levi’s is trying to win back teen appeal with an image makeover. But, faced with growing segmentation in the casualwear market, it must tread a fine line between anticipating trends and protecting its brand heritage.

Levi’s is reinventing itself. After two years of plummeting sales and internal restructuring, the 149-year-old denim brand is rolling out new retail concepts in an effort to shore up sales.

Gone is the dusty, nostalgic western image in favour of a bright, white modern look with allusions to the brand’s workwear heritage.

Levi’s new retail formats merge fashion, music, art and nightlife concepts in an attempt to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of 15- to 25-year-olds. The company is also hoping to cash in on an expected resurgence in the denim market.

Levi’s regional marketing director Kenny Wilson says: “The new face of Levi’s will be much fresher, our stores will showcase the breadth of what we offer and our advertising will rebuild a dialogue between young people and the Levi’s brand, which will be reflected in-store.”

It is a bold move for a company that has, to put it mildly, had a difficult couple of years. Last year, Levi’s suffered a 13 per cent sales decline. Its US market share, which topped 30 per cent in the early Nineties, slipped to 14 per cent. Levi’s responded by closing 29 US, Canadian and European plants.

In the UK, its Regent Street flagship store will re-open on October 30 after an 11-week refit. Three smaller Levi’s stores in London and concessions in nine other stores in the capital – including Harrods and Selfridges – are being launched.

Levi’s first unbranded store, Cinch!, opened in Soho, London, last month (MW September 2). New-look stores and concessions will be rolled out next year across UK cities and European capitals – which will also get Cinch!

Levi’s is moving away from the cluttered merchandising, overpowering graphics and nostalgic US references that have dominated its stores for years. Wilson says the idea is for the product “to look fresh and immediate, like groceries set out on a market stall”.

The streamlined, two-storey London flagship outlet can be transformed into a nightclub venue, boasting double-deck DJ booths and an art exhibition area. Meanwhile, the “batwing” fascia logo has been replaced by a red Levi’s label.

New stores feature a “chill out” zone on the lower floor, with Internet access and a cinema screen that can be converted into a shop-within-a-shop.

The space can be used by other retailers. Levi’s is planning to allow independent record labels to sell products in-store, and to stock books and magazines.

Emma Fric, managing director of brand image management consultancy Cato, says Levi’s has taken its lead from The Gap, which has “led the retail revolution” in terms of merchandising and customer service. “Creating a retail experience allows people to browse, and increases footfall and the time people spend in a shop, which means they are more likely to spend money.”

She says young people are annoyed by “in your face” in-store sales messages and like to discover products for themselves.

To capitalise on the trend towards more individualistic products, Levi’s has included a customisation area that allows laser patterns, embroidery and textured finishes to be applied to clothing according to customers’ designs. Stock will include the new functional “Engineered Jeans”, Sta-Prest, the more mainstream Red Tab ranges and upmarket Red products.

Levi’s has segmented its range to cope with a fragmenting market, and ended the sale of 501s in Europe. Its ad agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, has once again started producing effective ads for the brand, such as the popular Flat Eric Sta-Prest work.

Wilson drafted in Allan Kennedy, stylist at The Face magazine, to “style” the shop – designed by Checkland Kindleysides.

Checkland Kindleysides co-founder Jeff Kindleysides says the flagship stores will reflect the city they are in – a departure for Levi’s, which has doggedly enforced its US heritage and one-size-fits-all ethic the world over.

Buying in talent such as Kennedy will provide a fashionable edge. But Levi’s has got to make consumers believe the biggest brand-name clothing manufacturer in the world is as quick to respond to trends, and as innovative with its products, as the smallest, cult, street-led brand.

Fric says: “In the past, buying the right brand made the consumer cool. Now if the consumer buys the brand, the brand is cool.”

Levi’s, a symbol of rebellion for teenagers throughout the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, had lost its ‘teen appeal by the Nineties.

Research by Verdict in February shows the denim market has declined over the past two years. Verdict claims old-established US brands such as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler have been hardest hit, squeezed by designers such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, street labels such as Diesel and a small, growing number of cult brands.

Verdict says the decline in the number of 15- to 24-year-olds, the fact that the baby-boomers wear jeans (the Jeremy Clarkson factor) and grey market discounting in supermarkets have all contributed to denim’s downfall.

Mintel research cites the rise of urban street wear, a trend towards more formal clothing, sports-influenced casualwear and the fact that pop stars and celebrities no longer wear denim.

Observers say Levi’s historical links with music – advertising songs, sponsorship of Lauryn Hill, Massive Attack and Jamiroquai – and art work in its favour.

Andy Marks, managing director of brand consultancy A Vision, says: “Using retail space as a cultural environment acknowledges that clothing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is linked to music, fashion, art and nightlife. The question is: has Levi’s got the authenticity and credibility to offer it?”

Fric says: “Levi’s is one of the only brands that can call itself an original. If it delivers on authenticity and quality, it could succeed, so long as it doesn’t lose its core values in the redefinition.”

Retail and clothing industry insiders believe Levi’s has finally made the right move. It has responded to the segmentation of denim and casualwear clothing, its links to music and culture are seen as authentic and consumers are receptive to new retail concepts. Levi’s is by no means pioneering the retail revolution, but if it manages to follow the trend, and not lose its brand heritage along the way, it stands a chance of winning back the respect of the world’s teenagers.

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