The Scotsman reports that the Levi Strauss Co. has fallen on hard times:

THEY came out of the rough and ready life of America’s frontier and went on to become a statement of rebellion that helped make denim the fashion essential for princesses, presidents and pop idols.

But while jeans today are more popular than ever, the manufacturer that made them famous, Levis Strauss and Co, is experiencing its toughest time in its 150-year history and has taken drastic steps to try to reverse its dwindling fortunes.

The company is to close its North American plants and cut nearly 2,000 jobs, a move that completes its long exit from the US manufacturing business that began more than 20 years ago.

The job cuts and plant closures are part of the latest restructuring at the privately held firm, which has seen profits nosedive as both cheaper discount brands and pricey designer labels cut deeply into its market share.

The American icon says it has been forced to move its production overseas to remain competitive.

The company that introduced jeans to the world and watched the transformation from basic work apparel of the wild west to a fashion fixture, has fallen on hard times.

Earlier this month the company announced plans to cut 650 jobs and seek waivers from its lenders, while it sought new financing. It is trying to compete with lower-price clothing makers and, like many firms, has found it much cheaper to send its production overseas.

A Levi Strauss spokesman stressed that the remaining US sewing and finishing plant about to close represents less than 5 per cent of the products it sells in the US today. “We’re in a highly competitive industry where few apparel brands own and operate manufacturing facilities in North America,” the chief executive officer, Phil Marineau, said yesterday.

“In order to remain competitive, we need to focus our resources on product design and development, sales and marketing and our retail customer relationships.”

The Levi empire was built on the simplest innovation – a riveted pocket – made by a tailor from Reno, Nevada, called Jacob Davis. Davis was asked to make a pair of pants with reinforced pockets. He happened to have some rivets in his workroom and hammered one into the pocket.

It worked so well, he was soon inundated with orders and realised he should patent the idea, but lacked the money to do so. He wrote to Levi Strauss, a dry goods wholesaler who supplied his fabric, and suggested they go into business together. Strauss jumped at the idea and started manufacturing jeans in 1873.

Levi’s used the same indigo fabric in their early jeans that they use today and the design was remarkably similar, right down to the oilcloth tab with its distinctive red writing, which was introduced in 1892 and remains integral to Levis to this day.

As their popularity grew, Levis were no longer just for men and boys. Women, too, were wearing them. Lady Levi’s appeared in 1938.

Yet despite its everyman appeal, the past ten years have been testing times for the denim manufacturer. In the 1990s Levis watched its products slide in popularity in the face of an army of combats, chinos and tracksuits.

Those who continued to wear Levis, like Jeremy Clarkson, the TV presenter, and Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, could not be termed high priests of fashion.

For all their illustrious 200-year history, Levis were looking old.

A shame although, I must confess, I haven’t bought a pair of Levi’s in years.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. 42nd SSD says:

    I haven’t worn jeans in years either, though I used to buy Levis every year and I still have a few serviceable pairs. (4-5 years ago I started buying most of my clothes from REI and Land’s End, and lately it’s been more upscale stuff–I guess that’s a sign I’m getting more decrepit 🙂

    Some of their “dressier” Dockers are decent, although they seemed a bit expensive.

    The jeans market has changed tremendously in the last 10 years or so and Levis have just fallen by the wayside–nothing to do with fit or quality per se, it seems to be all about designer labels these days. Jeans companies come and go at the whim of a teenager…

    I also recall having a hard time finding Levis, and that was one of the motivating factors for switching to something else.