Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2013

The decline and fall of Levi-Strauss

Filed under: economics,fashion — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

No, I am not talking about the French anthropologist who applied structuralism to indigenous societies. Rather it is the blue jean company that has fallen upon hard times, much to my dismay. I imagine that after posting this and the one on Barneys yesterday, this will be the last I have to say on the rag trade for some time to come.

After going from a 34 waist to a 31, I have had to replace my trousers some of which were over 10 years old including a pair of Levi’s 501 blue jeans. I have had a pair of such jeans going back to 1961 in my freshman year at Bard College when upperclassmen advised me that they were “cool”. They have a button fly and shrink a size or two after the first washing. The material was like stiff and heavy canvas when it first came off the shelf but softened and faded most pleasingly after about a dozen cycles through the washing machine.

Unfortunately the 501 jeans Levi-Strauss sells today have nothing in common with my original pair except the name. The material is thinner and cheap looking. They are also prewashed. The upside is that you don’t have to worry about shrinkage. The downside is that they look like crap.

If you go to Amazon.com, you will find the “most helpful critical review” of the Levi’s 501 jeans:

Real 501’s are made of 14 oz canvas-like material. These “Iconic Rigid” jeans are made of some sleazy, much lighter material that takes on a carefully contrived set of wrinkles to make them look like they’d been worn to bed soaking wet and dried out overnight. If you want real 501’s stay away from these. I sent mine back right away.

Exactly.

Before revealing how this state of affairs came to be, a look at the roots of this garment manufacturer would be useful.

Levi Strauss (the first name is generally a last name in Jewry, it means a member of a priestly caste) was a German Jew who launched his blue jean company in 1853 out of San Francisco. The jeans were actually pioneered by a Latvian Jewish tailor named Jacob Davis who purchased denim from Levi Strauss. When the miners and other hardscrabble men who bought pants from Davis kept coming back to have them patched, he came up with the idea of reinforcing them with copper rivets at the points of maximum stress like the pockets corners. As is often the case in design, functionality and beauty are joined at the hip.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 10.42.01 AM

Although they started out as work clothes like the Carhartt brand, they became a fashion statement in the 30s and 40s with the growing popularity of dude ranches. The look became popular in Hollywood films, with James Dean in “Giant” being representative.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 10.44.23 AM

As well as Marlin Brando in “The Wild One”.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 10.45.57 AM

By the time I got to Bard College, Levi jeans had become popular among the early 60s hipsters—most of whom were strongly influenced stylistically by the beat generation. Bob Dylan wore Levi’s.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 10.49.54 AMRapidly approaching my 69th birthday, I suppose I seem a bit foolish trying to dress in the same style I had adopted in 1961 but then again I remain attached inexplicably to the habits of my youth, including Marxism. It looks like I will be wed to Marxism for as long as I live but unfortunately the Levi 501 jeans will go by the wayside.

So what happened? This article puts it altogether:

The Guardian, Sunday 3 June 2007
Story of the blues
By Hadley Freeman

Levi’s was the original denim brand. In 1873, Jacob Davis, a tailor, hooked up with Levi Strauss to create a special pair of trousers for a woodcutter that were strong enough to hold in his bloated stomach. But things have come a long way since then and many industry observers say Levi’s has failed to keep pace.

Since 1996, the company’s sales have been dropping fast. It has lost billions of dollars in sales, closed dozens of factories and laid off nearly half of its workforce because, competitors say, it failed to take advantage of the change in the denim market when jeans shifted from being seen as a work garment to a style statement. Jonny Sorensen, the chief executive of Von Dutch, one of the denim brands Levi’s is suing, told the New York Times: “[Levi’s] missed the boat. Now they want to make a lot of noise and scare people away.”

Calvin Klein introduced the concept of designer denim back in 1978, and Helmut Lang upped the ante two decades later by giving his jeans designer prices. But it wasn’t until the late 90s, with the emergence of Earl jeans from California, that the denim craze truly took hold. This label shifted people’s perceptions of jeans: no longer were they chunky workman wear but a sexy item that showed off a woman’s figure. In Earl’s first year, it had a turnover of $600,000. In its second, sales rose to $10m. In 2001 the company was sold for roughly $86m. “A woman now needs a different pair for every occasion, just like shoes: some days you want a sexy pair, other days you want to be more relaxed and slouchy,” says Suzanne Pendlebury, womenswear buyer for Harvey Nichols.

But the emphasis here is on “new”: jeans are not what they once were – baggy, frumpy, clumpy – and the mid-priced classic brands, such as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler, have struggled in the new marketplace. They have been squeezed out between, on the one hand, the flashier designer brands and, on the other, the cheap ranges offered in supermarkets and on the high street. Topshop’s Baxter jeans, for example, sell 18,000 pairs a week. Both the top and the bottom ends of the market have focused on denim’s new fashion-based image. Lee and Wrangler, on the other hand, have struggled with stagnating sales. Last year, Levi’s ended an eight-year fall in sales but it is still trying to recoup its losses from its period of what Onda describes as “steep decline” in the late 1990s.

Full: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2007/jun/04/fashion.retail

Levi-Strauss’s collapse raises all sorts of interesting questions about the commodity. Here is a product that underwent no significant changes since its birth around 150 years ago. It began to die in the marketplace as soon as people like Calvin Klein began to market blue jeans as a fashion item rather than a workaday garment (even though it did have its own esthetic.)

To what extent are there real benefits in style changes? Also, what was the role of such a “proletarian”, no-frills garment in destabilizing societies that were based on the rejection of commodity fetishism? The Levi-Strauss website recounts the role of their product in the Cold War:

Back (Then) in the U.S.S.R.

unzipped-larisa-popik-letter

Russia – part of the former Soviet Union – is a fairly new market for Levi’s® jeans, but the company and the brand actually visited that country more than fifty years ago.

In 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to increase cultural contact between the two countries in order to ease tensions between the Cold War rivals.  The agreement stated that exhibits are “an effective means of developing mutual understanding,” and both nations agreed to host exhibitions from the other country. In 1959 the United States Information Agency coordinated the American National Exhibition which was sent to Moscow. Vice President Richard Nixon opened the Exhibition on July 25. (Remember the Kitchen Debate?)

Included in the displays of American culture, science, and technology was a good- sized booth created by Levi Strauss & Co., filled with displays of 501® jeans and Western-themed advertising. Staffers wore jeans and cowboy shirts, and 501® jeans were also worn by entertainers hired to treat the crowds to some down home American music.

Although jeans were frowned upon by Soviet officials as symbols of decadence and western imperialism, the products on display had to be replaced almost daily. Why? As explained then by the international press service R&F Features, “Eager Soviet visitors handled – and occasionally helped themselves to – display samples of the all-American denim pants.”

Levi’s® jeans were a coveted, but forbidden capitalist item in the Soviet Union for the next thirty years. Then, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Russian citizens could buy “real” (not black market) Levi’s® jeans for the very first time.

The LS&CO. Archives has a letter from one such happy customer, a woman named Larisa Popik, who wrote us in August of 1991:

A man hasn’t very much happy minutes in his life, but every happy moment remains in his memory for a long time. I’m not the fanatic of clothes, but the buying of Levi’s jeans (501) is one of such moments in  my life.  I’m 24, but while wearing your jeans I feel myself like a 15-years-school-girl, I feel myself like a graceful, slender and beautiful girl. 

Thank you very much for such comfortable, soft, light and nice jeans. Good luck to your kind and necessary business!

So, Levi 501 jeans—a vanguard fighter for capitalist restoration—now falls victim to the very process it seemed contrary to.

Maybe there’s hope for Levi’s in filling a niche for those wealthy enough to purchase jeans that perhaps allude to their birth in a place totally the opposite of where they are sold now: Barneys.

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37 Comments »

  1. A history of the corporation with no mention that one of the first big movements against contracting out to sweatshops targeted Levi Strauss?

    Comment by Panting for Marxism — October 29, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

  2. Panting for Marxism is the typical asshole troll who comes here to “expose” me. This post was about the fetishism of commodities, not Levi-Strauss’s anti-working class assaults that I am fully aware of and have written about in the past:

    https://louisproyect.org/2010/09/03/those-levi-strauss-worker-ads/

    Comment by louisproyect — October 29, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

  3. Louis wrote:

    “Rapidly approaching my 69th birthday, I suppose I seem a bit foolish trying to dress in the same style I had adopted in 1961”

    Ha! Long-hair sublimation!

    Comment by Todd — October 29, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

  4. Levi’s is also suffering from the fact that jeans are out of fashion for a lot of people now. Preppy and hip hop fashions have been on the ascendancy for about 20 years, at least. I still wear jeans a lot (to my wife’s dismay), but I am in the minority.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 29, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

  5. It’s only natural that a person will feel sentimental value for any piece (or type) of clothing that is put on nearly every day and worn for several years. I have an almost fetishistic attachment to Levis 501s because I wore them 330 days out of the year for almost 25 years. While I thought through all this time that I was indifferent to fashion, I’ve come to realize that I was also an embodiment (or mobile entombment) of fashion.

    Comment by Balaton Fleet Commander — October 29, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

  6. The russian guy in the plaid shirt with the cool buttoned cigarette pocket at the hip, sporting that snappy watch… I’m telling you that when it comes to fashion, sometimes past is prologue.

    Comment by Scott Edwards — October 30, 2013 @ 3:59 am

  7. Richard, denim has always played a pretty major role in hip hop fashion, from the earliest days until now.

    Comment by Steve Oh — October 30, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

  8. Nice that Made and Crafted can be trademarked.

    Just wait until they own language, its coming.

    Comment by jeff — October 31, 2013 @ 5:55 am

  9. The harder they try to uphold intellectual property rights the more they fall apart. Digitization has totally destroyed any rationale or basis for the private ownership of ideas, concepts, or anything that can be turned into 1’s and 0’s. I’m optimistic because of this reality. In practice, copyrights are already largely ignored (both online and “in the flesh” in the emerging countries of the East).

    Comment by Steve Oh — October 31, 2013 @ 9:06 am

  10. Comment by godoggo — October 31, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

  11. I could see myself in these, though.

    Comment by godoggo — November 1, 2013 @ 9:29 am

  12. And yes I did read Triste Tropiques.

    Comment by godoggo — November 1, 2013 @ 9:34 am

  13. #9 Steve Oh… there is a myth of copyright infringement and intellectual property piracy from countries in Asia, or the East, as you put it. I regularly receive royalty payments from the sales of my works in Asian countries. Actually, I have found that getting fair and prompt royalties from Eastern Europe is far more difficult and Spanish language piracy in South America is almost beyond control. The East is just fine by comparison…

    Comment by Richard Greener — November 2, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

  14. I have worn Levis for almost 40 years but the last few years I am not satisfied with them I know they’re sent overseas to be made now but they’re not good

    Comment by Deb — February 25, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

  15. If Levi works hard. they will sell 200 million pairs of jeans worldwide every year and gross $4 billion. They want to move off that figure, and can’t, so they reboot every 3 years, fire a bunch and recruit another bunch, and do it again every 3 years.

    Comment by Tony Manero — January 22, 2015 @ 4:46 am

  16. #14 Deb – So true.
    #15 Tony – I hope you are right because I am on the cusp of abandoning Levi and looking for an alternative.

    Levi Strauss no longer make durable jeans but they also no longer make boot cut jeans that fit around the waist (I do not want uncomfortable ‘low rise’ jeans that continually require pulling up and the tucking in of my shirt), and they also no longer make jeans whose outside seams stay on the outside when sitting down (I do not want a pair of jeans whose seams ravel up over my knee and down my shins when I sit down). One would have thought getting these things right were the basics for a company making trousers. This state of affairs has only arisen in the last 2-3 years.

    I have been a loyal Levi customer for over 40 years (started very young, it has to be said) but I am dismayed at what they now sell. And I know I am not alone.

    I get the sense Levi Strauss is now ignoring or taking for granted its core market while it concentrates on the “youth” market. I realise it is a difficult balancing act but if Levi continues to ignore its core market it will surely suffer greatly. If people like me abandon Levi, they could well be finished.

    Levi are concentrating on people who do not buy their products and ignoring the people who do buy them. That’s a scary thought, if you think about it.

    Comment by Muldoon — July 7, 2015 @ 7:25 am

  17. I have been bummed out that my Levis never fit the same, some looser some tighter (very tight) I just noticed by laying several pair on my bed, side by side. The top buttons are NOT uniformly placed above (slightly left) of the lower buttons. Making some have to “reach” further to close. Thus making for a uncomfortable, tight fit all day long…what gives Levis??? P.S. I have already tried unsuccessfully to “pick” which country (other the USA) that makes the best fitting pair. With so many Americans out of work, perhaps a good old fashioned factory right here in America maybe???

    Comment by Denver cooley — August 9, 2015 @ 5:26 pm

  18. I agree with Denver Cooley. Levi should come back to the United States with a hefty price tag which would afford them profit at American wages. There are empty plants to be had for a song, and Americans have proved they will pay top dollar for jeans, IF they are well made with top quality fabric. The baby boomers want their damn jeans back, and will certainly pay the price to get them if they are the real deal!

    Comment by Holly Cook — September 15, 2015 @ 1:23 am

  19. I’ve been quite pleased with Levi’ I’ve bought over the last few years in Europe both 501 and 527 models. For years I’ve bought levis 32/34 because I know they fit. These in recent years were made in Turkey. A quality factory turning out quality jeans. Just bought my first pair in two years, 32/34 527’s and they are an awful fit. 34 length which is nearer to 35, thin material and just not that great over all. Low and behold on checking the label they were made in Mexico. With out doubt the worst of the worst Levis ever made. I bought a pair of these Mexican made levis from the states once before and to be quite frank those went straight in the bin. Obviously in a cost cutting exercise they are now bringing this cheap rubbish over to Europe to arrest their falling profits. Very short sighted as that’s me finished with Levis.

    Comment by ian oakshott — September 21, 2015 @ 3:46 pm

  20. I used to buy levies not Aney longer there junk it’s a shame went from the best in the world to junk.

    Comment by Robert Tallman — October 20, 2015 @ 5:47 am

  21. What happened to the real Jean? Now a days it’s made from spandex and vary little cotton. The so called jeans of today are like putting on leggings or athletic wear. I want the real Jean which the fabric was heavier and more durable. The new so called Jean has so much spandex that it looks like women are wearing an ill fitted girdle. The pockets hang too low and too wide that it makes women look like they have wide saggy behinds with bigs thighs and no calves. The old Jean had the proper weight to hang well especially after a few washings. I don’t care what brand they are, I haven’t found the real deal!

    Comment by Deb — November 9, 2015 @ 12:40 am

  22. I hate what has happened to jeans! Shouldn’t even call them that because they’re not denim so they’re not jeans. Thanks for your writing and information. I keep emailing the companies to stop forcing that cheap, thin, stretchy crap on me (b. 1960). I don’t think blue jeans are too youthful for us because they are a classic – a classic! – article of clothing from our time. Period! Honestly, I’m all for jeans being acceptable wear in the workplace. That a classic piece of apparel gave rise to elitist labels, so be it. But that the everyday-man’s and woman’s labels have cheaped-out (Levi, Lee and Wrangler) leaves me incensed, insulted and injured. Bring… back… my… denim… jeans!

    Comment by Gabriele — January 25, 2016 @ 11:14 pm

  23. I started wearing Levi jeans when they first came into the U.K. (around 60 years ago) and have always like the style etc. But over the last few years it’s obvious that the quality has dropped while the price has risen. While in the states on holiday I was amazed how cheap they were compared to most shops in England. I bought three pairs, only to discover that one pair was two inches shorter in the leg than the label stated. My last pair, bought in 2015 from a Levi shop have turned out to be of a quality that I would be ashamed to call Levi. But it’s not only the jeans. I have three shirts (medium) and they’re all different fits. There’s hardly enough to tuck in and so tight round the cuffs that it’s difficult to wear a watch. Reluctantly, I’ve come to the conclusion that Levi is more interested in profit than either their name or their quality. Prices are rip off and the fabics cheap. Having garments made all over the world simply makes quality control almost impossible. I’ve never worn any other make in all the years but it’s goodbye Levi. I’ve had enough of your rubbish.

    Comment by Dave Groves — April 18, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

  24. Levis are now cheap crap. I still have my original levis from my 20’s, (now pushing 60), that continue to make me feel like a million bucks when I put them on. I have always purchased Levis when it came to wanting a new pair of jeans, no question. Never even cared to try any other brand. Within the past 2/3 years, I wanted some darker color, but these new levis are NOT denim! They are thin and stretchy and not flattering at all. Shame on you Levi Strauss!! You would think a company that has been in business for so long could have come up with anything besides sacrificing what made them great. Now Levis are any cheap crap on the shelf. Too bad for us true die hard Levis fans.

    Comment by dudette — May 6, 2016 @ 2:19 am

  25. I started buying 501’s in the late 70’s whether shrink to fit or prewashed and in all colors. The denim was heavier and I could buy them off the shelf without trying them on. They fit absolutely perfect. And as they got older (seasoned) they were even better with or without the holes that developed. I even sewed up the obvious areas so that I could still wear them. Call it a love affair with 501s. Then sometime in the 90s the material went to hell, the fit didnt anymore and they were made in foreign countries. And the price went up. I stopped buying them as did all of my friends for the same reasons. Not because of designer stuff or trends. I bought a pair last year hoping they would be like the old days. They were worn once, now in the garbage. I have a ton of 501s that Ive kept over the years because I dont want to part with them. But they are either too small now or have too many holes or worn areas for me to wear. Even if Levis went back to making 501s the way they were and a niche market, I and everyone I know would run out and buy every color they made. WTF is wrong with that company? I would have spent thousands over the years, but instead they made me jump ship.

    Comment by eliot — May 11, 2016 @ 8:21 am

  26. Wow, thought I was alone on this. Turns out a lot of other guys from my generation ( I’m 62 ) remember what Levis USED to be like. I haven’t bought a new pair in many years because the quality has been going down. I guess they can still sell to young people since they don’t know what they are missing. I can remember when 501s were around 8 bucks new. I used to buy used 501s at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet in Pasadena Ca. Sad to see ’em go.

    Now I wear Dickies Duck Carpenter jeans. They have a nice course feel of a canvas tarpaulin. Make ya feel like a man, not a tip toe through the tulips 501 wearing hipster.

    Comment by pete — May 23, 2016 @ 5:16 am

  27. I grew up wearing Levis jeans and I still wear them, but I noticed that they disintegrate on me after a few years. I have jeans left over from the 70’s and 80’s that look super faded, and I only have them because they don’t fit anymore. (Packed away in a box in the basement.) My new jeans I seem to have the crotch blow out first, then the fronts above the knees where I rest my hands when I drive a semi-tractor trailer. At first I thought it was diesel eating my jeans away making them fall apart, but after I stopped driving a truck and my jeans kept falling apart in the same fashion, I have concluded that Levis jeans are sh*t. I had thought that is was because they are made in China, but this article makes sense with the 14oz cotton vs whatever it is now… maybe 10oz, and I’m glad I’m not the only one noticing this.

    Comment by Blue Gene Blue — July 31, 2016 @ 3:48 pm

  28. I’ve worn regular fit 505s for 40 years and other than being prewashed I haven’t noticed any difference.

    Comment by ChillyDogg — November 30, 2016 @ 6:50 pm

  29. I have no idea what you are talking about. Levis are worn by women who want to show off their shape and look sexy. They always have been. Also by MEN who want to show off their shape and look sexy. Also by men and women who simply want a comfy pair of jeans to relax in. They are all of that. They are not the same as they were in the 60’s, which is why vintage Levi’s fetch such high prices, but they are very fine jeans, worn by 20 yr old hipsters and 50 yr old dads and everyone in between. Write about something you actually understand, why don’t you. True, they are no longer made in the USA, your Marxist friends have made sure of that with the corporate taxes, unions, NAFTA, and anti business climate that has driven manufacture jobs out of the country.

    Comment by Martine — November 30, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

  30. Also, Levi Strauss is not a publicly traded company. So, your buddy at the Guardian really probably doesn’t even know what their profits are for any given year, as they don’t have to share that information with anyone, and probably wouldn’t tell a reporter. All we do know is that lots of people wear them, and are not going to stop.

    Comment by Martine — November 30, 2016 @ 10:59 pm

  31. My suggestion if you want high rise bootcuts is to opt for their hi rise flares. I love them. Their ct 501’s, which run about a hundred bucks are really good. Everyone who tries them loves them. Funny to read that absurd statement by Von Dutch. Von Dutch is long out of business. Levi’s is going strong.

    Comment by Martine — November 30, 2016 @ 11:12 pm

  32. I myself noticed a couple of years ago the front pocket depth change my seems to be falling out of the pockets more often I was wondering why, so compare pocket depths to an old pair I still have the are at least an 1″ shallower then the new ones. I decided to live with that, but then this Christmas 2016 I got a new pair, wow what the fuck is this they are now changing the material, thinner not the durable materail of old, these Jean are going to be returned and I will never buy them again till I know that the jeans are put back on the market materail and pockets of old! With a public apology for there drastic produce changes. Please join my public protest. Voice your opinion. This is not right protest this product. in fact I’m returning all the Jean that don’t meet the standard of old !!!

    Comment by Psday — December 26, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

  33. Levis jeans used to be one of my top favored possessions, looked good, fit, finish, quality and consistency were excellent, proud to own U.S.A made product. WTF, I want to thank Levis Straus for turning a perfect product into a piece of IMPORTED SHIT ! Thanks for using inferior materials, inconsistent fit and quality, thanks for the shallow pockets, also thanks for shortening the zipper, making it FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE to take a leak without pulling down my pants, WTF, Stupid, Must have been designed by a female without anything to pull out or a male CEO with the same problem !!! Like everything else today, cheaper, lighter, shorter, thinner, engineered to fail, wear out, IMPORTED SHIT. You think we are too stupid to notice the difference, WRONG, I take serious offense to that, then charge more for less, KMA Losers.

    Comment by Dave H — April 8, 2017 @ 5:54 pm

  34. Bring back 100 percent cotton hate the spandex

    Comment by Barbara Z — April 11, 2017 @ 7:23 pm

  35. These 501 jeans in last 3 yrs suck”, give back my 60$ Levi’s ‘,, Rip Off

    Comment by Peter Palazzola — April 19, 2017 @ 1:42 am

  36. My uncle sold Levis in a small town store for 60 + years . while Levis were shutting U.S. factories down they were requiring him to purchase more and more product. He told them to stick it in the ear and increased his stock of wrangler till they went to crap. I haven’t bought a pair of Levis in 35 years. Still have some old ones made in the u.s.a. maybe one day I’ll be able to wear them again. Or maybe I’ll donate them to a museum for an exhibit of things that used to be well made.

    Comment by Lance o. — June 5, 2017 @ 1:12 am

  37. As an iron worker I stopped buying Levi’s 501 jeans because the quality and ruggedness has declined since I started wearing as workwear almost 40 years ago. I bought 12 pair a year for 40 years in addition to also buying more for causal wear. It use to be the stander for ironworkers nationwide. Not any more how sad.

    Comment by Alex — June 26, 2017 @ 7:19 pm


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