Remember “the death of denim?” About three years ago, there was a flurry of stories heralding doom for this wardrobe staple, as shoppers started wearing leggings and jogger pants not just to the gym but for virtually any occasion.
The “athleisure” trend undoubtedly threw jeans makers for a loop, including Levi Strauss & Co., the corporate parent of global market-share leader Levi’s.
But, remarkably, the privately held company is today in its best shape in years. Its annual results, released Wednesday, show revenue increased 8 percent over the previous year, its strongest sales growth since 2011.
Forever In Blue Jeans
Levi Strauss & Co. significantly improved its sales in 2017, supported by growth across all geographic regions
It delivered blockbuster growth in Europe, with sales rising 20 percent in that market over the previous year. And it even managed sales growth in the challenging U.S. market, where many of its key retail partners were closing stores and grappling with falling foot traffic.
The improvement at Levi’s under tough conditions should send a message about what’s possible to the many apparel brands in the wilderness right now. And luckily for those laggards, they can apply some lessons from Levi’s to their own businesses.
Let’s start with what Levi’s didn’t do when the yoga pants invasion began. It didn’t splash out money to buy an athletic brand, and it didn’t try to build its own copycat empire of stretch pants.
It did overhaul its women’s denim offering with the new fashion undercurrents in mind: It made its jeans stretchier and reworked silhouettes and fits to try make them as flattering as yoga pants.
But, crucially, Levi’s didn’t try to masquerade as something it’s not.
This is where I can’t help but think about all the troubled mid-price apparel brands that have spent the past several years trying to turn themselves into Hennes & Mauritz AB clones. Yes, they should learn something from fast-fashion’s success — namely that everyone needs to shorten manufacturing lead times so clothes can look more of-the-moment.
But not every shopper wants those cheap price tags and teenybopper aesthetics. Brands such as Banana Republic and White House Black Market seem only now to be realizing the downside of their identity crises, and it may be too late to fix them.
You can see the fruits of Levi’s work in its women’s division, which has grown for 10 consecutive quarters, thanks partly to sales of skinny jeans, but also to expanding in categories such as tops.
Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh said in an interview that the improvement in its women’s division likely has had positive ripple effects elsewhere in the business.
“Women buy more men’s clothes than men do,” Bergh said. “So getting women back into Levi’s and having the brand resonate the way that it has, has probably haloed onto our men’s business.”
Levi’s strategy to keep the momentum going isn’t without vulnerabilities. For example, it is working to secure more selling space at certain wholesale partners to try to offer what Bergh called “more of a head-to-toe lifestyle presentation.”
But department stores are so challenged right now, I’m not sure how much good it can do to score bigger and better presentation in those environments.
But much of the rest of its strategy is quite prudent. Its new-store plans are focused on overseas markets, a smart play now that international sales comprise more than half its total haul.
It has paid down a great deal of its heavy debt load, making it easier to invest in bolstering its e-commerce business.
And, hey, it can’t hurt that the fashion winds are more at its back, with a trend toward high-waisted denim giving women fresh incentive to pony up for a new pair.
But for now, Levi’s improvement is a reminder to the rest of the industry that sudden threats like athleisure need not be an existential crisis, provided apparel brands have the right plan to address them.