Adapting to Change: The Lessons of Levi Jeans
Denim has been around since at least the 17th Century, but it’s mostly known as the fabric worn by workers, cowboys, and rebels. Why? Mostly because of the evolution of Levi Jeans.
Of course, before Loeb Strauss changed his name to Levi, moved to San Francisco, and began to sell his wares to the Gold Rush enthusiasts of the mid-1800s, denim already had a reputation for being utilitarian, comfortable, and unpretentious. Made from cotton with a twill weave, this durable fabric was mostly used for overalls and trousers designed for manual labor. As a result, it wasn’t exactly a “gentleman’s fabric,” being heavily associated with the lower classes of society. Then again, it wasn’t exactly “gentlemen” digging up gold in California, so this was an area of opportunity.
In 1872 a tailor by the name of Jacob Davis reached out to Levi Strauss, who at the time was selling common dry goods and fabric in bulk. Davis wanted to combine forces - his skill in making functional clothing and Strauss’ high quality fabric - to provide durable work clothes to the miners in Reno. Strauss agreed, they filed a patent in 1873 for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings,” and set up production with the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire. The people involved may not have known it at the time, but they were basically giving rise to one of the great American companies.
Levi Strauss & Co. started out selling waist overalls, then eventually branched out their garment manufacturing business with jackets, outerwear, and simple shirts. Eventually, the demand for these products greatly exceeded the supply Amoskeag was able to produce, so Levi switched over to Cone Mills manufacturing in North Carolina. Together with Cone Mills, the clothing company became very successful west of the Mississippi River; however, it wasn’t until a major economic shift occurred that Levi Strauss & Co. would be able to sell their products nationally - and for a completely different purpose.
That shift was World War II. During the war, production decreased due to a lack of raw materials; yet once the war ended, the battle for denim began to heat up. As it turns out, American soldiers brought their prized denim overalls and trousers with them overseas to wear during their downtime. No longer were denim pants seen as workwear, but leisure wear…and the European and Asian markets were desperate to have them too. Naturally, with new customers coming into the fold, changes had to be made. For example, customers from the East Coast and abroad didn’t like the button fly that had traditionally been used. Instead, they preferred a zipper. Quickly, Levi Strauss & Co. altered their designs to meet this new demand, unaware that this would not be the only change they'd have to make moving forward.
But as younger audiences took a liking to the product, another shift in customer behavior occurred. In the past, the product sold by Levi Strauss had been favored by very blue collar workers; now teenagers and college students were desperate for the product due to the rebels they saw on TV and in films who happened to also wear the signature blue pants. And despite the fact that “jean” was a completely different fabric from denim, and more closely associated with higher classes of society, these young consumers began to call their denim “blue jeans,” and the name stuck.
Then again, not everyone was happy with this newfound enthusiasm for blue jeans. School administrators were against their young men wearing the clothing, fearing that they would become rebels, non-conformists, and trouble makers who might stand up to authority. And as the youth rebellions of the 1960s picked up steam, the “establishment” of the time couldn’t help but notice that those rebels were wearing blue jeans.
Now, Levi Strauss & Co. might have held firm on their original purpose: creating strong, comfortable clothing for workers. But if they’d stuck to their guns with what they thought their product should be, and who should wear it, they would have probably gone the way of the dinosaurs. Instead, the company was wise in how it approached these cultural changes - and the role their product might play in them. And thanks to clever marketing, a deep understanding of their evolving customer, and careful pivots, Levi jeans ultimately became a symbol of individuality, rebellion, youth, and new ideas.
The Gold Rush was but a flicker in time; but Levi Strauss & Co. created an inferno of success through careful business strategy, which they continue to evolve and implement as time goes on. The brand is now considered to be a quintessential American business with a reputation for mastering change in ways that not only define our culture but also how we relate to denim itself.
How might you do the same with your business?