Reporting from NRF: Levi’s ― Catch ‘Em If You Can

We need to take control of our own brand," said Curleigh, "but that’s only half of the equation. The other half is learning to collaborate.

One of the most satisfying scenes in movie history is when Frank Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can, shows up to work Monday morning after skipping town and gets down to business as part of the FBI’s fraud unit. He and Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks, immediately get to work analyzing the counterfeits from the latest batch of scoundrels. In the movie, based on the real-life story of the two men, Hanratty is dogged in his pursuit of Abagnale, who has stolen millions of dollars via counterfeit checks, but at the end of the movie, everything comes full circle, and the man whom Hanratty devoted many years to hunting down becomes his colleague and friend.

If you were at Levi’s® brand president James “JC” Curleigh’s presentation to a packed house at NRF’s Big Show on Sunday, you might have thought of that scene. (Or maybe it was just me.) But more on that in a moment.

Curleigh ― who rode to the stage on a bicycle, blaring music from his Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket with Jacquard™ by Google, attire that lets you access your music, navigation, and communication such as texts and calls all with the swipe of your sleeve — spoke of Levi’s mission to become the “most loved, most relevant lifestyle brand again,” and shared many of the forms that mission is taking.

One of those is protecting its core: denim. Levi’s holds the No. 1 position in denim, said Curleigh. But denim represents just 5 percent to 7 percent of consumers’ closets, he noted, and being the No. 1 brand of that portion of the pie is not enough. “Let’s look at share of closet,” he said. “Anything that touches jeans, we can connect to our brand ― belt, t-shirt, socks, jacket,” he said, gesturing to each of these items as he named it. “And trust me, I’m wearing Levi’s underwear,” he quipped.

In striving to enhance and expand its global brand, Levi’s lifestyle must embrace the roots of its legacy while stepping forward with new vision, Curleigh said, noting some of the ways in which Levi’s is rooting itself deep into culture, such as via its Levi’s Stadium (home of the San Francisco 49ers), which connects the brand to music and sports; or via Levi’s Music Project, a program dedicated to youth music education around the globe.

There’s the Jacquard Google Jacket, the reintroduction of classics such as the Trucker Jacket, exploring its partnership with Rolling Stone magazine, and using social media to bring its vintage Cindy Crawford jeans to a new generation. This spring, Levi’s will open a 25,000-square-foot flagship store in New York City’s Times Square.  

The brand hit the jackpot with its recent spot “Circles,” (watch it below), which celebrates connectedness through music, dance and of course, Levi’s.  When it launched last September, the ad brought the company “more positive feedback than anything we’ve done in 20 years,” said Curleigh: It was a top 10 YouTube ad, and its featured music — “Makeba” by French artist Jain ― became a top hit on Shazam in the UK and India.

At its Eureka Innovation Lab, the company is on a mission to engage and excite the customer and to continue to push the company and the industry forward. It’s working to take harmful chemicals out of production, to create a more sustainable supply chain, to come up with unique collaborations and to make one-of-a-kind jeans by repurposing and reusing vintage Levi’s.

And that sort of brings us round to the beginning. One other topic that Curleigh touched on was counterfeit product, which Levi’s works diligently to root out via a team that’s dedicated to enforcing its trademark and property rights around the globe. It’s a somewhat Sisyphean task: With a brand as iconic as Levi’s, there are many copycats, many recognizable features of Levi’s to copy (think the red tab on the back pocket, the arcuate stitching, the rivets) and many ways to deceive people into thinking they’re buying authentic product.

But when the legal team approached him some time back for his signature to pursue the most recently identified offender, Curleigh had a different thought. The transgressor was a small L.A.-based operation that was taking apart old Levi’s jeans and remaking them to achieve a modern design and fit. “Hold on,” he said, and decided to pay a visit to the two-partner team. He saw what they were doing, he loved it, and he saw that it perfectly captured the essence of Levi’s lifestyle, and its mission to unite its heritage with modernity.

“We need to take control of our own brand,” said Curleigh, “but that’s only half of the equation. The other half is learning to collaborate.”

Rather than shut these guys down, he thought, why not partner with them? So that’s what Levi’s did. RE/DONE became the first authorized vintage partner for Levi’s, and Curleigh credits the pair with bringing back the company’s vintage dynamic.

That’s a great ending to a tale we’ll call Levi’s Enemies: A Love Story. Whether or not it will be made into a movie is anybody’s guess.


Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].


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