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SAN FRANCISCO — A crowd of several hundred Levi Strauss & Co. employees, joined by this city’s mayor and a few top retailers and suppliers, packed into the square in front of the firm’s headquarters Thursday to mark the company’s 150th anniversary in business.
Before the ceremony, Levi’s chairman Robert D. Haas, who was wearing a replica of a pair of 110-year-old jeans that had been found in an Arizona mine and purchased by the company in 1948, recalled another anniversary ceremony held in 1950. (Levi’s executives for many years erroneously believed the company had been founded in 1850, not 1853.)
The morning of that ceremony, he said, “I got up on the wrong side of the bed, I came down for breakfast and said I was never going to wear another pair of jeans.”
His father, Walter, asked his eight-year-old son how he was going to pay for his clothing and pointed out that his allowance wouldn’t be sufficient to cover the purchases he’d been planning.
“He said, ‘Young man, enough of this, go up to your room and put on your Levi’s,’” Haas recalled, noting that he complied with the order.
As attendees milled around the 8,000-square-foot museum that Levi’s is opening to the public in its lobby today, Rikke Korff, design director for premium brands at Levi’s, said she finds the company’s extensive jeans archive valuable in creating new styles.
“That’s a gift that you don’t have anywhere else,” she said. “You really have something to dig into.”
Carlos Arias, executive vice president of the Guatemalan apparel contractor Koramsa, a key Levi’s supplier, said much of the 12,000-worker company’s growth during the last 14 years can be attributed to Levi’s.
“Levi Strauss is one of the key companies responsible for the development of the [Caribbean Basin] industry,” he said. “They had a culture of really teaching factories, being involved and training people, when a lot of people were not. They developed factories.”
Robert Mettler, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s West, said Levi’s “changed the way that people dress.”
Asked if he was concerned that the upcoming launch of Levi Strauss Signature clothing at Wal-Mart stores would hurt sales at other retail outlets, he said: “The consumer will determine that based on the products.”
As part of its anniversary celebration, Larry Ruff, Levi’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, presented a $150,000 grant check to the San Francisco Conservation Corps, a local environmental group.
Also during the ceremony, Mayor Willie J. Brown Jr. called Levi’s an “incredible San Francisco business institution.” He also recalled talking to a group of talented schoolchildren years ago with former Levi’s ceo Peter Haas, who today is a director of the company and serves as chairman of the executive committee, explaining that one student had raised his hand and asked how Levi’s calculated its market share.
“And Peter said, ‘OK, I’ll show you,’” Brown explained. “And then he said, ‘Will everybody in the room who owns a pair of Levi’s please stand up.’ Everybody stood up.
“And he said, ‘That’s how you determine market share.’”
For his part, Peter Haas admitted that managing the brand seemed easier when he and his brother, Walter, headed the company than it has been lately.
“We were helped tremendously by the mystique of the 501,” he said. “I wish we knew how to recapture that. Phil’s working at it.”
President and ceo Phil Marineau, to whom he referred, rose to that challenge, asserting that this year would mark the end of Levi’s six-year sales slump.
“The Levi Strauss company is going to have a great year,” he told the crowd. “We’re going to restore the company to growth.”