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Men’s Wear CEO Summit: Levi’s Path of Progress

Robert Hanson discusses the denim giant's initiatives, both global and local.

Robert Hanson
Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 03/31/2011

With nearly 160 years of history, Levi Strauss & Co. was easily the oldest brand in the room.

This story first appeared in the March 31, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As much as the San Francisco-based jeans and sportswear giant likes to tout its past and its pioneering spirit, Robert Hanson views his imperative as president of the $3.5 billion global Levi’s brand quite differently.

“We are fixated on being a global beacon of creativity and innovation,” he told summit attendees. “We’re not where we want to be, but we’re fixated and hungry.”

In remarks titled “The Uniform of Progress,” Hanson returned repeatedly to Levi’s emphasis on creativity and how the company has sought to improve consumers’ lives through a combination of “global consistency and local relevancy.”

He cited Levi’s Curve ID fit system as his first example of products that deployed the company’s global resources. Compiling data from 60,000 body scans, the company developed jeans models that “come close” to custom-fitting 96 percent of women around the world.

When he asked members of the audience which categories of apparel women liked shopping for least, the response was immediate, nearly unanimous and ultimately correct — swimwear and bras. Jeans place third on this scale because, as with the top two categories, a woman concludes the shopping experience “feeling there is something wrong with her,” according to Hanson.

Levi’s put the focus on shape, not size, Hanson said, and offered models marked as Slight, Demi, Bold and Supreme Curve. “Curve ID was born as the new democracy of jeans and is resulting in share growth in most markets,” Hanson said.

 

Moving in the opposite direction, Water<Less jeans were developed locally and rolled out globally in nine months. To promote sustainability, the company, cognizant of the scarcity of clean, safe drinking water around the globe, took a fresh look at the manufacturing processes used to make its jeans and found ways to cut the water consumed in production from 24 liters to as few as 1.5 liters. The reduction in water consumption ranges from 28 percent to 96 percent and Levi’s estimates that its spring collection will free 16 million liters of water for other uses.

 

Levi’s efforts to conserve water “provide store staff a really unique story to tell,” Hanson said. “Water<Less was introduced in February and same-store sales immediately responded.

 

“And last Tuesday, World Water Day, we partnered with Facebook and water.org to introduce Levi’s Watertank, which is enabling consumers to ‘unlock’ 200 million liters of fresh drinking water to help some of the more than 884 million people worldwide without it,” Hanson noted.

Visitors to the Watertank on Facebook can participate in a game that gives them tips on saving water. For instance, “If everyone washes their jeans every two weeks instead of weekly, we’ll save enough drinking water for 60,000 for 14 years.” Pledging to wash fortnightly rather than weekly “unlocks” 5,000 liters. The total savings as of press time were approaching 85 million liters. Progress is gauged not by the thermometer often used for fund-raising events but by a sketch of jeans slowly filling up with “unlocked” water.

“The consumer today is inundated with messaging and information,” Hanson said, adding that the winners will be “brands and experiences that add meaning to people’s lives.”

Not all Levi’s initiatives revolve around issues as critical as water consumption or women’s body awareness. The company chose the summit to unveil plans for a new offering of denim products designed for, and in many cases by, urban cyclists.

Dubbed the Cycling Commuter series, the collection is comprised of three versions of the company’s 511 fitted jean and the Trucker Jacket modified for urban commuters who, for their own health and that of the environment, use their bicycles to get to and from work. Hanson said the offering grew out of the everyday habits of Levi’s employees who cycle to work and require specific design and performance features.

Addressing performance issues, Levi’s has built the new products with reflective characteristics from 3M, antimicrobial protection against odors and Nanosphere technology for water resistance, dirt repellency and added durability. To meet the needs of cyclists, the jeans are constructed with stretch characteristics, special utility waistbands and higher cuts in the back, while the jackets provide additional coverage with a drop tail. The jackets also feature a front pocket designed for an iPod or smartphone and accordion sleeves that adjust to different riding stances, as well as elongated cuffs for partial hand coverage.

Levi claims to be the first company to employ denim incorporating Nanosphere technology.

The jacket is expected to retail for $128 with the jeans, available in five-pocket, lumbar and cropped treatments, ranging from $68 to $78.

Responding to a question about the presence of Levi’s stores in the markets in which Levi’s customers also operate, Hanson said, “Wherever we put our stores, business has grown.” Citing one example of such a market, he said, “We think we have the potential to double our business in New York City.”

Levi’s operates a store in New York’s Meatpacking District and is also sold in such stores as Macy’s and Penney’s.

When facing possible conflicts with retailers, Hanson said, the company asks itself two questions: “Where should we do it? And where should we rely on our partners?”

He acknowledged that the question of directly competition with retail accounts is a touchy one, and complicated by the presence of e-commerce, but that the firm was guided by a simple principle. “The reality is that the world’s population is increasingly urbanizing,” he said. “We want the brand present when and where people want to shop.”