“You didn’t think you’d be getting a physics lesson at 8:13 in the morning, did you?”
But that is exactly what James Curleigh, president of Levi’s Brand and executive vice president of Levi Strauss & Co., gave as he opened the WWD Men’s Wear Summit and immediately walked attendees through Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion that include the law of inertia and the equation of force equals mass times acceleration.
Curleigh then cited the third law, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, “which is the most scary of Newton’s laws,” he said.
Curleigh used that analogy to frame how the iconic jeans brand is positioned in the market and how competitive forces and the complexity of a fragmented industry impact business as well as the Levi’s brand itself. And after citing lyrics of the late David Bowie’s 1969 song “Space Oddity” — “take your protein pills and put your helmet on” — Curleigh laid out a dualistic approach used by the brand to navigate a market where the company has been under attack from fast fashion, premium brands and private labels.
“It’s about turning moments into momentum,” the president said.
“When I first joined the company, I was often asked if we should leverage the brand’s heritage and history,” Curleigh said, “or should we innovate for the future?”
He said that 150-plus years of heritage include a presence during key milestones, from the California Gold Rush to the Woodstock Festival in 1969, “where I learned that the Levi’s brand had a 97 percent market share — though the remaining 3 percent were naked.”
So does the company lean on its heritage or eye the future?
“You do both,” Curleigh said, adding that this is accomplished by “bringing together our innovation [via its Eureka lab] with the brand’s heritage. You tether the past and invent the future.”
Curleigh then went on to cite other dualities that are similarly transformed from “an either/or choice” to an approach where the Levi’s brand oscillates between the two strategic hemispheres. “Do you stick to your core or expand for more?” Curleigh asked.
“When I joined in 2012, I was told that we’re the worldwide leader in denim,” he said, before quickly noting that jeans only have 6 percent of the share of consumers’ closets.
“Really, we’re the worldwide leaders of just 6 percent of the closet,” he went on, adding that this realization helped his team to change its entire perspective. “That led us to now understand not only share of denim, but share of closet.”
That led him to push Levi’s to consider expanding into any product that touched a pair of jeans. So now the brand is pushing more aggressively into shirts, jackets, socks, underwear (“Trust me, I am wearing Levi’s underwear,” Curleigh said), footwear and belts. Speaking about the latter, Curleigh said on one of his first days at the brand, he asked who was the worldwide leader in men’s belts. No one knew the answer, but the next day a colleague came in to reveal the embarrassing news: It was Levi’s. “We were the worldwide leader in belts and no one knew. No one knew,” he said.
In his view, that proves the brand was a ripe for expansion into other categories. “We protect the core, and expand for more,” Curleigh said.
Another example is the duality of either being accessible to the masses or presenting higher-end products for the aspirational consumer. Once again, Curleigh said it doesn’t have to be a choice between one or the other.
“You do both, like Starbucks,” the president said, adding that the coffee company created an aspirational experience — “they taught you a new name, venti” — while being everywhere in the market. For Levi’s, the approach is to offer accessibility — “without being so accessible that is becomes a commodity” — while also creating a bit of exclusivity, “such as our customer-designed jeans,” he said, adding that at the Levi’s store in New York’s Meatpacking District, customers can literally create their own jeans, down to the denim used, the stitching and the rivets. “That’s the journey we’re on.”
Other dualisms that Levi’s engages in include striking a balance between “simple or sophisticated” and being “aggressive or patient.” Of the former, Curleigh likened it to the mullet hairstyle: “It’s simple in the front, yet sophisticated in the back,” he said, adding that the backend requires complex solutions to deliver a seamless and simple experience for the consumer.
“This is the new dynamism of today. You need both. It’s the virtue of business,” Curleigh said.