Levi’s ride 1980s denim trend back to stock market relisting

Nick Kamen stars in the famous Levi's 501 "launderette" advert from 1985Image copyright Levi’s
Image caption Nick Kamen stars in the famous Levi’s 501 “launderette” advert from 1985

When it comes to style, there are certain things that should arguably be left in a land that fashion forgot.

Leg warmers, deely bobbers (fluffy sort of antennae on a headband) and jumpsuits for men don’t belong in a civilised society.

The same could be said for 1980s denim which spawned such trends as stone-wash jeans.

But a new generation is rediscovering denim from that era and Levi Strauss is riding the wave of popularity all the way back to the stock market.

Image copyright Getty Images

The 166 year-old US company will soon be relisting its shares on the New York Stock Exchange after it left the public market in 1985.

It was thought at that time that going private would allow Levi’s to concentrate on the longer term as opposed to being a public company which must tell its shareholders the state of its business every three months.

It was the same year that Levi’s aired a game-changing commercial showing a young model, Nick Kamen, in a 1950s-style launderette stripping off his 501 jeans and loading them into a washing machine to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “I heard it through the grapevine”.

Since its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, denim has had a rocky ride.

Robert Burke, a retail and fashion consultant, says: “The jean industry in general had been heavily affected by how strong the athleisure and athletic market had become.

“Leggings, yoga pants, things like that had been chipping away and in many ways replaced the jean business as a category.”

Image copyright Levi Strauss
Image caption Levi Strauss emigrated to the US from Germany in 1853 when he was 18


That trend is turning around.

In 2017-18, global sales of jeans grew by 4.3%, according to Euromonitor International, a market research provider.

The change is most pronounced in the US where, after four years of falling demand, sales rose by 2.2%.

And Levi’s financials reflect that.

In its US Securities and Exchange Commission filing regarding the upcoming flotation, Levi’s turnover has grown from $4.4bn four years ago to $5.5bn.

Alex Badia, style director at fashion industry magazine WWD, says that the 1980s, as well as the early 1990s, are eras that people are looking back to and says “we have been seeing a sort of return to what we call the relaxed denim”.

He says: “In the fashion industry, after years of distressed, extremely tight-fitting jeans the relaxed jeans look really new.”

Eric Schiffer, chairman and chief executive at investment firm Patriarch Organisation, says the trend is “being driven by millennials who want to touch history, people like you and me who want to step back in time and, you could argue, Generation Z, who are fascinated by that time and its music”.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Models Hailey Baldwin, Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid wearing the ‘mom’ jean

‘Mom jeans’

But, like the plot of a bad horror film, bringing something back from the dead has its consequences and in this case, it is the “mom” and the “dad” jean.

Spotted on the likes of models Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Hailey Baldwin, the “mom” jean is typically high-waisted with a relax leg. The paternal version is also high-waisted and shapeless.

Mr Burke says: “It started really with models and influencers wearing them, particularly fashion models and then it started gaining more and more visibility.

“It fits into a whole kind of mum/dad trend which also includes really big bulky, ugly sneakers. We say “ugly” tongue in cheek but it resonated because for the younger consumer it is new.”

While revisiting this style may not appeal to those who lived through it the first time around, Simeon Siegel, senior retail analyst at Nomura, says it is the duty of a new generation to annoy the one that came before.

“Fashion has to cause gut reaction,” he says. “And if a certain decade is not abhorred by a prior decade’s fashion it means they did something wrong.”

Image copyright Warner Bros Entertainment
Image caption I’ll be there in blue… the “Friends” bunch – and the new jeans buyers – like their denim in a lighter hue

The ‘Levi’s blue’

The 501, however, is perhaps a cut above “ugly” denim rivals. The jean has been around for 146 years and has been left virtually unchanged

Mr Burke says: “There are few iconic brands whether it be a Hanes white t-shirt or a Levi 501. They may not be fashion at different times but they’re iconic and staples and that’s where the 501 fits in.”

Mr Badia says for the younger people who are discovering the 501, there are also different washes that are coming back.

He explains: “If you remember the show ‘Friends’ or even ‘90210’ – if you see the 90210 posters, they are all posing in jeans and white shirts.

“If you think of Rachel or Monica or any of the characters in ‘Friends’, a lot of the times they were wearing jeans and a lot of the jeans they were wearing were basically these early 1990s washes that are a 501 but are a lighter blue, not the dark blue.

“That is the blue that is happening. That is the Levi’s blue, that is the 501 blue.”

It seems, therefore, that now is the perfect time for Levi’s to launch its shares again on the stock market.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm behind Levi’s,” says Mr Schiffer. “And that is one of the rationales for delivering on the [share sale].”

However, he believes that Levi’s is only a short or medium-term investment because, like everything in fashion, denim’s popularity will eventually wane again.

For now, Mr Burke reckons Levi’s is in a good place.

It is becoming more visible – last year it built 74 stores in 2018 including a 17,000 square foot store in New York’s Times Square – and he says the company had the foresight to jump on the denim “bandwagon” that started with the “mom” jeans.

“They were the original,” he says: “So it just makes sense to monetise that and to grow the business simultaneously.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Actress Shailene Woodley wears acid wash, high-waisted jeans by Balmain

Acid wash

For now, there is still more to come from this bygone fashion era.

Actress Shailene Woodley recently caused a stir when she wore a pair of high-waisted acid wash jeans designed by Balmain.

WWD’s Mr Badia says that the trend on the catwalk hasn’t become ubiquitous, yet: “I haven’t seen it trickle down at that level like it did back in the 1980s but it wouldn’t surprise me.

“We have seen some designers going for it but we haven’t seen it yet at the mass market.”

He reckons that “we are going to see more acid washes… at the same time tie-dye is happening”.

But if readers of a certain vintage are contemplating taking a sartorial trip down memory lane, Mr Badia has a word of warning.

“You need to remember always there is a rule of thumb in fashion when you see a trend coming back – you’ve already worn it once, you cannot wear it twice.”

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