Amid changing fashion trends, Levi's aims to stay true to its denim roots

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Some years ago, as yoga pants became all the rage in the West, logic dictated that the 145-year-old San Francisco-born cult brand flow with the times and diversify its range. But, the company’s leaders saw a conflict: Levi’s is a denim brand, not an athleisure wear maker and the diversification would mean a dilution of its core value. After sweating it out for a couple of meetings, the team decided not to hurtle down the yoga pants route and soon therafter, was born the trademark Levi’s stretch denims—flexibility was sewn into the core brand fabric. And that is how the brand has sought to define itself in the Indian market too, says Harmit Singh, executive vice president and CFO at Levi Strauss.   

Authenticity is one of the four pillars on which the brand rests, he says and that means staying close to its core – denim lowers, and to its consumer. Currently, the brand is busy balancing this tenet with relevance, sustainability, and personalisation, the other three pillars that prop it up.

“In India, we took a call around five years back to focus on the main brand Levi’s while internationally, we have four brands—Levi’s, Dockers, Signature  and Denizen. This has worked out well and we have seen double digit growth, especially in the women’s category,” Singh says. But the Indian market is more challenging than most. “Remaining relevant is always a challenge. We need to be really agile. Another challenge is assuring profitability for franchise partners and that is something we are working on,” says Singh.

Heritage brands the world over are struggling with keeping the balance between the past and the future. Turning their back on the tradition could cost them as could being rigidly defined by it. At Levi’s that has been a concern as it has plotted its story in India, mapping consumers’ rapidly changing fashion sensibilities to the core ethos of the brand.

“Our products need to be relevant. And for this, we need to adapt to the needs of the consumer, while maintaining our core as a denim brand. That requires agility. We lead in 8 of the 10 men’s denims markets today, and are making strides in women’s apparel as well as we have managed to balance authenticity and relevance,” says Singh.

In India, the brand commands a 16 per cent share in men’s denims and a 19 per cent share for women’s denims. It has 1,900 physical touch points in the country across franchises and owned retail outlets. Levi’s sharpened the focus around women’s denims and fashion around three years back. This has resulted in the brand bringing out a range of denims more suited for the Indian form instead of force-fitting the size-style templates that define the global customer. “We also want to be a lifestyle brand which is why we introduced a range of tops a few years back. The category has done especially well for us,” Singh says.

It has also introduced a concept called Levi’s Tailor Shop, where consumers can get their jeans customised. In other territories, the brand has also introduced the concept of Print Shop, where customers can print their own customised tees.

Fashion, sustainability and customer connect

Across the world, especially among the youth, there is a strong demand for green action. More so from fashion brands that have had their fair share of run-ins with environmental abuse; many have failed to rein in the polluting links in their supply chain, despite their stated commitments to the same.

“Sustainability is a focus area,” says Singh. He knows that there can be little compromise if the brand has to connect with the young, the ones who may not buy into the Levi’s heritage status. “We are constantly looking for ways to be more sustainable, we are developing processes that eliminate potassium permanganate as one of the main ingredients in the lead process (of making jeans),” Singh cites an example of the work being done. Data is also a big area of focus as is creating a digitally enabled operations system. By replacing manual techniques and automating the jeans finishing process, the company says it has been able to radically reduce time to market and eliminate thousands of chemical formulations from jeans finishing.

The marketing team is also keen to develop an experiential culture around the brand. It has set up what it calls Levi’s Lounges, a space for indie artists to perform, come together and ideate. The Tailor Shop is part of the initiative, though it has a strategic place in the brand’s plan to grow its retail business as well.

“We find we’re best when we are at the centre of culture. Levi’s is having a moment right now and it has a lot to do with the efforts we have put into the brand over the past few years. So you’ll see us at music fests or sports event. Anywhere that our consumer goes,” explains Singh.