How Levi's Has Reemerged as the "It" Denim Brand Du Jour

America's most famous (and most accessible) blue jeans have become aspirational again, though Levi's isn't benefitting financially.
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Alyssa Vingan Klein
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America's most famous (and most accessible) blue jeans have become aspirational again, though Levi's isn't benefitting financially.
Bella Hadid in vintage Levi's by Re/Done. Photo: Re/Done

Bella Hadid in vintage Levi's by Re/Done. Photo: Re/Done

As a long-time denim lover, I've gone through more than a few embarrassing "phases" when it came to my favorite pairs of jeans. In my teen years, when pop princesses wore them low-slung with bedazzled pockets, a lace up fly or completely covered in patchwork, I followed suit. Then came the premium denim onslaught, when labels like Seven for All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity and True Religion became the must-haves, complete with their signature stitching on the back pockets. A pair of these could set you back over $200, and with their highly visible branding, anyone walking behind you would know you spent it, too.

As more denim labels were introduced to the market, the most aspirational pairs still came from one of a handful of premium companies. JBrand, which was founded in 2004 and singlehandedly brought the "skinny jeans" trend to the forefront, is still among the most popular with editors — due in part to the flattering fit, comfortable stretch and minimalist design. Seasonal micro-trends aside, the most ubiquitous silhouette of the last few years has remained the skinny leg (though it's finally beginning to subside) and as a result, the denim selection both in stores and online has begun to look uninspired — just pair after pair of the same thing. 

One brand that's been on shelves through it all — and at one of the lowest price points — is Levi's. Founded in 1853 in San Francisco, it never received much fanfare from the fashion crowd, but now every "It" Girl, musician, model and street style star worth her salt has a pair of vintage 501s in heavy rotation, replacing the pricey premium denim that was considered a wardrobe essential for so many years. But when did the shift happen? While the pared back aesthetic made so covetable by Phoebe Philo and the fashion world's brief obsession with all things "normcore" — "mom jeans" included — likely didn't hurt, a move towards "personal style" and not having the same items as everybody else was a catalyst as well.

Alana, Danielle and Este Haim in their #LiveInLevis campaign. Photo: Levi's

Alana, Danielle and Este Haim in their #LiveInLevis campaign. Photo: Levi's

"To me, the backlash — or 'denim fatigue' — is because all of the jeans [on the market] look exactly alike," said Sean Barron, co-founder of Re/Done denim. "They’re all skinny with stretchy blue fabric. For a while it was like, 'what else can I buy?' These brands are making people look homogeneous." Re/Done, which counts the likes of Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski as fans, just launched in August of last year, but can barely keep its tailored, one-of-a-kind jeans — all made from vintage Levi's the company sources and recuts — in stock. (Its latest style, the high-rise crop, sold out in three hours.) 

But Barron isn't surprised at how the company has taken off, considering how every pair is unique and the amount of time that buying a pair of jeans from Re/Done will save each customer. "Scouring eBay takes a long time — once you find the right pair, you have to get them altered by a specialist, and the whole process can take you two to four months and cost $300-$400 dollars," Barron explained. "This tailoring costs a lot of money. I feel like I basically solved a problem." 

Although his jeans are well-loved by models, Barron insists that you don't need to be a leggy bombshell to pull them off, and that Re/Done's sizing runs standard to the rest of the industry. While the pairs in each size are cut to the same measurements, it's up to each customer to choose the wash, distressing and imperfections she prefers. Another Los Angeles-based retailer with a similar concept is Reformation. The company styles all of its online look books and product pages with, and sells, vintage Levi's that the team hand-picks and alters in-house. While repurposing denim fits in with Reformation's eco-friendly brand ethos, it is known as a purveyor of cool, helping to make these relaxed, heritage silhouettes modern again.

Due to their customization, Re/Done and Reformation's jeans fall around the same price point as premium denim, but have the same charm and personality as a pair found at a flea market. Plus, they come with the bragging rights of owning a one-of-a-kind item. Even tastemakers at top publications are ditching designer jeans for well-worn vintage finds.

Verena von Pfetten, the digital editorial director of Lucky and Luckyshops.com, says that she was driven to buy vintage Levi's for the first time after seeing how women in her office styled their own — one colleague in particular. "She came into our production meeting wearing vintage, light-wash Levi’s with a white button down shirt, glasses and super-minimal makeup, and I thought, 'that's the coolest person I’ve ever seen in my life," von Pfetten said. She believes that, even with the accessible price point (you can find vintage Levi's for less than $10 on eBay), what makes them truly aspirational is how they're styled. "They’re the perfect mix of accessible meets aspirational because it’s not, 'I aspire to have enough money to be able to buy that bag,'" she explained. "Aspiration has changed a little bit, and now it's: 'I aspire to be cool enough to be able to pull that off. Everyone wants to be the girl who looks like she just wandered into a vintage store, grabbed something off the rack and made it her own." 

Levi's recent rise to relevancy hasn't followed a change in branding, although its latest campaigns have veered to the "hipster" side. Last August, the label hosted a free concert in Brooklyn (where you had to be wearing Levi's to enter) featuring ultra-buzzy bands Haim and Sleigh Bells, both of which were featured in branded Levi's videos. The company has also released an update on its classic 501s, called the 501 CT, with subtle tweaks to the fit (including a tapered leg) that allow for more modern styling options for both men and women. Levi's has struggled financially in the past, but while full-year revenue in 2014 was up slightly (2 percent), its net income has trended downward, due to restructuring, debt and other expenses. While vintage Levi's are definitely having a "moment" and the brand has seen a spike in overseas sales, that doesn't seem to be helping the company's bottom line — possibly due to the fact that the best sources of vintage denim are independent retailers and collectors. Shoppers are not buying these styles from Levi's stores.

A showgoer at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Imaxtree

A showgoer at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Imaxtree

Before you spend the next 10 hours of your life in an eBay black hole, the question remains: Much like "normcore" and all that's associated with it, will these worn-in pieces be another flash in the pan trend? Barron does not believe that to be the case. His customers are tired of the widely monotonous offerings on the denim market, and come to him in search of something authentic and special. "It’s not a trend; if anything it's a movement," he said. "It’s been a problem for 20 years. Every brand finds a pair of vintage Levi’s that they like, from the wash to the cut, and they try to duplicate it. But everyone knows [they] look fake." Authenticity, he feels, will remain a priority among shoppers.

Still, there's no question that the momentum is particularly strong right now for vintage Levi's. We're curious to see if and how Levi's will be able to capitalize on this to improve its own bottom line.

Front page photo: David Mushegain for Re/Done