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Levi’s Believes the Skinny Jean Is Here to Stay

Levi's new 700 Series line has something for everyone, according to the company’s top executives.
Music duo (and twins) Ibeyi in Levi's new 700 Series denim. Photo: Levi's

Music duo (and twins) Ibeyi in Levi's new 700 Series denim. Photo: Levi's

Recent survey data suggests that one in four American women own at least 10 pairs of jeans. But how many of those jeans fit exactly how those women would like them to fit? That number, surely, is much lower. Two-thirds of women say that they have never found a perfect-fitting pair of jeans, according to an October 2012 report by research firm Mintel.

Levi’s, which has been making jeans for women for 80 years, wants to change that with its reimagined denim collection. Chief Product Officer Karyn Hillman and her design team have spent the last two years doing on-the-ground market research — via interviews and try-on sessions — in Asia, Europe and the U.S. to find out what women really want. And maybe more importantly, what they need.

“Sometimes, someone would say, ‘I never wear stretch,’ yet she would keep choosing styles with more stretch,” Hillman said at a preview of the collection on Tuesday. “Just when we thought someone would definitely choose a curvy fit, she’d say that the skinny was better for her.” The line, which ranges from super skinny to slim to straight to bootcut with prices between $54.50 and $78, aims to be women's go-to jean, available in multiple washes and levels of stretch. (For instance, the super skinny jean has between 40% and 80% stretch, depending on the wash.) 

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The success of this collection — called the 700 Series, inspired by the first-ever pair of women's jeans created by the brand — matters to Levi’s, maybe more than any other launch in recent years. The San Francisco-based, privately held company is in a tough spot. On the low end, fast fashion is making good-looking, cheaply priced denim. In the mid-market, Madewell is determined to take a chunk of out of Levi’s market share. On the high end, there are denim brands selling tailored vintage Levi’s for $300. And then there’s the massive athleisure market, whose leggings have replaced jeans as the de-facto brunch uniform. While the company’s overall net sales inched up 2 percent in 2014 to $4.8 billion, gross margins were down. (Levi’s blamed discount culture for the drop.) The first quarter of 2015 was a struggle, with sales in the Americas dipping to $574 million, down 8 percent from the same period in 2014. (Changes in the fiscal calendar, a strong dollar and rampant discounting were all factors.)

But all is not lost. The advantage of Levi’s, of course, is that it’s the first name in denim. The fashion customer’s current obsession with vintage Levi’s hasn’t hurt, either. For every cool girl willing to shell out $250 for a pair of reworked 501s or scour the racks of her local second-hand shop for the authentic version, there are certainly dozens more who would rather just buy them off the rack for a reasonable price. (Another newly introduced line, the Levi’s 501 CT — a tapered version of the classic 501 — is a response to that.) This new range, however, emphasizes Levi’s desire to appeal to all sorts of women. Which is why there are three versions of skinny jeans — the super skinny, skinny and high-rise skinny — along with straight and boot cut styles.

After two years of research, Hillman and her team believe strongly that the skinny jean is not on its way out. She may be right. In my 32 years on this earth, I have experienced three denim cycles. The first was in the early ‘90s, when tapered jeans were swiftly replaced by the boot cut. The next happened in the early aughts, when skinny jeans took over. And now, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. This time, there are more variations on each style: the boyfriend, the high-rise, the baby bell. While those earlier changes felt sharp and sudden — I remember actually being sad in 2003 that the boot cut was disappearing from store racks — it’s been well documented that the runway no longer dictates our wardrobes, and magazines now serve as inspiration, not a manual. Personal style means wearing what you want, and many women find that skinny jeans are the most flattering. “Identity is so important,” Hillman said. “So there’s variety happening versus the It-jean only. I think people are staying a little more true to who they are.”

To capture the spirit of the collection, the brand enlisted Alicia Keys, along with a group of up-and-coming female musicians including Ibeyi and Ryn Weaver, to star in its “Live in Levi’s” campaign. “We don’t generally work with famous people, because as a democratic brand we feel like selecting a single face doesn’t really convey that notion,” Global Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Sey told me. “But we wanted to do something special, and we felt like Alicia represented that. Women all over the world can relate to her.” What Levi’s really wants to be something to everyone. Now, it’s time to see if consumers want that, too.