It's common knowledge that over the past several years, Coachella has evolved from a fun music festival in the desert into a marketing opportunity for companies hoping to cash in on the massive convergence of musicians, celebrities, influencers and scenic backdrops (for #content!) that takes place over two weekends every April. Brands like Revolve, Adidas, Chloé and H&M hope that dressing influencers and creating Instagrammable moments throughout the Coachella Valley will inspire kids at home to shop their festival-season wares after seeing them worn in context. But for Levi's, activating at Coachella came more out of a desire to capitalize on the presence it already had at the festival, and in the music community in general — through no effort of its own.
"I always say that we didn't choose music, it chose us, because all of the artists who are original and authentic voices, they all choose to wear Levi's on stage and they have for decades," Jen Sey, Levi's Chief Marketing Officer, tells me over iced coffee at the new, Morroccan-inspired, rose-colored Sands Hotel and Spa in Desert Sands, where Levi's held its 2019 Coachella activation (and invited me to stay as a guest) over the weekend. "We didn't ask Bruce Springsteen to wear Levi's on the cover of 'Born in the USA,' he just wore them. That's true for generations of artists, from Kurt Cobain to Joan Jett to Beyoncé last year."
In terms of both marketing and product, Levi's has gotten more intentional over the past few years about addressing the desire for its denim — spurred by the growing popularity of its vintage styles — and keeping up with trends. When denim trends shifted from the premium-branded, skinny, stretchy styles of yore to today's more rigid, vintage "mom"/"dad" silhouettes, Levi's had a moment where it fell behind. While vintage stores and upcyclers were profiting from styles that Levi's invented decades prior, Levi's itself wasn't making a dime.
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Today, following a relaunch of its women's offering in 2015, it's up to date. Levi's regularly introduces new vintage-inspired styles, from versions of its classic 501, to the cult-beloved Wedgie fit, to the new (and my personal favorite) Ribcage, a less pinup-y, high-waisted style with a button fly that comes in a straight leg, a wide leg and a short that essentially debuted at Coachella this year. Still, it has to be careful not to chase trends so fervently that it loses its heritage-brand appeal.
"Brand, brand, brand, I put everything through the Levi's brand," Levi's Chief Product Officer Karyn Hillman tells me. "Just because someone said, 'this is trending,' it might not work for us. You get a lot of requests [from retailers], so you have to have that filter and you have to have that strong sense of who you are or you're going to go off in too many directions."
The way in which Levi's figured out how to capitalize on the popularity of its vintage styles is similar to the way in which it activates at Coachella. As trends have come and gone, Levi's cutoffs — to varying degrees of butt visibility — have been the unofficial Coachella uniform, with performers and attendees alike regularly choosing to wear the brand. While Hillman's job is to make sure there are plenty of relevant styles on offer, Sey's job has been to figure out how to get the brand involved in an authentic way.
"We've definitely aggressively leaned into music in the last five years," she says. "In the past, we've had a music association, but now that's sort of our exclusive way that we connect with culture." This year marks the fourth that Levi's has had a presence at the festival. Typically, it takes over a different trendy hotel each year, where it invites a group of Levi's employees, "friends of the brand" and press (like me) from around the world to stay all weekend, have a fitting with new Levi's product, customize said product with everything from embroidery to tie-dye to screen printing and attend a pool party on Saturday, boasting well-known DJs and celebrity/influencer guests. The company also provides VIP wristbands for and transportation to the actual festival. Compared to some other Coachella-activating brands, who (understandably) offer similar packages in exchange for a set list of deliverables, influencers and the Instagrammable moments they converge around seem slightly less of a priority for Levi's.
"We try to make it a relaxing, cool vibe for people who may want to take a break from the craziness," says Sey. "We offer a service that's uniquely tied to our brand, which is customizing product. Half the people are wearing Levi's anyway, so it's fun to get the chance to customize them." Getting people to share photos of their customized product is more of a priority — and then there are always plenty of celebrity photo moments at the pool party.
This year's paid guests included St. Vincent and Snoop Dogg, who both deejayed, as well as Emily Ratajkowski, Luka Sabbat, Joan Smalls, Candice Huffine, Amandla Stenberg, Jaden Smith, Aquaria, Victor Cruz and Hailey Bieber, whom Levi's recently nabbed as the first-ever face of the 501 jean. A requirement for celebrity partners, says Sey, is that they "authentically really like Levi's." The brand tends to invite people it already works with regularly, including Bieber. "You can find a lot of people who love Levi's; we don't have to find people who don't,” notes Sey.
The timing of Bieber's campaign announcement was no accident: "The featured item we talk about for Coachella is the 501 and the 501 short, and she's a huge fan of the 501, the shorts in particular," explains Sey. "We planned a few key moments this year that would make a ton of sense to work with her on." Coachella, in a way, is a precursor to an event that is just as big of an investment for the brand: 501 Day, which is May 20, and in which Bieber will surely be involved, though there are no details being shared yet for this year's plans. (Last year's included a huge concert at the Palladium in Los Angeles featuring the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, SZA and Lauryn Hill.)
Few other brands can claim to only work with celebrities who are already fans of their product, and that also goes for those who take the stage at Coachella — not just attendees. The brand's in-house stylists begin working with artists and their stylists usually a couple of months out by setting up appointments at Levi's Haus, an actual mid-century house off of Sunset Blvd. with a seemingly infinite supply of both new and vintage (thanks in part to one collector) styles.
Typically, it's stylists and artists reaching out to Levi's to set up appointments pre-Chella, as opposed to the other way around, either for general product or for a specific customized piece. This year, the brand made custom items for Khalid, Maggie Rogers, Lizzo, Jaden Smith and Anderson .Paak among others. "We do that for most of the festivals because we work with these musicians all year long," says Sey. Last year, the Levi's team didn't even know Beyoncé would make a pair of cutoffs a key part of her main Beychella look — the only non-Balmain piece she wore, in fact, and the only piece that any one of her fans could easily go into a store and pick up.
Levi's is also in the rare position of being a brand that's worn by celebrities and is still accessible to the masses. "We, for a long time, resisted using famous faces because it is such a democratic brand, and when you put a famous face on something, it becomes about that person and their personality ... you get a borrowed equity of that, and it makes it not for everyone," explains Sey. "But I think we choose wisely, and in this age of influencers, it is part of how you market the brand, but we try to really pick people that are relatable."
Levi's measures the success of its Coachella events through "PR impressions," meaning social media impressions and press placements. Photos of Bieber, Ratajkowski and others could be found all over the web soon after they were taken. "Festival" has also become an important sales period for the brand, which was taken public this past February. "Our business has really shifted over the last five-to-seven years," says Sey. Before, like most retailers, the bulk of revenue was made in the second half of the year during the back-to-school and holiday seasons. "With the rise of festival and denim shorts, the business is more balanced now, so we definitely see business pick up when people are out looking for their festival gear."
Even as critics tire of Coachella and all the branded activity that now surrounds it, Sey feels that it will remain relevant for years to come, and that Levi's will always have a place there, and at other festivals around the world as well.
"I think we're able to stand out because we do it all through the product, and it's a product that people are wearing naturally at the festival anyway, so there's a reason to be here," she explains. "It's the one festival that I would say is truly global in terms of its reach and scale, but we will be at festivals around the world all year. She names Glastonbury, Fuji Rock, Strawberry and Splendour in the Grass as other festivals where Levi's plans to activate on a smaller scale. It's also largely about reaching the youths.
"I think festivals are here for some time to come; I'm not going to predict the future but it's just such a significant part of the experience of young people," she says. "You never love music more than when you're young."
You can never look great in a pair of 501 cutoffs more than when you're young, either. When I asked Sey and a Levi's PR rep to estimate how many pairs of jorts the brand gifted ahead of and during Coachella this year, they both had trouble even beginning to calculate such a thing. "More than a thousand?" I offered. "Oh, definitely," confirmed Sey.