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Photo courtesy National Retail Federation NRF 2018.

Levi’s is likely the oldest “start-up” in retail history as it aims to retain its leadership when it comes to selling jeans and its top spot as a lifestyle brand.

It’s already built its own sports stadium in Silicon Valley and collaborated with Google in creating a high-tech jacket that acts like a smartphone. It recently partnered with Diane von Furstenberg on a pop-up experience that lets customers self-design clothing.

So, it’s not surprising that Levi’s top leader, James “JC” Curleigh, invoked some big, big names in kicking off a standing-room-only  presentation Sunday morning at The Big Show, NRF 2018, in New York City.

The executive vice president and president of the Levi’s, Dockers, Signature by Levi Strauss & Co. and Denizen brands, rode in on a bike to the main stage, wearing the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket with Jacquard by Google  woven in, at the Javits Center, then jumped into offering insight on the jacket collaboration that came about several years ago. The jacket boasts tiny electronics in the jacket’s cuff linking it to a mobile device, so the wearer can take a call, check messages, listen to music and more.

Curleigh then mentioned how physicist Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion back in 1687 — noting those laws are still in play today, and how Bob Dylan’s infamous line, from his song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” — “if your time to you is worth savin’ then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone,” is still relevant 54 years later.

“He [Dylan] could have written that this year,” said Curleigh, referencing the increasing competitive retail landscape and challenges retailers are facing.

During his 30-minute talk, entitled “Learn from Levi’s: How the 150-year-old startup continues to transform,” Curleigh fast made the connection between Newton’s theories and the retail industry, stating “the laws of motion apply to brands.”

“An object at rest tends to stay at rest. If you do nothing, nothing happens,” he said, adding that for every action there is an equal and opposing reaction.

Retailers, he said, are facing obstacles, so they must embrace opportunities and take action to turn possibilities into reality.

Curleigh believes retailers need a vision, need to know how to pivot, and need to learn. For its part, Levi’s, as a brand, is striving to be the most loved lifestyle brand again.

“It is about our fans and giving them a reason to continue to love us,” he said, adding the brand has been hard at work luring back fans who left. “It’s exciting as we are getting those fans back,” he said.

Levi’s is also striving to reach future fans as well — those who didn’t grow up with the Levi’s brand.

“It’s all about a strategic balance. We have made tremendous progress, but we are not perfect,” he said, adding that most days Levi’s, the lifestyle brand leader, can’t determine what retailer is No. 2 in the industry as there “are a thousand number twos.”

Levi’s, most known for its iconic jeans, is working hard at not just being a pair of jeans in someone’s closet, and “wants a share of the closet,” referring to Levi’s expanding line of t-shirts, shirts and clothing beyond jeans — from socks to shoes and even under garments.

The retail brand is also expanding big time on women’s wear, which Curleigh described as growing “significantly.”

“We are challenging ourselves to stay simple. We make jeans and providing what you want to wear with those jeans. It’s about a level of sophistication in retail,” he said, then making one of the most unusual analogies many in the audience have likely ever heard.

“You know the mullet [the hair style in which men wear their hair longer in the back]. It says serious in the front, a party in the back. That’s the business model today – simple in the front, sophistication in the back.”

Success is not just leveraging Levi’s “icons” (the jean’s button fly, the red tag) but focusing on being more relevant in the future.

“It’s very important to connect with your new generation of fans, thinking beyond a pair of jeans and creating a plan for the consumer to wear Levi’s,” he said.

Retailers in the omnichannel world must evolve the brand to be more relevant, noting Levi’s strategy in building its own sports stadium, its 3,000-plus retail locations and the nearly 80,000 points of connection to consumers via Levi’s partnerships.

And the strategy to grow is still in big motion as Levi’s plans to open a store in New York City’s Time Square come next November, and having just celebrated a new location in San Francisco this month.

Expansion is all about creating access, he explained.

“We need to control our own destiny, but control is just half of the equation. The other half is learning to be collaborative. It’s critical to be commercially aligned,” he said. He then shared a story where a competitor popped up in the retail segment selling vintage Levi clothing and claimed to be Levi’s. Instead of reacting with a legal battle, Curleigh met with the company, called Redone, and they soon became a Levi partner selling vintage clothing for the brand.

And at the same time, Levi’s remains very focused on evolving the customer experience and delivering what’s expected.

“You have to make the basic promise to the fan and consumer to meet and exceed expectations. That the product is there, the size is available and that you help them find the fit that works for them. That has never been more important than it is today,” he said.

Retailers, he added, must be focused on thinking bigger, creating value and staying true to those values.

“Customization, personalization. The message here, at the Big Show, is how can we set the conditions for success. We, as an industry, as leaders, must continue to turn moments into momentum.”

Posted with permission from

Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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