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Better Red than dead: Levi’s hits back

Posted on January 12, 2000

Levi’s, the classic jeans company is reinventing itself for the 21st century, says Melanie Rickey

Melanie Rickey, The Daily Telegraph

In the last gasp of the 20th century, fashion went vintage crazy. Clothing companies dipped into their archives in an effort to find classics that could be reinvented, and designers began basing their collections on past eras, using old fabrics, buttons and deliberately aged fabrics.

Not so Levi’s, the world’s leading jeans brand and a company with a 127-year heritage. While vintage Levi jeans, dating from as far back as the 1870s, found new value in an age obsessed with limited editions, the company itself sat back and watched the clever collectors — including Ralph Lauren, who has sold vintage Levi’s in his flagship stores, and the canny Japanese — make the big money. It rested on its laurels, safe in the knowledge that 501s would sell to the masses ad infinitum.

But then the apeing of original Levi’s features — selvage and twisted seams, dark indigo dyes — began to get out of hand. The company realised it would have to do something radical to reclaim its status as an innovator.

Step one was to beat the vintage enthusiasts at their own game with Levi’s Vintage Clothing, or LVC. This collection consists of replicas of key styles through the decades. Minute details such as the painted Arcuate (the stitched V shape on all Levi’s back pockets) on Second World War 501s, which became a design feature due to rationing, are recreated to perfection.

LVC also includes Fifties sweatshirts and Twenties longjohns, a favourite of Alexander McQueen, which are perfect in every original detail, right down to the silk/cotton mix clothing labels that are made today by only one specialist company in the United States.

Next, care of a think-tank in Brussels and a young female Danish designer named Rikke Korff, Levi’s ripped up the blueprint for the 501 and reinvented the style. The result was a mini-collection of 21st-century denim called Levi’s Red.

“The idea was to design a pair of jeans as if for the first time,” says Peter Ingwerson of Levi’s. “We imagined what Mr Strauss would have designed for young, pioneering people if he were sitting at the drawing board today. We looked at the way people move, how they travel by bike, by car, on a skateboard. We looked at their lives and worked from there.”

In other words, they tried to make Levi’s more comfortable. The new jeans are bigger and more three dimensional-looking. Features include skewed side-seams, ergonomic pocket scoops, hand-crafted fly shapes, a larger, more functional watch pocket, darts replacing the back riser, and completely different shaped legs.

But that is not all. They are also made with 40 per cent hemp to give the denim a “nubbly” appearance. They look strange at first, hanging like art installations in Levi’s experimental London shop, Cinch, which houses the LVC and Red collections, work by young artists and other vintage finds — but then, 501s must have looked weird at first.

Try these jeans on, however, and you will be seriously hooked — and I am writing from experience. After dropping several unsubtle hints, I was given a pair of Levi’s Red culotte jeans for Christmas and I have worn them almost every day since — even to a chic champagne cocktail party. Several friends who have discovered the label are also addicts, as are a number of London fashion designers and pop stars, including Jay Kay and members of Primal Scream.

Red jeans manage to look cool in a way that normal jeans somehow don’t. They are baggy in just the right way and they hang totally differently. A couple of the styles — most notably the culottes and the “Giant” baggy jeans that are slim at the waist and curve through the leg — have no belt loops. Instead, at the back, there is a cinching device, so you can yank the jeans in, according to how tight you want them to be.

The Red collection also features a semi-tailored jacket that matches all of the jeans in colour. This means that trendy music, fashion and media types can wear the two together as an alternative to the traditional suit.

Best of all, most of the Red jeans will set you back only £85 — confirmation, if it were needed, that groovy, affordable, functional design is alive and kicking.

The next Red collection will be unveiled in March — an event that both Colette, the hip Paris boutique, and Jones in London intend to celebrate with special window displays. I can hardly wait.

Levi’s Red collection is available in Selfridges, Jones and Browns Focus. Cinch, 5 Newburgh Street, London W1; inquiries: 0171-287 4941.

Copyright © 2000, The Daily Telegraph. All rights reserved.