They have hugged cowboys' bottoms since 1870. In the 1980s, Levi Strauss jeans became the must-have denims, when Nick Kamen shed his in a launderette for a TV advert. But now the company is looking threadbare, having recently suffered a 98 per cent drop in profits. Classic cowboy labels such as Wrangler and Lee are struggling to hold their own in a market that has become dominated by designer brands and "delebrity denim" carrying the names of celebrities such as Victoria Beckham.
Levi Strauss first made trousers for prospectors in the California gold rush. The label was more famous for the hard-wearing quality of its jeans than for their sharp tailoring. While looking good might not have been a priority back then, it is in 2008, when denim is more likely to be found on the red carpet than at the coalface.
Classic labels now face competition from celebrities-turned designers, who are cashing in on the lucrative jeans market. Sales of Victoria Beckham's line for Rock and Republic are reported to be strong. The OC actress Rachel Bilson is the latest star to get in on the act, co-designing a collection of jeans for DKNY. And the rapper LL Cool J will be pitching his denim leisure wear against P Diddy's Sean Jean range in the autumn.
Levi Strauss is not the only established jeans company to have experienced problems. VF Corporation – which includes the veteran brands Wrangler and Lee – saw sales fall by 6.4 per cent in the first quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, boosted by celebrity endorsements, newer premium jeans labels such as Citizens of Humanity, J Brand, 7 For All Mankind and Paper Denim and Cloth are becoming household names. Nicole Richie, Jessica Alba and Kate Moss are rarely seen out of their J Brand jeans, and the company has just launched a new collection aimed at curvier women.
DKNY Jeans has also opened a string of shops across the UK this year, while the US designer Tommy Hilfiger's label Hilfiger Denim recently reported a 22 per cent annual increase in UK sales.
"If brands are really popular with one generation, then the next won't want to wear them," said David Pyne, UK manager for Tommy Hilfiger. "Kids just don't want to wear the same jeans as their dads."
Aimee Brown, denim buyer for Selfridges department stores, added: "Many of the older brands are not as well fitted to the body as other newer ones. Girls want their bum lifted, their stomach flatter, their thighs thinner, and with the new advances in denim, the jeans feel and look better on the body than old-school styles."
Armin Broger, president of Levi Strauss for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said: "All these new jeans brands have been around for a couple of years, and what we are seeing is a crowding out. [But] Levi's is known for its ads, and we'll be launching a big advertising campaign in the autumn."