Style: Designer denims give Levi's a kick in the pants

Levi Strauss & Co ships a million pairs of blue jeans a day. But the 50-year-old firm that prides itself as an American icon has laid off one third of its US workforce - the human casualties of "designer jeans" and cheap imitations, as Tim Cornwell discovers.

It was, said a Levi Strauss spokesman, in a phrase he used repeatedly, part of the "ebb and flow" for one of America's oldest companies. But this particular ebb is probably deeper than most in the company's illustrious history.

Levi's was founded in San Francisco to supply working clothes to the 49ers (the miners of the California gold-rush in 1849) and its staged retreat in the US market came after a decade of record growth. But it was hard not to read its decision this week to close 11 US plants as a result of deeper cultural changes in a nation that now sips gourmet coffee and proposes to ban the Marlboro Man.

In the West, the spiritual home of jeans, bottoms that once bounced in the saddle are likely to remain planted firmly in office chairs, and the region now prides itself on high-tech home offices rather than ranching. Levi's grew through the recession of the early 1990s, but this year, with the American economy flourishing, sales of its jeans actually shrank for the first time since the mid 1980s.

Americans can pick and choose high-priced jeans from fashion labels like Tommy Hilfiger or Calvin Klein. hey can opt for soft fabrics, stone-washed or sand-blasted, or choose cheaper, generic brands, often sewn overseas, that are said to offer similar quality without the Levi's label.

Levi's closures also confirmed, for some, the cruellest lesson about the modern American employment market. A family-run company that prided itself on "aspirational behaviour" and political correctness - attempting to re-educate Czech employees on attitudes to gypsies, for example - it publicly refused to exploit cheap labour in Mexico or Asia. Its US employees had, on average, 10 years service with the company.

In the Great Depression, the company boasted, it kept workers busy laying floors in its San Francisco plant while it waited for demand to recover. But Levi's has now belatedly joined the great wave of corporate restructurings from the 1980s, letting 6,400 people go because, it said, there was nothing for them to do. For the first time, Levi's will have more employees overseas than at home.

"Wealthy and magnanimous, Levi Strauss allowed its employees to forget one of the great economic lessons of our age: that job security is dead and gone," the business magazine Fortune observed, after a first round of lay-offs earlier this year. "This is a company that needed a kick in the pants and got one."

Three plants closed in El Paso, Texas. In Centerville, Tennessee, the mayor called for a crisis meeting with the state's governor. The trauma for small-town factories, mostly in theSouth, was softened by one of the most generous severance packages ever seen.

Workers will get eight months' paid notice, even if they immediately find other jobs, health care for 18 months, and $6,000 for job training or relocation. The Levi Strauss Foundation will spend $8m on community aid. There was, remarkably, not a whisper from the biggest textile workers' union, UNITE. Its statement instead praised the company's "high-road management".

The slogan of a recent Levi's advertising campaign, unveiled amid much fanfare earlier this year, was "They Go On". It is now under review.

Fashion, page 17

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Welsh Teacher vacancy in Penarth

£110 - £120 per day + Travel Scheme and Free training: Randstad Education Card...

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz