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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

Recruitment Genius: Careers Advisor

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Financial Controller

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an experienced Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / New Business Development / Full or Part Time

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global Events and Exhibiti...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for someone wi...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific