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TRYING TO SHED DULL LABEL; LEVI'S LOSING GROUND, COOL IMAGE OF YORE.

Byline: Martha Irvine Associated Press

Time was when wearing a pair of Levi's jeans made a kid feel cool and drove a parent crazy.

These days, it's the parents who are wearing the red-tagged faded blues and the kids who proclaim them . . . ``Preppy,'' said Mario Flores, an 18-year-old San Franciscan. Flores prefers a decidedly baggy brand that falls around his hips and has a name foreign to most of his elders.

``Levi's are too straight, too plain,'' adds his 16-year-old pal Irma Cruz. ``None of my friends wear them.''

Preppy? Too plain? Is it possible that the jeans first worn by California gold miners and made popular in the 1950s by James Dean and Marlon Brando are now fuddy duddy duds?

With its share of the men's jeans market dropping from 48 percent in 1990 to an estimated 26 percent now, Levi's is cutting back. It announced this week that it would close 11 plants in four states, putting nearly 6,400 out of work - 34 percent of its manufacturing work force in the United States and Canada. Just in February the company announced 1,000 job cuts.

Levi's survived the Jordache look in the 1980s and now it's trying to regain its footing after getting knocked around by the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and even Sears.

High-end designers own an estimated 4 percent to 5 percent of the men's market after hardly making a blip in the early 1990s, according to Tactical Retail Monitor, an apparel newsletter. Moreover, cheaper in-house brands marketed by Sears, J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart, now grab as much as 19 percent of the men's market and 30 percent of the women's - compared with 3 percent in 1990.

And Wrangler and Lee brands also have taken about a billion dollars each in annual sales away from Levi's, which equates to an estimated 31 percent of the men's business and 16 percent of women's, analysts say.

And then there are simple fashion problems, including the fact that Levi's so-called ``massive'' jeans have 23-inch-wide legs, rather than the newly popular 40 inches - the kind, for example, that 18-year-old Mario Flores likes.

Gordon Shank, president of Levi Strauss' American division, says going after young consumers is the first step in regaining some of those sales. And that's where Levi's latest ad campaign, aimed at 14- to 24-year-olds, comes in.

New TV spots play out like grungy daydreams, including one episode where a teen rolls down his windows and drives through a carwash, drenching himself and the Levi's interior of his 1970s-vintage Gremlin with soap and a cold wash. Similarly quirky billboards and bus placards for Levi's Silver Tab brand carry the tag line ``Celebrate Your Specialness.''

``People outside of our youthful target don't get it,'' Shank said.

And at least one analyst thinks that's a mistake.

``I think it's probably the most unfocused ad campaign that they've ever had,'' Harry Bernard of Colton Bernard Inc., a San Francisco group of apparel consultants. ``I think they've lost track of who and what they are.''

Bernard is confident the company will come back with something clever, mostly because they can afford the advertising talent.

Despite the problems with its jeans, Levi's said it recorded a record $7.1 billion in worldwide sales last year. That included $4.3 billion in sales in the United States - about $3 billion of which was generated by Levi's products. The rest came from the sale of Dockers brand casual pants, now a decade old, and the fledgling Slates dress pants.

Those sales come, in large part, to customers like Melvin Yearby, a faithful Levi-wearer.

``After wearing them for 25 years, that's the only image I know,'' said Yearby, a 46-year-old resident of Vallejo, Calif.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 6, 1997
Words:622
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