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Levi’s Chip Bergh on the 3 Factors Driving Denim’s Massive Success

When it’s deliver-or-die, supply chains become the lifeblood of a company. To that end, the fashion industry has embraced technology to navigate today’s hyper-complicated supply chain, with myriad solutions shaping the first, middle and last mile. Call it Sourcing 2.0.

It’s been a year since consumers began their enthusiastic adoption of loose jeans, and denim’s heyday is showing no signs of slowing. According to recent data from retail intelligence platform Edited, shoppers continue to favor baggy, low-rise jeans, with searches for the style rising 74 percent since the start of the year. Other popular fits include slouchier fits and wide-leg jeans.

Denim’s place in pop culture is also ramping up. Musician and Gap collaborator Ye and girlfriend Julia Fox recently gave denim a boost in popularity when they attended Kenzo’s runway show in Paris dressed in matching denim outfits. Following their appearance, Edited reported a 31 percent week-on-week increase in searches for double denim.

This is all good news for heritage denim brand Levi’s, which reported an exceptional Q4 2021 that beat pre-Covid performance. In an earnings call with investors on Wednesday, Levi Strauss & Co. president and CEO Chip Bergh announced that the quarter’s revenues were $1.7 billion, up 22 percent to 2020 and up 7 percent over 2019. Growth was driven by increased brand interest in the Americas and Europe, with Asia quickly catching up—and the increased focus on denim is a major factor.

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“The total addressable market for denim is large and growing, and consumer preferences continue to shift towards casualization. As the global denim market leader, we are well positioned to take advantage of and drive growth,” Bergh said, adding that “there’s every reason to be optimistic about denim and denim category growth” moving forward.

Bergh outlined three “big things” that are driving increased denim demand, starting with the continued acceleration of the casualization trend—a shift that’s being felt throughout the U.S. and beyond. Around the world, jeans are becoming the chosen bottom as office attire becomes increasingly lax for those commuting to their workplaces.

Another driver is the new denim cycle of looser fits, which began in early 2021 and is continuing to build momentum. According to Bergh, the world is still in the “early innings” of the shift, signaling more success to come for both men’s and women’s categories.

“The last big cycle was skinny jeans, which was largely confined to women, and the new denim cycle drives apparel widely,” he said. “It drives footwear and tops as well. So I’m optimistic for that reason.”

Expanding into non-denim categories like footwear and tops has been an increasing focus for the brand as it capitalizes on its success. Last June, Levi’s partnered with heritage footwear brand Clarks on a limited-edition collection of shoes and apparel inspired by the ’80s British music scene.

Finally, fluctuating waist sizes that came as a result of the pandemic are prompting consumers to buy new jeans. In May 2021, The NPD Group reported that nearly 40 percent of women were wearing a different size—some smaller; others larger—than they were the year prior.

The shift translates to even more success for Levi’s, which saw jeans growth outpace apparel in the U.S. in Q4. Compared to 2019, jeans were up 8 percent overall, with women’s up 21 percent and men’s up 6 percent—the highest revenue level since Q4 2015.

Loose-fitting jeans make up about half of men’s and women’s bottoms assortments. Specifically, Levi’s iconic 501s are up 23 percent compared to 2019 across both men and women categories.

Premiumization

After raising prices in Q2 by 5 percent, Levi’s reported that pricing action is “sticking,” with a 7 percent increase in average unit retail (AUR) compared to 2019, mostly driven by its bottoms business.

Despite increased prices, brand interest remains strong. Levi’s reported increased share in the women’s category in the U.S, where there’s opportunity for growth. “We’re still only number two in women’s here in the U.S., but we are the only major brand to grow women’s share over the past 12 months,” Bergh said.

Levi’s is also gaining traction in the highly regarded Gen Z demographic, as targeted campaigns like the “Buy Better Wear Longer” promotion help grow the 18-to-30 demographic. The 2021 campaign was dedicated to raising awareness about the shared responsibility on the environmental impacts of apparel production and consumption. Similarly, Levi’s SecondHand program, which launched in 2020, further taps into Gen Z’s penchant for resale and sustainability.

The positive reception is also prompting the brand to open more stores, as global brick and mortar grew 14 percent compared to 2019. In 2021, the brand opened a total of 92 stores, bringing the company’s total store count to 1,083.

Looking ahead

Success is expected to continue for the company, which projects that net revenues in fiscal 2022 to be between $6.4 billion and $6.5 billion, thanks in part to continued strength in the U.S. and promising data suggesting Europe and Asia will follow suit.

Levi’s plans to open more than 100 doors globally in the next year, with an emphasis on NextGen stores in the U.S., which will make up for 30 of the new openings. Coupled with the brand’s aggressive AI push, including enhanced search functionality and companywide hackathons, the company expansion is fueling executives’ optimism.

“These stores are built with a digital backbone that supports our omnichannel platform delivering an elevated, engaging and brand centric experience for our fans,” Bergh said. “We’re also using AI to enhance and differentiate our loyalty programs and app, and both are seeing strong acquisition rates, meaningful growth in performance and productivity of existing members.”