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Levi's sews sustainability into brand from ground up


Levi Strauss founded his dry goods company in 1853, after moving to San Francisco from Bavaria. His business became as much a part of San Francisco's hagiography as sourdough bread, cable cars and the 49ers - miners and team.

Upon his death in 1902, bequests from Strauss benefited the Bay Area, serving children and the poor. The company factory built at 250 Valencia St. after the 1906 earthquake and fire is now the San Francisco Friends School. As a testament to the company's progressive bona fides (including a GLAAD award for a Gay History Month ad campaign, "Gay History Is: American History"), conservative radio host Glenn Beck in 2011 called on his fans to boycott the company "for using ... progressivism to sell their products."

Levi's survived and earlier this month opened a new flagship store with a tailoring shop on Market Street, which takes all those San Francisco notions and adds to them. The new store is smaller than Levi's former digs on Union Square, 7,000 square feet of selling space versus 11,000, but with 100 more jobs, according to Lance Relicke, Levi's global vice president, implementation and brand presentation. He said the company is also experimenting with increasing its percentage of U.S.-made items.

The location - at the intersection of Market and Stockton streets - is covered by 17,000 pedestrians per hour. The company's Commuter line of clothes for cyclists gets prominent display, as do its Wasteless jeans, each made with an average of eight plastic bottles.

And the company, which sells clothes with Care for Our Planet hangtags exhorting wearers to wash garments less often, in cool water, line-dry them and recycle by donating to Goodwill, opted for streamlined sustainable interior design.

Levi's began with construction: 79 percent of demolition and construction waste was diverted from landfill and recycled, according to Kelly Moss, a company spokeswoman. The 22,000-square-foot space, a third of which is selling area, is LEED Gold certified. The company figures it will consume 25 to 30 percent less energy than the industry norm for a space its size. Water use is also lower than industry standard, by 40 percent. Ninety percent of equipment in the store is energy efficient.

The wooden walls came from recycled sidings of barns within 30 miles of San Francisco, Relicke said, adding that other wooden fittings come from recycled chunks of the city's piers. Hand-painted murals of San Francisco neighborhoods, including the Castro, Haight-Ashbury and the Mission, line the fitting rooms.

Indeed, Levi's is doing everything it can to give a local feel to the store, and failing that, to place it within a cool, hip and green aesthetic that suggests shoppers from fanatical "denim heads" to Dockers dads belong to a demographic bound by something greater than a few ZIP codes on a bay might suggest.

In one display, the company traces its history with a display of hanging jeans, each pair showing style changes in basic 501s. There are boiler suits and a $489 pair of overalls that, if belted, would rock a pair of sky-high Louboutins, and if not, look dandy while under a vintage VW Bug.

There are special things, too: The exquisite silver jewelry is by Harvey Mace and Jeannette Dale, American Indians from New Mexico. The candles by Le Feu de L'eau are inspired by "the late '60s fantasy candle," much as many San Francisco tourists are inspired by a fantasy of the late '60s.

The trucker jackets are by denim collector Erik Schrader, of Boise, Idaho, who uses an antique chain-stitch embroidery sewing machine to create designs of "graphic fonts, interstate icons and big color."

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