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Drapers Denim Report: The ads that rocked the industry

Clever advertising has the power to capture the public’s imagination and send a brand’s profile soaring. Drapers takes a look back at some of the denim industry’s most classic advertisements.


Jesus Jeans

This 1973 advertisement from Italian denim brand Jesus Jeans caused a furore in it’s homeland with the slogan “he who loves me follows me” emblazoned over a woman’s behind clad in high cut hot-pants, due to its provocative nature and religious undertones. The ad was also banned in a number of countries, including the UK and Ireland, as a result.

“In the late 70s and 1980s denim was one of the few consumer fashion segments where there was a dialogue with young people through advertising, earlier than any

Wrangler first ad 1947

Before the 70’s denim ads focused on the concept of the cowboy, as seen in Wrangler’s first advertising campaign in 1947.

other product category I can remember,” says Raoul Shah, who began his career in 1988 at Pepe Jeans as a graduate trainee, and founded influential creative agency Exposure in 1993.

“This was controversial because it was playing with people’s moral views on religion and sex. You had to be pretty brave, but what it did do is it set out for denim this idea that sex sells. Denim brands were then prepared to leverage that idea with how they applied it to their communications.”

Kashif Qazi, owner of menswear and denim retailer Utter Nutter in Romford, Essex, agrees. “It was one of the first adverts that tried to change the perception of denim, which until then had been the cowboy theme in the late 60s and early 70s, in ads from brands such as Lee and Wrangler. Previously it had always been pushed towards men rather than women.”


The 1980s saw some of the most memorable denim commercials to hit our screens.

This started with Brooke Shields’ Calvin Klein Jeans campaign at the beginning of the decade in 1980, when she was aged just 15. “In the 80s, denim was becoming much more brand aware and Brooke Shields’ Calvin Klein adverts were all American, youthful, unassuming and seductive. The famous ‘You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing’ campaign made headlines for Brooke’s age – but it is the idea that a simple pair of jeans can be sexier than the most intimate lingerie that rings true to those who love denim,” says Donna Ida Thornton, owner of premium women’s and jeanswear independent Donna Ida.

Shah agrees that ads like this helped reshape the way “forward thinking” denim brands such as Calvin Klein Jeans and Gloria Vanderbilt communicated with their audience. “They suddenly found a new way to bring denim into the fashion space through the concept of designer denim. Gloria Vanderbilt was one of the first designer denim brands, and then the use of Brooke Shields in Calvin Klein Jeans’ adverts helped put it into a higher fashion space. Denim had gone from workwear to becoming high fashion and was almost being reinvented by different brands. What came with this was slightly more provocative ads.”

Another big ad from the decade that made headlines was 1985’s ‘Launderette’ ad from Levi’s, this time with a male lead in model Nick Kamen. “What radically changed denim advertising was when Levi’s really started finding its advertising game. It created a new dialogue between brand and consumer from what was traditionally a functional piece of communication ‘buy more or try this and it will make you feel better’, to turning ads into really filmic, telling a story and combining them with soundtracks. Levis Launderette was one of these,” says Shah.

He adds: “Culturally it referenced lots of things beyond selling jeans. There was clearly the undertone of sex and sexuality, possibly the beginning of the recognition of the power of the male model, and a celebration of Americana. It looked back to denim’s 50s heyday and America’s rebellious youth, but it was made relevant and modern by telling a great story. In the 1980s nostalgia had relevance, people used it in ads to look forward. Whereas now it would seem old fashioned. I think this changed the whole face of advertising.”

“The Levi’s launderette advert is surely the sexiest denim advert of all time. The soundtrack of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ perfectly captures the mood and Nick Kamen is the perfect model for the all American look of blue Levi’s 501 with a black T-shirt as he strips down to his white boxer shorts and socks. The rocks in the washing machine were a clever way to introduce the new stonewash jeans,” says Ida Thornton.

Qazi agrees: “This was when the big change happened. This made denim cool and really captured that James Dean reference. That was the single most iconic moment in denim advertising that we have ever seen.”


The early 90s saw more of this type of advertising. One standout brand was Guess Jeans, owned by LA-based Marciano brothers who used top directors and models for its advertisements. The below 1992 ad features one of its most recognisable faces, model Anna Nicole Smith. Although actually an ad for Guess Watches, this typifies its advertising from the time.

“Guess adverts always ooze glamour with true blue denim shot in a seductive way for a soft and sexy look. They are renowned for their models as much for their products, from Anna Nicole Smith to Kate Upton, and I love the retro-inspired hair and makeup which has defined their advertising,” says Ida Thornton.

Anna Nicole Smith, Guess

One of Guess Jeans’ most famous faces, Anna Nicole Smith is seen here in a 1992 campaign shot by Daniela Federici.

“The idea of getting the best talent from models and directors to shoot an amazing ad was something other industry’s took a long time to catch up and do,” adds Shah.

The 1990s ushered in a fresh, minimalistic new look, with fresh faces to capture the new mood of the decade. One of the denim ads that best encapsulated this was Calvin Klein Jeans’ featuring model of the moment Kate Moss and American actor Mark Wahlberg.

“Calvin Klein’s iconic shots of Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg define the 90s. The fresh faces and simplicity of the shots are juxtaposed with the authentic denim, monochrome logos making these shots all out sexy,” says Ida Thornton.

Meanwhile, Levi’s ads such as ‘Spaceman’ from 1995 continued to set the standard. It proved the commercial impact of denim advertising by helping to propel the song by Babylon Zoo to number one in the music charts, and showed the brand appealing to the women’s market with a female lead. Qazi says: “It was the first real commercial since the Launderette that made a statement about Levi’s and its dominance of the mid-market denim industry.”

Shah says that during his time working for Pepe Jeans he looked after a sub-brand called Hardcore Jeans, which benefitted from using the same crew for several seasons to produce print campaigns. “They were part of what was known as the ‘Buffalo boys’, a menswear style and movement created by stylists like Ray Petri and photographed by Jamie Morgan.

Hardcore 90s

Denim brand Hardcore, as seen in a 90s edition of Sportswear International.

“Barry Kamen was the brother of Levi’s model Nick Kamen and was the most incredible stylist, model and creative thinker. All those guys were discovering kids on the street, working with people like Naomi Campbell, they were styling shows in Paris for the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier. They were very much a product of street and club culture, art, style and fashion, and Buffalo was a really strong movement. So at Hardcore we worked with all of those guys to create our imagery.”

The campaigns from the Buffalo era have stood the test of time, “which is what great denim ads do”, says Shah. “This was one of the most significant movements in menswear and you saw its influence across the industry.”


Since the beginning of the 20th century the denim market has become much more competitive. Brands such as Diesel, Levi’s, Calvin Klein, G Star Raw and Replay are among those who have continued to dominate. However, there have been few memorable TV advertisements, with most focusing on print campaigns, and with it being difficult even here to think of those that truly stood out.

“There has been a lot more out there in the last 10 years, so brands have really had to focus on their demographic. There is designer denim, or women’s denim [with premium women’s denim label J Brand, which launched in 2005, being an example],” says Shah. “There has been lots of denim advertisements from some really interesting brands, but nothing on the scale of what we saw in the 1980s and 1990s. Calvin Klein has stuck to an aesthetic that has worked for it. Diesel has always tried to play and experiment with its slightly tongue in cheek advertising, and I think G-Star Raw’s advertising was really well considered.”

However he adds: “I’m surprised some of the heritage brands like Wrangler and Lee have been less visible and able to cut through. I think they have been quite confused. I think they have changed their advertising direction quite often and maybe too often. In denim consistency develops clarity around who you are, what you stand for and what your point of view is. Without that you are just a pair of jeans.”

However, one TV advertisment that did resonate was 2002’s ‘Odyssey’ from Levi’s, directed by Jonathan Glazer, which showcased itsproduct innovation.

“It was an amazing ad, but it was also incredible because it was launching Levi’s engineered jeans, which for Levi’s was the first huge innovation in product away from the traditional silhouette of the 501 and the five-pocket, it had the twisted side-seam. That for me was one of the last iconic denim ads that I can remember,” Shah.

Qazi agrees. “In terms of continuity it is only really Levi’s that has constantly tried to innovate and create a brand around denim and the advertising to go around it that has made any sense. I think it is purely down to numbers with them. They have constantly had their pricing structure fixed at the middle market, which is where it makes its money,” he says. “There hasn’t been anything outstanding in terms of advertising since then.”

2010 onwards

Denim giant Diesel’s first campaign under artistic director Nicola Formichetti premiered for autumn 13, entitled ‘Diesel Reboot’, suggesting a new direction for the brand. The campaign dispensed with models and instead featured young creatives from Tumblr, enhancing its lifestyle credentials outside of fashion, with the brand saying at the time that it was returning to its DNA.

Diesel advertising

The Diesel Reboot campaign, the first under artistic director Nicola Formichetti

The models returned for Diesel’s autumn 15 campaign, but this time the brand has opted for straight-forward messaging to stand out from the crowd. Hence the name, ‘Decoded’. Again under the directiojn of Formichetti, the campaign features models posing in the collection with the simple tag line ‘this is where we tell you what to wear’.

Diesel autumn 15

Diesel’s autumn 15 campaign, entitled ‘Decoded’.

Consistency in styling has paid off for Calvin Klein, which is among the few still generating column inches with denim adverts for TV. The latest, starring pop star Justin Bieber, was headline news for many celebrity-focused magazines, newspapers and websites.

“In their own way Calvin Klein has been very powerful with its use of media and casting, from Wahlberg to Bieber. They have taken big celebrities and surprised us with how they have presented them back to us. I think the Bieber images were amazing. Marky Mark, as he was known, suddenly became this credible iconic guy, and was then known as Mark Wahlberg who went on to become a famous actor. So Calvin Klein have had a fairly transformational role on the public’s perception of already famous people, which I think is exciting,” says Shah.

However, Qazi says casting Justin Bieber was a bad idea. “It was a bad decision, executed badly, and I think it was more negative for them because he is a figure that polarises people. It sliced the demographic like a cake. They needed a figure that spoke to more age groups, because they should be targeting people all the way through to their 70s. In our store we retail denim to 13-year-olds all the way through to grandads.”

So with the exception of brands such as Calvin Klein, the past 10 years or so has seen denim labels shift away from expensive TV ads. Instead, the rise of ecommerce and social media has meant that they now need to spread their marketing budget. “There is definitely a re-allocation of budgets away from TV towards digital, social, PR and retail experience,” says Shah.

Qazi agrees: “There is no doubt that all denim companies consider social media as their goal. They do not see their target customer watching TV, and believe they can target them much more effectively by reaching out to them on a personal basis.”

He warns: “It seems that some are trying too hard and are reducing their ‘coolness’ by overreaching, but only time will tell.

For an industry that is more than 150-years-old, denim resonates with all age groups because you would be hard pushed to find someone who doesn’t own at least one pair of jeans. “The role of brands as communicators has been defining and you can’t underestimate denim’s impact on culture,” says Shah.

However, with most brands now focusing on below the line advertising by avoiding big budget TV ads and instead working across more platforms with the continued rise of social media, it seems we’re still waiting for the kind of transformational denim advertisements that we saw in the past. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too much longer.

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