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Tim Larcombe

Once synonymous with effortless cool and era-defining ads, the Jeremy Clarkson effect blunted Levi’s edge. The denim brand’s general manager has vowed to get its buzz back, starting with a new-look store

We all know the damage that photos of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson in his mid-blue 501s did to the Levi’s brand in the late 1990s. In fact, the brand never really recovered the pre-Clarkson cool it had with its twisted seam and women’s styles dressed up with slick ad campaigns.

But a newly refurbished store, which reopened on London’s Regent Street last week, plus collaborations with designers such as Henry Holland and a refocus on the brand’s heritage - one of the fashion buzzwords of the moment - suggest the world’s most famous denim brand is heading back in the right direction.

Tim Larcombe rejoined Levi’s as general manager for the UK in 2005, after six years at Adidas, to spearhead the relaunch of Levi’s. This year that culminated in the introduction of a new retail concept. Regent Street is the first store of its kind and, if it is successful, Larcombe will have created the blueprint for future flagship openings in key cities around the world.

“It was this that brought me back to Levi’s,” he says, gesturing around the new-look flagship store. “Levi’s is part of my DNA.”

The store is ground-breaking. One year in the making, it’s the first revamp the shop has had for 11 years. Shoppers enter via an art gallery at the entrance - there is no product in the shop’s windows - while props such as an original pair of 1920s Levi’s 501s, worth £10,000 and borrowed from the brand’s San Francisco archive, are displayed in a heat-controlled chamber on the ground floor.

The store also employs a 140-option denim wall and has a dedicated area for 501s, the brand’s heartland product, which makes up over half of UK sales, reflecting its refocus on its heritage.

That Regent Street is the test-bed for the new shopfit is no surprise. The 8,535 sq ft store is the second best-performing Levi’s outlet in the world, behind only Times Square in New York.

The redesign of the tourist-friendly Regent Street shop is as much about giving the brand a window on the world as it is about re-engaging London shoppers. Levi’s has 46 UK stores, 36 of them company-owned and the rest franchises.

The store relaunch is supported by a new ad campaign developed by creative agency Exposure. It stars cool young things from London’s creative scene, and will feature on London buses in a bid to engage the capital’s young shoppers and highlight the craft element that goes into the product.

Larcombe says: “We are a very democratic brand and have reinvented ourselves on a number of occasions.”

Reinventing Levi’s is no easy task, though. The rise of premium US denim brands such as J Brand and Current/Elliott and kudos brands like Acne and Nudie and the continued dominance of Dutch brand G-Star over the past five years has piled pressure on denim stalwarts such as Levi’s. Competition from the high street - particularly from the likes of Topshop and Topman with their Moto own brand - with good-quality jeans at reasonable prices hasn’t helped. Diesel has also recently relaunched, having reduced its prices in reaction to the recession and changing market.

Cutting prices

Stockists say Levi’s has reacted well, reducing its own prices, which has led to an increase in volume. One multiple retail buyer says: “Levi’s has pushed the prices down rather than going more premium. And we’re selling more Levi’s skinnys than ever before.”

Sales remain challenging, though, according to financial reports from parent firm Levi Strauss & Co. The group does not break down UK performance but reported a 13% drop in European revenues over the three months to August 30, 2009, to $266m (£174.7m). Sales have been hit by the poor exchange rate as well as the tough wholesale market.

Larcombe will not be drawn on UK performance, but insists: “Behind the scenes [Levi’s] is in good shape.” He adds that the UK has delivered top-line sales growth for the past three years, driven largely by standalone stores.

The store overhaul is undoubtedly part of a strategy to lift wholesale performance too through brand awareness.

However, despite the significant investment in updating the brand’s image, Levi’s still comes in for some criticism from independent retailers who believe it is over-distributed. It has 300 accounts. The brand is stocked within mainstream department store chain Debenhams, where its business hinges around the 35-plus 501 jeans shopper. At premium department store House of Fraser, it is geared towards a younger consumer on the lookout for commercial denim shirts and jeans.

Its trendier customer buys the Levi’s Vintage 501 range from the likes of Manchester indie Oi Polloi, while a discount-hungry shopper can snap up the brand from the likes of off-price etailer M and M Direct.

Larcombe admits that reining in the brand’s broad customer appeal can be challenging. However, he adds: “We are not over-distributed as a brand. Wholesale is still incredible.”

He says of the recession: “Five years ago a good independent business could get by. Now you have to be a great independent business [to survive]. There are businesses Levi’s moved forward with and doors we haven’t. We have good new distribution coming on board and interesting retailers talking to the brand.”

One department store stockist says: “Levi’s went too tricky, but now it’sgone back to what it is good at.Chinos, denim shirts, denim jackets and check shirts are so on trend. If Levi’s is going to hit it, this [autumn 10] is its season.”

And Larcombe is confident. “I’ve been fortunate enough on two occasions to be running the UK,” he says.

“I had the privilege to work at the brand when it was really soaring. I want to experience that again.”

What is the denim customer psyche going to be like this year? A desire for authenticity, honesty and products that have true meaning is having an increasing influence on how people buy.

What is Levi’s doing to see out the downturn? While the downturn has been tough, it gives us an opportunity to invest in our business for sustained growth. One of our key strategies is to accelerate growth by expanding our retail stores in Europe. Regent Street is one of the most-visited shopping districts in Europe, so the relaunched flagship is pivotal.

What are the differences and similarities in working at Adidas and Levi’s? There are more similarities than differences at both companies. Both are truly iconic brands with storied pasts and bright futures.

What is your favourite part of the new Regent Street store? I’m fond of The Origin area, which reflects our courage to do things differently, while the 501 Jeans Warehouse [where the stockroom is glass-fronted and open to customers] has always been an element that, whoever we presented it to, they instantly loved.

Q&A

Which retailers or brands do you admire?

I’m a habitual buyer (and loser) of Mont Blanc pens.

What would be your dream job other than fashion?

After success as a player manager at Liverpool FC, I would have then taken the England job.

What is your proudest achievement?

My kids.

CV

2005 General manager, Levi’s UK Group

1999-2005 Commercial director, Adidas Northern Europe

1989-1999 Various roles covering sales, retail and marketing, Levi’s

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