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Levi's gets blues over loss of youth

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 fall around his hips and have 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 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 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, even Sears.

High-end designers own an estimated 4 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.

Gordon Shank, president of Levi Strauss' American division, says going after young consumers is the first step in regaining some of those sales.

New TV spots play out like grungy daydreams, including one episode where a teen rolls down his windows and drives through a car wash, 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."

Levi's cutoff

Levi's, long a staple in American wardrobes, faces new challenges as younger consumers turn to other labels.

The evolution of blue jeans

1950s

Jeans are what you wear around the yard or farm, or if you want to be like James Dean.

1960s

Dress codes relax, and female students begin wearing pants - often jeans - to school. Jeans including Levi's are the uniform of Woodstock and the counter-culture.

1970s

Jeans becoming fashion items, and bellbottom Levi's are must-haves for young consumers.

1980s

Designer jeans with lables with Gloria Vanderbilt, Jordache and Sasson, are high-fashion, supplanting Levi's as the most sought-after jeans.

1990s

Levi's reclaims the spot as hottest jeans through its 501 jeans, but as the decade moves on, it is challenged by labels like Tommy Hilfiger.

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