The number of mainstream heritage fashion brands created before 1900 still around today can probably be counted on one hand. Hermès, the luxury handbag maker was founded in 1837, followed by Louis Vuitton in 1854 and its French stablemate Lanvin.
Then, of course, there’s Levi’s.
Founded in 1864 by the eponymous pioneer of rivet jeans, Levi’s has never been averse to standing out from the crowd. While its surviving contemporaries are synonymous with the luxury sector, Levi’s has remained a staple on the more affordable side of fashion for decades.
Although Levi’s is no doubt one of the most recognised clothing brands and a high street staple, it has not coasted off the back of its branding. It has taken consistent innovation, decision making and intelligent hiring decisions to get where it is today.
“We have learned the hard way, because we come from the 80s and 90s when Levi’s used to be very successful as a brand,” Levi’s ecommerce vice president Claudia Roggenkamp told the Retail Gazette.
“The company has learned that they need to innovate when it comes to physical product and when it comes to the technical product”
“We then went through a couple of years that were really hard for the company. We’ve been back on the growth curve for four years now and I think the company has learned that they need to innovate when it comes to physical product and when it comes to the technical product.”
This realisation was likely a factor in Roggenkamp’s appointment to the company two years ago. Having recently left a three-year stint at Zalando where she aided the retailer’s ascent from plucky start-up to ecommerce giant, she brought with her the penchant for tech innovation.
“When I was on the Zalando side I was always wondering why no (brands) had become a more powerful player in the online sphere, I felt like Levi’s was a brand that had the potential to get there,” she explained.
“I work in the fastest growing part of the business so I’m able to bring a lot of stuff from the start-up world and run some things in a very start-up way. At the same time, I can tap into the resources that the bigger company offers.”
Many heritage fashion retailers are reluctant to enter the world of ecommerce themselves, opting instead to bring in third party companies to help them. But bringing ecommerce operations back to Levi’s in-house “step by step”, Roggenkamp and her team managed to produce some industry leading technologies.
Its Virtual Stylist, launched in late August this year, is essentially a chat bot which will guide the user through Levi’s catalogue to find exactly the right pair of jeans.
Chatbots have been touted as the next big thing in tech, but various embarrassing and widely publicised efforts like Microsoft’s Tay went spectacularly awry. To launch the technology on its main site speaks to the bravery of the brand.
“If you look at product and merchandising for example, we’ve done a great job in and we’ve made bold decisions,” Roggenkamp said.
“For example, relaunching the entire womenswear platform was a very bold decision. As we see that these things are working, we’re more willing to take brave decisions which I think is helping the growth curve.”
Levi’s virtual stylist is also smart, and it’s reportedly having a significant effect on conversion rates.
Bringing the benefits of physical stores with physical staff to your living room has been the holy grail of ecommerce for some time, and this technology goes a long way towards realising that.
It also recognises the importance of social media, allowing you to shop certain styles and share your favourites online. Looking forward, this is something Roggenkamp is focused on expanding.
“It’s a very easy equation. The mobile phone is the remote control or the epicentre of shopping, and people spend most of their time on mobile phones in social”
“We’re experimenting a lot with social right now like most other brands we’re seeing the traffic moving to mobile and moving to mobile very fast,” she said.
“I feel like mobile phones are on their way to becoming the medium to shop online. My personal hypothesis is the mobile phone will become the remote control of shopping.
“Whether you’re purely shopping online or whether you’re in a store and you’re using it to navigate the offer. I also think mobile phones will significantly change the way we shop offline over the next five to 10 years.
“It’s a very easy equation. The mobile phone is the remote control or the epicentre of shopping, and people spend most of their time on mobile phones in social.
“You need to be on social, you need to interact socially, you need to be on those platforms and you need to give people the opportunity to interact on those platforms.”
With four years of growth under its belt, Levi’s has regained its confidence after nearly a decade of decline at the turn of the century.
Like the cowboy’s that first donned Levi Strauss’ jeans in the early 1900s, Roggenkamp and her team are making bold moves into the latest frontier.