They are iconic American brands, pushing a uniquely American image, and both have over a 100-year-old manufacturing history.
Levi Strauss & Co. was founded in 1853 after Strauss moved to San Francisco from Bavaria. The company patented the rivet in 1873 and starting selling 501’s, arguably the most purchased pair of pants in the world, in the 1890s. And this summer it’s moving its flagship store on Union Square to Market St.
When Levi’s debuted its one-two punch with the Go Forth O Pioneers! video in 2009 and “Legacy” featuring the Charles Bukowski poem “The Laughing Heart” in 2011, urging the world’s youth to change it, I watched both over and over again. It is not out of fondness for the messages, but more like a rubbernecker. I couldn’t look away, no matter how uncomfortable it made me feel. What irked me the most, other than its co-opting of “revolution” and working class self-reliance as something the cool kids are into these days, was that the videos took basically an entire generation of millennials, and homogenized them right down to the clothes they put on their backs. It made me feel like we are becoming more like the product: factory made, with a pride only based in a consistence in quality.
Nobody really messes up in a Levi’s world (the video doesn’t show the morning after the riot, after you have spent the night in jail, with your wrists bruised and your parent’s look of disappointment when they come to bail you out) and everyone is attractive, in a conventional sense. It’s an old story, yes, but one that Levi’s has twisted into this idea of that if you are proud to be young and free, which many millennials are not these days because a lot of us are weighed down by student debt, foreclosures, austerity and the absence of health insurance, then you have got to be in a pair of $50-$100 jeans.
Converse’s new campaign makes me equally uncomfortable in mostly the same ways. You don’t have to look far these days (the 16th Street BART station, on the side of a bus shelter, plastered on a construction wall) to find Converse’s idea of reaching out to its potential market. “Shoes are boring, wear sneakers” say the ads in every direction your eye may glance. And who is defining the essence of cool in a Converse world? Street artists and a girl band who apparently likes to roll their expensive equipment around town on a skateboard (Hey, ladies! Get your cool mom, who is probably also wearing Converse sneakers, to give you a ride!). [Editor's note: We have previously written about this band, The She's.]
Converse was founded in 1908 and maintained a good market share until competitors such as Reebok moved in. The company was acquisitioned by Nike, Inc. in 2003, so the brand definitely lost some of that indie cool cred it created with skaters in the 90s. However, with its new San Francisco store, one of five in the country, it is trying to win that cred back with the city’s upwardly mobile youth.
But, well, here’s the rub: Despite my protestations, Levi’s are still one of my denim staples and Converse sneakers have been my go-to shoe for the better part of two decades. My own past with these two brands is enduring because of their comfort and versatility. I’m a fan of Jack Purcells, or as my dad likes to call them, my “smileys.” I wear both Levi’s jeans and Converse shoes down to their threadbare, tattered end, and they look cooler the more messed up they get, until they fall apart completely, like a supernova, or rock star about to turn 28.
And this conflict from despising the ads and still buying the products, because of a reticent brand loyalty, is brought straight to the forefront of my mind when I get told I’m boring in my off-brand pants and boots (or god-forbid, Vans) while on my commute.
Will I shop at these two formidable stores when they open their doors? Only time will tell, but I know for one thing for sure, I won’t like myself when I do.