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Last Updated: Friday, 2 May, 2003, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
Levi Strauss rides out birthday blues

Maggie Shiels
BBC correspondent in San Francisco

Levis jeans on sale in San Francisco
Levis - 'emblematic of America'

Blue jeans maker Levi Strauss & Co, one of the most famous names in fashion, has been celebrating 150 years in business.

Party-goers at its birthday bash at San Francisco's downtown Levis Plaza wore denim from head to foot while Country & Western bands recalled the Wild West.

Everyone from the company's cleaners to Chairman Bob Haas was clothed in the Levis brand, which he says is "emblematic of America, an icon like Coke or McDonalds and one of the world's most recognised".

Although a fashion essential today, Levis jeans came out of the rough and ready life of America's frontier.

Gold strike

In 1853, Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss headed west to sell dry goods and linens for those lured to California to seek their fortune during the gold rush.

CEO Philip Marineau (left) and Chairman Bob Haas
Sturdy jeans, sure, but still as cool as Brando?

Twenty years later Strauss hit his own jackpot when he stitched his first pair of blue jeans together and created denim work pants for the cowboys of the American West.

San Francisco's mayor Willie Brown paid homage to an "extraordinary" company that has grown into a global entity.

Mr Brown earned himself some heckling when he choose not to wear denim, turning up instead in a sober suit.

But they quickly forgave him when he declared 1 May - or 5-01 in the calendar - as Levi Strauss day.

Fading denim?

Despite the party mood, some Wall Street analysts are less than jubilant about Levi Strauss these days.

Lurking in the background is the economic reality that sales of Levi Strauss have fallen from a dizzying peak of $7.1bn (4.4bn) in 1996 to just over $4bn in 2002.

Levi Strauss factory
Levi Strauss has cut 20% of its workforce, mostly in the US

Added to that is a first quarter loss of $25m and claims by two former employees that Levis artificially inflated profits by booking hundreds of millions of dollars in questionable income and tax deductions.

"The charges are false and baseless," says Levi Strauss Chairman Bob Haas.

"Things like this happen to any business, it's really not worth lingering on at time when you're thinking about a span of 150 years of achievement and success."

"Last year we started stabilising the business. By the end of this year, I'm anticipating we're going to start showing growth again," he says.

'Love and trust'

Stars like Marlon Brando turned Levis into a statement of rebellion and helped make the jeans cool.

But industry analysts say the company has lost its edge.

Chief executive Philip Marineau rallied his troops in Levis Plaza with a reminder that they work for a popular firm that has already sold 3.5 billion pairs of jeans.

"The Levi Strauss company is going to have a great year," he said. "We're going to restore the company to growth. People love our clothes and trust our company. We will clothe the world."

Despite its economic woes, Levi Strauss says it will be around for ever.

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Levi's slashes workforce
08 Apr 02  |  Business

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