Is Levi Jeans Racist or Just Speaking to Its Main Niche?

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Levis-ads-mWow! Once again there is concern over a major brand not really including Black people. Come on. How long will we be surprised by this. I truly don’t think it’s fair to Levi’s. What? Yes, I said it. Why do we expect a company to be everything to everybody. It’s really impossible. Let Levi’s make jeans for White people. How about Black people make jeans for Black people. How long will Black women try to put all their Africa in European jeans? LOL

That’s why I wasn’t surprised by this story.

If you have opened a magazine or looked at a billboard anytime in the past few months, you have heard of Levi’s new Curve ID jeans. Last summer, Levi’s launched a new fit system for their denim based on a woman’s body shape, instead of her size. The company performed body scans of 60,000 women around the world and identified three main body types — “slight curve,” “demi curve,” and “bold curve” — which fit 80 percent of women. Exciting news, right?

“Ethnic diversity is not a checklist for us. It’s truly part of our value system and our philosophy around women. That’s really important to us as a brand. It’s unfortunate the Curve ID ad campaign came across as being one-dimensional. We actually shot Caucasian women, African-American women and Hispanic women, but what ended up being more visible was what looked like a one-dimensional presentation of women.”

Lots of bloggers and feminist activists were un-enthused — some going so far as to call the ad campaign “racist.” The ad campaign’s headline, “All curves are not created equal,” was criticized as seeming to privilege some body types over others.

Jessica Wakeman was one of those bloggers. She interviewed the leadership at Levi’s.

Furthermore, like most denim companies, Levi’s Curve ID jeans went up to a size 14 — hardly what some people would consider “curvy.” Finally, the main page of the Levi’s Curve ID website featured an image of three light-skinned models (the top image with the yellow background), despite the fact that many black and Latina women struggle to find jeans that fit. If you kept on clicking through Levi’s Curve ID website, there was a digital gallery with pictures of dozens of real women of all shapes and sizes and ethnicities in different jeans. However, a lot of bloggers were frustrated that the women with the largest curves and the darker-skinned women were not front-and-center in the campaign.

I wrote about the controversy in September and earlier this week, I spoke with two bigwigs at Levi’s to get the inside scoop: Mary Alderete, the vice president of global women’s marketing for Levi Strauss & Co., and Alexa Rudin, the company’s director of global communications. Both seemed well-prepared in advance with the positive spin they wanted to put on the Curve ID narrative: buzz words like “authentic,” “honesty” and even “authentic honesty” were dropped often.

But it was also clear from speaking with Levi’s that they have a corporate mindset. Alderete and Rudin kept referring to the company’s “mission”; they spoke of curves being “aspirational” as if they are a trend; and when discussing things they would have done differently on the Curve ID campaign, they called it “a learning experience.” They way they talked is not surprising: Of course a huge corporation has a corporate mindset! My point, however, is that it struck me how critics of Levi’s Curve ID and decision-makers within Levi’s don’t exactly speak the same “language.”

First, let’s talk about the tagline: “All asses are not created equal.” Why don’t you tell me how that tag line was created and what Levi’s meant to convey with it?

MARY ALDERETE: It’s a headline, really, not a tag line. The response to this headline, in a lot of ways, was completely understandable. First, women are so frustrated trying to find the perfect-fitting pair of jeans. They’re frustrated by the process, they’re frustrated by the compromise they make when buying jeans. And this is a really personal and emotional subject for women. When the jeans don’t fit, they often blame themselves, as opposed to the insight we found: it’s really the offering of the denim that’s out there that’s [making [them] feel bad about themselves. The issue itself is very emotional. Our headline, “All asses are not created equal,” was created to acknowledge that emotion and to provoke exactly that dialogue that we’re seeing amongst women out in the marketplace right now. The line itself directly reflects the insight behind our fit innovation. In other words, we set out to bring some innovation to our fits and we studied 60,000 body scans of women globally. We also interviewed women around the world of all shapes and sizes. We took our prototypes back to these women on “fit safaris” to get their input on the pattern-making. And then we introduced the system based on shape, not size, with our three first fits: “slight” curve, “demi” curve, and “bold” curve. Our main message was to educate the world, because this is a real shift for the industry, where women normally buy jeans by waist size and leg opening, we needed to educate women that there’s three ways to be any size and that our jeans are made to fit the curve of a woman’s body. When we saw the tag line, it was very provocative. Then we said, “It’s reflective of the emotion. It’s reflective of the controversy.” As a brand, we want to be as authentic and honest — which is our basic value system — in the way we put it out there.

I think that if you go on to read the rest of the copy in the print ad, the headline is really supported by this idea of the democratization of jeans and all women have the right to look good and feel good in jeans. Had we just said “All asses are created equal” without explaining our philosophy about fitting the curve of a woman’s body and making jeans available to women of all shapes, then I think it would have been a slightly different take. But I think it’s [consistent with] our combination of the line and our brand’s authentic honesty around the issue and the support of our mission, to truly fit women of all shapes and sizes around the globe with our fit innovation.

But were there any red flags raised about the headline? Critics suggest that “all asses are not created equal” could mean we as a culture prefer one ass over another, which is counter-intuitive to what the Curve ID jeans claim to be about.

ALDERETE: I don’t know if I would call them red flags, but we certainly discussed the provocative nature of the line. Again, we felt it was so reflective of the emotion women were experiencing behind the process of buying jeans, which is really right up there with buying bras and bathing suits. (laughs) There’s not much to make a woman feel better about herself than buying in those three categories. We did discuss it, but it’s authentic, it’s honest, and I think it’s true to our brand’s voice. It has connected with many women in terms of its honesty and its reflection of the emotion. The point is more that not everyone is the same shape, so the jeans shouldn’t be either, which is why we offer a range of “curves” in our system. It’s the opposite of saying one is better than the other. It’s that they are all great.

ALEXA RUDIN: We studied a lot of women and we studied how they talk about their own bodies and you don’t hear women in a dressing room and they don’t say, “Does this make my backside or my derriére look big?” They say to their friends, “Does my ass look OK in this? Do I look cute?” We really wanted to reflect the way women talk to each other and talk about their own bodies. So it’s not meant to be derogatory in any way — at least that wasn’t our intention. [The headline is] meant to reflect who women are and how they talk about themselves.

The size range for all three shapes of Curve ID jeans is approximately a 2 to a 14, correct? [Although it varies by company, larger than a size 14 or 16 is generally considered plus-size.]

ALDERETE: As far as what’s offered in our stores right now, [our sizes are] fairly industry standard in terms of what you see in specialty and retail outlets. Again, this is the point I mentioned earlier, it has always been our desire to fit women of all sizes and shapes globally. It was such a big shift for us to take on the industry to get women to stop shopping for waist size and leg opening and consider that it’s really about their shape. So we set out to really perfect the three main body types we found in our research and perfect that pattern that would really provide a custom fit. We launched with those three fits and the response has been incredible. It has always been part of our plan [to add sizes] and we have been in ongoing conversations with women of extended sizes and also we’ve researched an even curvier body shape for a fourth fit. We continue to work to optimize the line and we’re working towards getting that out into market just as fast as humanly possible. (laughs)

We’re really committed to this. This is not a product we’re doing for a season. We’re committed to this system in the long haul. What we wanted to do was get the first three out there in the most optimized pattern and continue to perfect [them]. It’s not about making the waist size larger, it’s really about balancing the overall pattern to get that custom fit as the body shape changes along that spectrum. We want to put the same care and attention and expertise in creating those patterns and fits and again, give those women a chance to try the prototypes and give us feed back. We’re almost co-creating a line here. We’re not doing typical industry research. The consumer is playing a critical role in helping to get this fit be perfect for their shape.

Will that fourth size be in the 2-to-14 range as well?

ALDERETE: First of all, it’s a shape, not a size. A fourth shape, a fourth fit. You see the education we have to do here? It’s really not about your size. We have women who are a “bold curve” in a size 2 and in a size 14 or 16. It’s really about the shape of your body and then we deliver the jean in the different sizes.

The fourth fit tends to come in that certain body type (pauses) — we’re still doing the work, so I can’t give you a specific answer, but it will be offered in the range of sizes. Separately, there’s the idea of extended sizes. We have the slight curve, the demi curve and bold curve. There are women of [those body shapes] that are of a waist size that is bigger than what we currently offer in terms of a 14 or a 16. We’re working on extending those sizes in our current fits and then figuring out what is the optimal balance of that fourth fit and the size intersection. We’re really excited — in fact, we’re as immersed with our extended sizes for the last several months, even as we were launching the first three, as we were with the global exploratory we did for the first three fits.

Let’s talk about the models that were used in the campaign. A lot of bloggers were frustrated that the women with the largest curves and the darker-skinned women were not front-and-center in the campaign, since it claims to be all about curves. On the main page of the Curve ID site, there is an image of three light-skinned models. If you click through, you see two more light-skinned models and a dark-skinned model wearing the jeans. If you keep clicking, there’s a digital gallery with pictures of dozens of real women of all shapes and sizes and ethnicities in different jeans. If there were women of color elsewhere in the ad campaign, why did Levi’s choose to use light-skinned models most prominently on the main image?

ALDERETE: Definitely when we created the Levi’s Curve ID campaign, we did it with an international mindset so women around the globe could enjoy the jeans in a custom fit. So we really did have a range of diversity. You, I think, experienced [the full ad campaign] more fully than some of the other women who were commenting: you clicked through on our web site. In our digital gallery on our web site, we shot every jean we offer in every leg opening, every shape, so you saw a full range of 110 women [in the digital gallery] there of all ethnic diversities, looking great in the jeans. You do see that great range of diversity of all the women, literally of all shapes and sizes, really looking fantastic in the jeans.

I can see how people would get confused because the print and outdoor advertising are higher-impact and have more visibility and get more attention. So at first glance, it might look like it’s being more one-dimensional than what our intention was. But the most important thing to understand about the Levi’s brand is we’ve always been a democratic, inclusive brand. If there’s anything that I feel passionate about reinforcing and addressing in our campaigns is that ethnic diversity is not a checklist for us. It’s truly part of our value system and our philosophy around women. That’s really important to us as a brand. It’s unfortunate it came across as being on -dimensional. We actually shot Caucasian women, African-American women and Hispanic women, but what ended up being more visible was what looked like a one-dimensional presentation of women [i.e., the three white women].

Wait, when you say Levi’s shot Caucasian women, African-American women and Hispanic women for the ads, do you mean the professional models who were in the print ads in magazines and on billboards? Or do you mean you shot a diverse group of regular women modeling in the digital gallery online?

ALDERETE: Yes, there were actually three different print ads (NOTE: posted above) that rotated in the range of titles that we were in. So, if you actually looked across all the magazines we were in, you would see three different [print ads]: pink one, a blue one and a yellow one. So, there were nine total women in our print ads and they did reflect the range of diversity.

But again, it reflects each consumer’s experience with the media, how much of that you’re exposed to. Obviously, you were engaged and you sought out more information [on the website with the digital gallery], so you had more exposure [to the diversity of the models].

Do you have a breakdown of the different ethnic breakdowns of the models in those three different print campaigns?

ALDERETE: Oh, I don’t produce the actual ad campaigns. I’d have to ask the country lead for that, of the U.S. [Note: A Levi’s spokeswoman was unable to verify the ethnic backgrounds of the nine models used the three print ads above, although it looks to me that only one of the nine women is a black woman modeling the “bold curve” jeans.] Speaking of that, this was a global launch. Simultaneously around the globe, we had other marketing materials in other regions. You look in India, China, Europe — when you look at the global effort, there was a huge range of diversity. Obviously, people in the [U.S.] market don’t see those campaigns as closely as the one that’s here.

So it’s reasonable to assume that if you had placed an ad in Essence, an African-American women’s lifestyle magazine, you probably would have models that looked like the readership of Essence?

ALDERETE: Mmm-hmm.

Is there anything Levi’s would change if it could do the Curve ID ad campaign all over again, seeing as there has been so much controversy?

ALDERETE: As a brand, I think what we should have paid more attention to is the way the media would be consumed by the average reader. In our flow chart, in our media plan development, we had this grand plan that we’d do three different ads and people would see the range. But in real life, the way consumers read magazines and go online, the message didn’t unfold in exactly the way we had hoped. So it was a good to get that “learning,” to understand how consumers read media, both in their daily digital diet and in the imagery they consume on any given day across the plan.

RUDIN: That’s probably the biggest thing. I think we would have made sure that people saw multiple ads so they could understand the message that different body types fit jeans differently. I mean, yeah. That’s probably the key “learning.” We always want to do better and we really actually take all of the feedback that consumers give us and we share it with our teams. As we go to the next execution of the campaign, we ask, ‘How did this resonate? What did they say?’ It’s a big process. We love getting the feedback and we’re always open to it. We really do take it and learn from it.

ALDERETE: One more thing in terms of the feedback we received. We really set out to reflect our brand’s design ethos, which is that our jeans are made to fit the curve of a woman’s body. The word “curve” has not always been the most aspirational word in the American culture. It certainly is aspirational in other cultures; it’s been really interesting for me to experience this launch around the world. Part of what’s so important with the way the U.S. presented this in their market is that we are committed to the fact that curves are good and women should be proud of their bodies the way they are. Ideally that word would be an aspirational word in our culture as well, as it is in other cultures. In that regard, I’m proud we came out with a declarative statement that really embraced women’s curves and that we’re committed to fitting women of all shapes and sizes, as opposed to dictating what the jeans offering is for women.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


About the author / 

Toure Muhammad

Author Toure Muhammad is the head bean, publisher and chief strategist of Bean Soup Times. The Morehouse graduate has written front page cover stories for The Final Call and N’digo. He has been featured in the Chicago Reader, Upscale magazine, rolling out newspaper, and N’Digo magapaper. He’s been featured on Tavis Smiley’s radio show on NPR, on Chicago’s WBEZ (Chicago public radio), and many other radio shows.

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