Urban Cowboy

How does a brand that is over a century old make itself cool again? With a little help from the gays. Levi Strauss & Co. sponsored the world premiere of Milk at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in October, and The Advocate sat down with the out president of the denim company, Robert Hanson, that afternoon to find out what Levi's and Harvey Milk have in common.

BY Corey Scholibo

November 27 2008 12:00 AM ET

He is one of the
most prominent LGBT businessmen in the apparel industry,
but you won’t find him in a suit. Entering his
Western-themed office on Battery Street in San
Francisco, arguably not the fashion hub of the United
States, you will find a dapper but decidedly relaxed
executive sitting at an aged wood table -- part of the
casual Western motif of his office -- and clad in
jeans. As president of Levi Strauss & Co.'s Levi's
Brand Division, Robert Hanson has been tasked with
revitalizing the over a  century-old brand, and
he knows that the LGBT market is a key component in
doing that. When he moved back to the United States
from a position with the company in Europe in 2001, the
denim market was saturated, and Levi's was having
problems both with its product and with its
distribution and marketing. Hanson has done a lot of things
to help turn this around, but he knew from the
beginning that LGBT consumers were going to be
instrumental in making the brand cool again. In 2007 the
company launched a new gay-specific television advertisement
in which two men ended up together, which sparked buzz
not only among gays but in the advertising world as
well. But this was just the beginning. Levi's was the
sole sponsor of October's premiere of Milk at the
Castro Theatre and the after-party at San Francisco
City Hall. On the day of the premiere, The Advocate
sat down with Hanson to talk about how he helped make
Levi's hot again and what the company plans to do to
continue to get the gays.

Why did Levi's decide to sponsor the premiere of
Milk in San Francisco?
Number 1, I think we’re really honored to
be the sole sponsor of the premiere of the Milk film.
I think it’s primarily rooted in the fact that
if you look at who Harvey Milk was and what he stood for
from a values standpoint, he was an original. He had
courage. He had integrity. Those are values that I
think are importantly associated with the Levi’s
brand. On a more logical level, Danny Glicker, the
stylist for the film, went back and looked at The
Times of Harvey Milk,
and there’s no
question that in the ’70s, when Milk was at the
pinnacle of his impact, he and those around him wore,
as a part of their uniform, the original 501
button-fly jeans. So if you look at the film, at the
core of the wardrobe you see the Levi’s 501 jean, you
see the Levi’s 505 jean, which is our
straight-fit, you see the Levi’s trucker jacket.
Those are all a part of the uniform of that time. And
the final point is we’ve been working to deepen
our engagement with the LGBT community. I think
we’ve been targeting progressive gay and lesbian
people in particular because this is a group of people
who we have an authentic relationship with,
we’ve done great work with, and frankly,
they’ve been great advocates for the brand for
a long time. We’re also opening a store in the
Castro quite close to where Harvey’s camera store
was. So there’s just serendipity with all of it
coming together.

Well, the jean was a sign of rebellion. When Milk
first started getting involved in politics he
wasn’t wearing a suit. He was wearing
jeans, and people told him he needed to dress more
appropriately and walk the walk. Do you think that
feeling of rebellion has stayed with the brand, or
are jeans just part of the suit now?
I would say yes, it stayed with the brand.
Rebellion manifests itself differently with every
generation, and if you talk to younger people today,
the sense of aggressive rebelliousness, like you're fighting
against something, isn’t what young people would say
they feel. I think they feel they are fighting for
something. So I think there’s a sense of
independent-mindedness or an independent spirit that is
associated with the Levi’s 501 jean that
certainly was associated with Harvey Milk and is still
associated with our jeans.

Did you personally identify this film as something
you wanted to get involved with? How did your
partnership come about?
Sort of organically. We knew all of this was
happening because we made ourselves available to Danny
Glicker to help wardrobe the film. But we
didn’t actively seek a sponsorship role or any sort
of funded relationship. It was just "Look, it’s
authentic, it makes sense; how can we help?”

Tags: Business

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