Urban Cowboy

Urban Cowboy

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?”

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