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Levi Strauss and Co.’s Nuholt Huisamen talks strategy and 150th anniversary of 501 jeans

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 9 min read
Levi Strauss and Co.’s Nuholt Huisamen talks strategy and 150th anniversary of 501 jeans
Huisamen: We are embracing the technologies of tomorrow to better serve our customers and deliver greater value
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South African native Nuholt Huisamen is embarrassed to admit it, but he owns more pairs of Levi’s jeans than he can count — justifiably so, since he is the man in charge of the East Asia Pacific division (Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand) for Levi Strauss & Co. But the one pair you will find him wearing most often these days is his 501s, the classic button-fly jeans in an updated slim tapered cut.

A wardrobe staple for denim lovers, the 501 was originally created as overalls in the 1870s for railway workers and miners by a Nevada tailor called Jacob Davis. To tackle the issue of their pockets being constantly ripped, Davis found a way to fortify the corners with copper rivets. The demand for these rivets became so overwhelming that Davis wrote to his San Francisco-based fabric supplier Levi Strauss to take out a patent for the unique design. On May 20, 1873, they were awarded the patent for “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings” — marking the birth of the 501.

The famous jeans — known until 1890 as “XX” — was soon a bestseller and the company grew quickly. By the 1920s, Levi’s denim waist overalls were the top-selling men’s work pants in the United States. As decades passed, the craze only grew and now Levi’s jeans, now available in a multitude of models for men and women, are worn and beloved by people young and old all over the world.

To date, Levi’s is found in more than 110 countries worldwide through a combination of chain retailers, department stores, online sites, with a global footprint of approximately 3,100 retail stores and shop-in-shops. As at 2021, it is reported that the 169-year-old brand’s net revenues reached a global high of $5.8 billion.

Celebrating 501 Day

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Huisamen, who has been with the company for almost 20 years, says that one of the more popular men’s model is the 512 slim-tapered cut and 700 series for women, but he does see a big comeback for the 501’s loose comfy fit, hugely popular in the 1990s. With next year’s 150th anniversary of the 501 drawing close, he is confident that sales for the classic model will skyrocket.

“Anniversary celebrations are already underway with concerts in almost every region. The marketing teams are all working feverishly and you can be rest assured that 501 Day on May 20, 2023 will be on steroids!” he laughs.

Supposedly, artists from different countries will get an opportunity to put their creative spin on a pair of 501s, which will make its way around the world, then end up in Thailand for the big reveal on 501 Day. Huisamen also hints that denim aficionados may also get an opportunity to purchase all the different permutations of 501s over the past century, including the original style of overalls worn by migrant American workers back in the 1800s.

See also: The future of fashion is versatile, inclusive and sustainable, says Xie Qian Qian of unisex label Graye

The end of the distributor model
In the early days, Levi’s jeans were sold through wholesale channels such as department stores in the US. And when the American firm expanded overseas, it sold its products via partners like Singapore’s Jay Gee Group which faithfully distributed the brand’s apparel within the region from 1964 to 2019.

The decision to part ways with Jay Gee after 55 years was not taken lightly, but it “was something we had to do,” insists Huisamen. “They did a great job initially and we are extremely grateful. But slowly over time, they didn’t keep up with modern day retail experiences.”

Regionally, Levi’s owned and operated stores in Malaysia, India, China and Japan. Huisamen says it was ironic that Singapore — being the flagship city with a regional head office here — had an external distributor running the brand. So, in 2019 Levi’s bought the brand back from Jay Gee for an undisclosed amount to allow for a more controlled owner and operator business model focused on direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategies.

“It is time for us to step in and elevate the brand to where we think it can be. By adopting a DTC business model, we can directly talk to our consumers, respond quicker to shifts in trends, and take better control of how we want to sell our products or market the brand,” he says.

To start, merchandising is more brand-led rather than promotion-driven. Instead of highlighting daily discounts, Huisamen shares that they will only conduct end-of-season promotions, as brand perception is stronger when the items are not always on sale.

“We were close to a $100 million dollar business before Covid-19 but we really want to accelerate our growth further in East Asia Pacific. We still have a long way to go. I’m not 100% happy with where we are. There are some strategic moves that we intend to make this year.” He refers to an official announcement made this April on plans to reinvent, refresh and open new stores at more than 100 locations around the region.

“Historically, we sold only men’s bottoms but over time we introduced more categories for women and children to include tops, dresses and accessories. And when you try to put a lot of stuff in a small store, it just doesn’t present well for the consumer,” he explains. Case in point is Singapore’s 90sqm flagship store at Ion Orchard, which he is in negotiations to expand.

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For Huisamen, Singapore needs to be the flagship business for Southeast Asia, and should offer the pinnacle of assortments carrying both its premium product ranges as well as entry-level items. This also means that Singapore will be the central distribution point for all its different tiers of merchandise to the rest of East Asia Pacific. Another key feature for Levi’s flagship stores will be instore tailoring services for customers looking to personalise their purchases.

Digital first strategy

To further elevate one’s shopping experience, Levi’s will be transforming a number of its NextGen flagship stores to offer digital tools to streamline the consumer journey, including installing LED portal entry archways and LED screens for marketing content.

Huisamen is looking at ways on how to create seamless omnichannel engagement to bridge the offline with the online and appeal to the youth market while dusting off its “fatherly” image. “Based on insights, 80% of offline purchases stem from online exploration. So, the challenge is how to complement both platforms for an elevated hybrid shopping experience,” he explains.

In Singapore, Levi’s upgraded its website with useful features such as a real-time counter of product stocks, as well as video tutorials on how to make distressed jeans, or repair a tear. One of their key digital activations is a collaboration with Japanese fashion label Beams to produce a capsule collection for Levi’s as an online exclusive. Another hybrid campaign was a collaboration between Levi’s and Hong Kong actor Edison Chen’s fashion label Clot, which was promoted online but sold exclusively offline at its VivoCity outlet.

“We are committed to the future success of our business at every level and are reimagining what we do and how we win in today’s marketplace. At the same time, we are embracing the technologies of tomorrow to power innovation and better serve our customers and deliver greater value to stakeholders,” Huisamen says.

A leader in sustainability

For a long time now, Levi’s has been addressing climate change and water scarcity issues by staying committed to responsible and sustainable practices through continued R&D. The company has a chief sustainability officer heading up the Eureka Lab, an R&D facility in San Francisco that looks into new innovations and technologies to reduce carbon footprint and bring more sustainable fabrications to life.

Since 2011, it has established more than 20 different manufacturing techniques that give its jeans that broken-in look and feel using significantly less water. One of its breakthrough innovations it’s the +Cool Tech line of sustainably-sourced breathable denim, ideal for our hot climate, created with a linen-inspired moisture-wicking technology that regulates the body temperature.

Apart from co-founding The Better Cotton Initiative — a non-profit governance group that promotes better standards in cotton farming and practices — Levi’s is also on track to achieving its 2025 Water and Climate Action Strategy targets. Initiatives include Water

Is the brand looking into alternative fabrics to reduce pressure on the cotton industry? Huisamen says that while Levi’s uses 93% of cotton for its apparel, it continues to look at other raw materials such as hemp or other cotton blends. Currently, the Fresh collection uses a cotton blend with botanical-based dyes to create an assortment of fun pastel-hued tops and bottoms.

To promote a more circular economy, Levi’s has buyback programme called Levi’s Second Hand, encouraging customers to donate their old denims in exchange for gift cards. It is also looking into accepting jeans from other brands to be upcycled into gifts with purchase such as denim bags.

“There are various initiatives which I think over time should become a standard practice if we are thinking of a circular economy. The whole industry needs to go in this direction to ensure there’s no waste involvement in the process,” he says.

How does this zero-waste concept translate for a brand that is en route to exponential growth in terms of revenue? “Naturally we want to sell more, but we believe if we sell you a quality durable product, you will wear it for many years to come. On average, our customers buy one pair of jeans a year. If I can get them to buy twice a year, I think that’s still within acceptable norms of usage,” he says of the brand’s profits-through-principle ethos.

He adds: “We will continue to speak to consumers about recycling and reuse. Whether they buy once, twice or three times a year, we don’t want that product to be irresponsibly made, and we don’t want that product to end up in waste. It all boils down to us making a really good product that they will wear for longer.”

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