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September 5, 2004

Rise of the Denim-istas?


Rob Walker's "Consumed" column in today's New York Times magazine focused on Levi's new alife custom 501 jeans.

They've created a limited edition offshoot, which will offer just 501 pairs (for the entire world), each pair in one of five colors, priced at $165 (why not $501?, was my first thought), available at exactly one store, which itself will exist for just one month.

I guess Rei Kawakubo's


guerrilla store concept made quite an impression at Levi's, huh?

Here's the story.

Bluejean Masterpiece

A quintessential mass brand tries to transform its product into art

Levi's is up there with Coca-Cola and Nike as a company people refer to when they want to make a point about how pervasive a brand can be.

So it's worth wondering what this household name is up to in deciding, after more than 150 years of existence, to forge its first-ever co-brand, the limited edition Levi's alife Custom 501's.

There will be just 501 pairs, each in one of five colors, priced at $165 and available at exactly one store - which itself will exist for just one month.

The 501 is so iconic it's hard to know what could be left to say about it.

But what is alife?

If Levi's is a quintessential mass brand, alife could be thought of as an emblematic mini-brand.

This is a distinct category: instead of being known by everybody, the mini-brand is known to a very specific and even rarefied group of somebodies - somebodies who are seen (by marketers, at least) as cultural connoisseurs, with forward-thinking tastes and an influence far out of proportion to their numbers.

These are consumers open to the idea that certain products -- even workaday items like jeans and sneakers - can be much, much more than a commodity.

This group matters to Levi's because it has struggled in recent years to stave off trendy new competitors like Diesel and the Gap.

So when the Levi's alife 501 Concept Exhibit opens in Manhattan on Sept. 11, with a big party, in the middle of Fashion Week, what it will really be selling, aside from a few hundred pairs of jeans, is Levi's' cultural relevance.

Courting the taste-maker set has been part of the company's strategy for a while; it even established a ''vintage clothing'' division in 1999, making exact reproductions of various items from its past that had been deemed classics by dedicated denim-istas.

Still, the intersection of art and product is the specialty of alife, a three-man collective founded in 1999 and based in a storefront on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The co-founders, Tony Arcabascio, Rob Cristofaro and Arnaud Delecolle, have made and sold limited-edition clothing items and products, held exhibitions, created a line of shoes that Barneys has picked up and informally hooked up their downtown artist peers with various corporate patrons, including Adidas and Sony.

''It's an art gallery, a publishing house, a creative design team, a store and a clubhouse,'' offers Jeffrey Deitch, a SoHo gallery owner who presented an alife art-as-product show two years ago.

There's even a spinoff, Alife Rivington Club, with the dark-wood feel of an exclusive jewelry store, only with Nikes instead of diamonds behind the glass.

The goal of the mass- and mini-brand collaboration is to elevate a familiar product to artlike status.

The distinctions between standard 501's and the alife variation are subtle: there are the colors; there's an alife tab hidden behind the famous red Levi's tab on the back pocket; and the standard leather-look patch says ''501(R) XX ALIFE.''

So the real key might be the context - the jeans' predetermined scarcity and a 1,400-square-foot retail environment intended to foster a museumlike reverence.

The interior of alife's Orchard Street store has been completely rebuilt (on Levi's' dime) and painted stark white, the front portion made over into a gallery of Levi's imagery, rising in steps to a small boutique space showcasing the limited-edition jeans, plus another limited Levi's alife Custom 501 line and T-shirts and accessories created by downtown designers and artists like Futura Laboratories and SSUR.

In addition, alife has special shopping bags, even business cards, for the store - even though it will all disappear a month after opening.

''We're treating the retail environment as an installation,'' Arcabascio says. ''And you can leave with this artwork.''

On one level this mass-mini team-up sounds like just another case of a big corporation trying to co-opt some street cred.

Yet when the alife founders talk about the project, they make it clear that, downtown status aside, they are hardly dissenters from the culture of consumption.

They love good products, and they love certain brands, especially a ''staple'' like Levi's, they emphasize.

They practically light up at the mention of alife making it onto a Levi's patch, where no other brand has been.

''That's the thing that makes us most happy,'' Arcabascio says.

''We were able to infiltrate.''

September 5, 2004 at 09:01 PM | Permalink


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