Levi’s Presses Pause

…in Russia. Would this be, for the nation’s many jeans lovers, a return to the Soviet era when jeans were scarce? Or would Russians be happy with Uniqlo’s EZYs?

Inside almost every pair of Levi’s denim jeans, on the left front pocket bag, a message printed in black tells you that their famed riveted, five-pocket pants have been around for some 145 years. Levi’s has, in fact, existed for more than 169. Out of that, the American company has operated in Russia for only about 30 years. The first free-standing Levi’s store opened in 1993 in Moscow, just two blocks behind the historic Bolshoi Theatre. Compare that to the establishment of the brand’s international division: 1965, and its subsequent spread to Europe and Asia. Presently, there are reportedly more than 80 stores throughout Russia. But two days ago, the San Francisco-headquartered Levi Strauss & Co announced that the company would put their operations in Russia on an indefinite hiatus in response to the Russian attack on Ukraine, the biggest war in Europe in 77 years. Through a news release, it said: “Given the enormous disruption occurring in the region, which makes normal business untenable, LS&Co. is temporarily suspending commercial operations in Russia, including any new investments.”

Although halting the retail of Levi’s would unlikely cause a scarcity of jeans in Russia (Uniqlo has kept the doors of its 49 stores open), the thought that the ultimate denim brand for many would not be available anywhere there is evocative of the rarity of Levi’s in the Soviet era. Many today who have made a habit of online shopping would probably not remember this period of Eastern Europe, beloved by Vladimir Putin. The U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Republics) lasted 70 years (1922 to 1991), consisting, before its end, 15 republics, stretching from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean. Not all are in agreement to what caused its demise, but it is certain it did not come from an invasion. The history of the U.S.S.R. is a complicated one as any country this large—boasting more than 1,000 distinct nationalities—would be. During its existence, it was not exactly the exemplar of universal justice or material wealth. A common recall: “There was little we could buy freely over the counter”. And the same it was for jeans.

Needless to say, fashion was hardly a consideration in the lives of the proletariat. Russophiles will vehemently say there was fashion in the Soviet Union, even citing the existence of “fashion pages” in magazines of that era such as Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker) for urban folks and Krestyanka (Peasant Woman) for the agricultural community. Or that there were working fashion designers, such as Nadezhda Lamanova, former “supplier” to the Imperial Court who chose to stay after the Russian Revolution, and now seen as a national hero. Some historians believe that Soviet fashion was not all the uniforms seen on newsreels or the uniformity of grayness. Three broad categories (excluding traditional costume) were discerned: official, everyday, and the subversive, which, as it still is in many other countries, was associated with youths.

Throughout much of the Soviet Union, the young’s obsession with trends, in particular Western styles, stressed the authorities who considered anything not from within the Eastern Bloc or their nationalised textile factories and clothing retailers to be bourgeois and mostly decadent. Jeans (or dzhinzy in Russian, pronounced “jeansey”) were especially vile, but forbidden fruits are often the tastiest, Even as late as the ’80s, jeans continued to be denigrated because they were seen as American, and anything associated with America during the Cold War was frowned upon, more so those despicable American adopters of fashionable clothes. As The Christian Science Monitor noted in 1984, “the American consumer is frequently portrayed (in the Soviet Union) as a helpless victim of a constant barrage of advertising, especially on television.” Fashion—and in turn jeans—was too much a symbol of to-be-damned Western capitalism.

But, the lure of denim jeans went way back. In one uncommon cultural exchange between the USSR and the US in 1959 (the result of a signed agreement between the two powers to boost cultural contact through exhibitions), blue jeans—by Levi’s, of course—were displayed in the American National Exhibition, held in Moscow. Pairs of 501s packed the booth, and, according to a report, pilferage struck: “eager Soviet visitors handled—and occasionally helped themselves to—display samples of the all-American denim pants.” Throughout most of the Soviet era, reports claimed that jeans were “forbidden”, yet they were not unseen or unworn. Jeans were available through the booming black market. Enterprising resellers (like their sneaker counterparts today) made staggering profits by selling goods that they managed to smuggle from the East. Crushing political dissent was the Politburo’s particular skill, but crushing the lure of Western fashion, even a symbol of the cultural rebel, was not.

Stories emerged too that when tourists visited Moscow, local young men were approaching jeans-wearing guys—whether American or not—to buy the blue denim pants they had on right off their bodies! The going rate was, according to local media then, an “immoral” 200 roubles a pair (then the amount of a month’s wage). In 1972, American magazine Life reported that US students were able to pay for their travels in the Soviet Union by trading old Levi’s—possibly augmenting that contemptible immorality as authorities fumed. But in time, young Russians shed the fear of being criticized for the public display of the attraction to Western styles and brands. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the ’90s, there was no more shame in the wearing of blue jeans. Levi’s welcomed shoppers to their first store in 1993 in Moscow, and the crowd that turned up was reminiscent of the masses that thronged McDonald’s when it opened three years earlier, in the dead of winter. It is hard to imagine that the closure of Levi’s now might bring jeans lovers back, although unlikely, to those desperate days before the Iron Curtain came crushing down.

Update: 10 March 2022, 8.50pm: Uniqlo has announced that they will temporarily close their Russian stores

Photos Zhao Xiangji