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

The Trucker Gets A Major Makeover

Levi’s go modern with one its most recognisable jackets


By Ray Zhang

I have to admit; I have a weakness for denim jackets, especially those modelled after the Trucker, that unmistakable Levi’s top that, according to urban lore, was once called a “blouse”, and now a classic that has spawned as many competitor versions as there are 5-pocket jeans.

The first I bought was a Gap version from the 1969 line back in the early ’90s. When that no longer felt right to me (and, admittedly, when my disposable income became more disposable), I upgraded to an Helmut Lang version, which, at that time, felt terribly sleek, as it was cut slimmer and more ‘tailored’—admittedly an odd description for jeans wear of the era. This was way before Hedi Slimane was installed at Dior Homme.

I didn’t wear my denim jackets frequently enough as they were really too thick for our punishing weather. But some time during the mid-Nighties, I found what I consider the ultimate Trucker-style jacket: Levi’s X Junya Watanabe’s version made not with denim, but cotton poplin in pajama stripes! These were very light and wore like a shirt, which, to me, was a boon, considering how unfriendly our weather is to even the lightest layering.

I have not worn any of my Truckers of late since, these days, an extra piece of clothing will elicit “are you cold?”—a question that, more often than not, isn’t innocently asked. But my attraction to the Trucker has not not diminished. When I saw this version at Levi’s recently, I was, truth be told, quite smitten. This is not the classic Trucker. In fact, there is nothing classic about the Lej Knit Trucker. And therein lies the appeal.

Levi’s has made the latest iteration of their popular jacket in a technical knit that Levi’s calls “Engineered Knit”, which, I suppose is a more imaginative description (aligning, also, with the return of the Engineered jeans) than merely being technical. The jacket has a lot less seams than the original Trucker, yet it still sports the features of the old “blouse”, especially the V-shape panels that shoot down from the pocket flaps on the chest.

The knit version (62% cotton, 28% nylon, 10% elastane)—currently available in heather grey—has a semi-contrast knit pattern replacing the panel of the denim version. Together with flat snap buttons, the Lej Knit Trucker is a minimalist take that will no doubt go with anything from Lemaire that you have been acquiring. Okay, I have been!

Levi’s Lej Knit Trucker, SGD239.90, is available at select Levi’s store. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Breath Of Fresh (And Auspicious!) Spring Air

Who’d have guessed this is Levi’s?

levi's flannel shirt

By Ray Zhang

Levi’s may be many things to many people, but, to me, it’s foremost a denim jeans company , and a rather conservative one too. When this appeared in full view as I passed the Levi’s store at ION Orchard, I thought: this can’t be.

Levi’s is so connected to the denim, chambray, and broadcloth shirts, mostly in solid colours or, if the season demands it, checks that this is positively deviant. Sure, the bi-patterned shirt is nothing to shout about since so many men’s wear brands have succumbed to it, from Ralph Lauren to Raf Simons, but, for Levi’s to take this route, it’s like expecting them to make skorts!

To be fair, Levi’s does sometimes offer clothing that is less in tune with the denizens. Their Made and Crafted sub-brand, now unavailable here, sometimes trod the narrow line between craft and commerce. Those available in Japan, especially, delight the senses. Levi’s still offers production quality that recalls a time when clothing was a lot sturdier, to the extend that designers such as Junya Watanabe and Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia continue to collaborate with them.

This shirt—half tartan, half camo (dotted with a medallion print that includes the Chinese character 喜 [xi or happiness]), with a patina of red—is thankfully cut a little roomier than the usual Levi’s shirt, which, as you already know, is in keeping with the looser silhouette still preferred, although, for Levi’s—and I, belatedly. I only wish it was not made of flannel, a fabric that is so linked to cooler climes that come Chinese New Year, which the shirt is released for, the wearer would hope for a Year of the Arctic Pig. Never mind that there’s no such swine.

Levi’s CNY Camo Crimson shirt, SGD79.90, is available at all Levi’s stores. Photo: Levi’s

Levi’s: Justin’s Take

Not quite cutting it, unless, for you, Louisiana—and the like—is home


Justin Timberlake X LevisAfter ranch work or post-rodeo? Justin Timberlake wearing shirt from his collaboration with Levi’s

By Ray Zhang

What is there in fashion that entices pop stars to put their fingers in the design pie? Or, in the case of Justin Timberlake, toes in the bayou? I am not sure, but brands are constantly seeking the big hit by teaming up with pop stars as if a recognisable name is all it takes for the garments to be desirable—Mr Timberlake, with Levi’s, the latest in a slew of singers churning out clothes that have nothing to do with concert merchandise.

Mr Timberlake’s collaboration with the venerable, 165-year-old jeans brand is an odd pairing that seems to have popped up from nowhere. While the media thought him to be a stylish artiste, I don’t consider Mr Timberlake a star with the flair to put Levi’s on a certain elevation the way, say, Pharrell Williams has been able to raise the fashion cred of G-Star Raw. The result with Levi’s is, sadly, more rural, conservative heartland than urban, progressive downtown.

Justin Timberlake X Levis G1A few pieces from the 20-item collection

Was Justin Timberlake ever a style icon? I do not remember. Maybe it’s because he has never registered in my mind. He may have, in 2006 (my, 12 years ago!), brought sexy back, but he hardly moved the needle for style. Some people, girls mostly, tell me that he was the Nick Jonas of his time. I am not so sure of that. Besides, you really can’t bank on looks alone to be a fashion icon. Fans thought he nailed it with this year’s Super Bowl costume: camo suit, with the jacket later replaced by a leather biker jacket. Between them, a bandanna, as well as a shirt with a wood/forest print featuring a couple of deer. I am not sure traipsing Yogi Bear land is fashion-smart.

This collaboration comes after last year’s, when the star and brand paired up for a customised Levi’s trucker to celebrate the jacket’s 50th anniversary. That followed with Levi’s designing some of the costumes of Mr Timberlake’s Man of the Woods tour. For their first capsule, out last week, Mr Timberlake takes to a theme that remains evocative of the name of his tour: “Fresh Leaves”. It appears to me that this would have been more interesting, even beautifully paired, if the collab was with Timberland. At least, it’ll sound good: Timberlake X Timberland, or vice versa.

In-store, the collection does not really stand out. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

The 20-piece collection features what may be considered clothes fabulous for fishing or the rodeo, or for dressing during a holiday with cowboys. Levi’s calls them “a modern twist on classic styles that have defined a generation”, which could mean you are not going to get anything terribly new. For some, the familiarity of the clothes may be appealing—comforting-as-apple-pie even, but if you don’t take your style cues from Malboro Man (quaint, I admit), this may be another country for you.

Because it’s Levi’s, there is the expected 501, now cut leaner to yield the 501 Slim Taper (apparently based on how Mr Timberlake wears his) and the Trucker, now given the ‘sherpa’ treatment and sporting laser-rendered camo print. Between them, denim shirts and the flannel variety (inexplicably, I’m thinking of hay!), and the obligatory T-shirt and hooded sweatshirt complete the look. Maybe Justin Timberlake, too, is helping make America great again.

Levi’s X Justin Timberlake, from SGD69.90, is available at Levi’s, Raffles City. Photos (except indicated): Levi’s