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Levi Strauss & Co. Reinvents an Old Standard

August 17, 2016

Leave it to the company that actually invented jeans to continuously reinvent them. At the Levi Strauss & Co.'s Eureka Innovation Lab, researchers are using technology and scientific experimentation to change the way we think of the iconic brand. 

The Eureka Innovation Lab is actually an open-space warehouse that looks like a factory and runs a lot like a test kitchen. The operation is only a few years old but the number of projects its team has designed, tested, recorded, and developed runs in the tens of thousands. At any given time, there are dozens of researchers with indigo-dyed hands plunging denim into vats of chemicals, adjusting ozone gas levels, and tossing pumice stones and jeans into great industrial washers. Through a continuous process of design ideation and rapid prototyping, the lab delivers a host of new products that are greener, last longer, are more comfortable, and appeal to a broader array of customers.

Prior to opening its innovation lab, Levi Strauss & Co. was considered a company long overdue for change.  Now, the company has set its sights on women. Exactly how does the oldest jean company in the world—the one that originally created virtually indestructible pants for miners—appeal to a gender that typically prefers fashion and comfort? That’s the job of Bart Sights, senior director for technical innovation, who is particularly interested in the soaring sales of leisure athletic wear (“athleisure wear”) for women. 

In fact, it was the quest for a denim alternative to the yoga pant that drove Levi Strauss & Co. to make innovation a new priority. Through hands-on experimentation with chemicals and computer technology—and prototyping using new textiles—innovation lab teams are perfecting their own version of the yoga pant alternative. 

Takeaways from the Eureka Innovation Lab:

> Innovation strategy should be data-driven. No matter how creative the discovery process may seem, an innovation strategy should be exact. Levi's® uses a recipe for each pair of jeans it designs, which includes a step-by-step guide to the manual, chemical, and mechanical processes that created it.

> Invent for the customer. Even a privately-owned, family business like Levi Strauss & Co. must listen to the demands of change. Only through the discovery of consumer preference for comfort was the innovation lab team able to develop the right product.

> It’s never too late for reinvention. After a financial plateau, the 143-year-old iconic company uses innovation and the latest science to reconnect to its history and recreate its brand.

> Diversify or die. Diversification is critical to survival—whether that’s in products, services, delivery, packaging, or processes. Levi Strauss & Co. finally released its tight grip on an outdated, masculine image. In recognizing the need to target women, its decision to diversify likely prevented the company’s demise. 

> Read the tea leaves. Levi Strauss & Co. mistakenly misread the “athleisure” trend as a passing fad and has been playing catch-up ever since. A culture of innovation will ensure your business has a better ear for such indicators.