Gap and Levi’s coopted hiphop culture to boost their sagging
By Ryan Pintado-Vertner
Arie is smiling down at you from a Gap billboard. A half-mile
later, it is progressive hiphop crew Black Eyed Peas looking
fresh in Levi’s Silver Tab jeans. Rewind two years, and
it was Mos Def and Talib Kweli, then De La Soul.
Rewind 10 years, and hiphop was absent in the mainstream
fashion industry. The billboards would have featured thin,
slightly curved white female models who refused to smile.
Ten years ago, when Gap Inc. and Levi Strauss & Company
gazed into the future of their clothing empires, youth of
color were an irrelevant demographic. The fashion powerhouses
believed that hiphop was an annoyingly violent fad that
would pass through like a bullet. They gambled against hiphop.
And so far, they have lost millions.
Today their futures look very different. Both companies
have become lightning rods for bad news. Gap stock, once
flying high and helping its Republican founder Don Fisher
buy political clout in San Francisco, was degraded to junk
status by Moody’s in February, after 21 months of nonstop
losses. In the same month, CARMA, a media analysis firm,
announced that among U.S. retailers, Gap had received the
second-worst media coverage in the world, second only to
Meanwhile, Levi Strauss & Company has been losing profits
and laying off workers in what seems to be an irreversible
downhill slide in U.S. sales. It has recycled executives
like tin cans, dumped marketing agencies left and right,
gone IPO and then reversed course back to private stockholdings—all
in an effort to stop losing money.
When announcing their bad news to investors, both companies
focus on business details like profitability per square
footage of retail real estate, or they talk generally about
the need for more competitive fashion designs, or, like
everyone, they blame Sept. 11.
Gap nor Levi’s confesses to the deeper irony of their situation.
Both companies are suffering from a loss of cool, the fashion
industry’s equivalent of cardiac arrest. Where did cool
go? It shifted to the very people who were dismissed by
fashion insiders as “sociopaths” in the ’80s and early ’90s.
They are the kids shooting hoops in concrete jungles, the
break dancers taking over high school hallways, the American-born
children of exploited garment workers. The kind of people
who rarely made it into fashion billboards. Today, coolness
lives among youth of color and their beloved hiphop. And
now, if they are to survive the new millennium, Gap and
Levi’s must take that coolness back.
difference between this reality and what the companies anticipated
is enormous. Levi’s predicted a cheaper, globalized workforce,
and began closing U.S. factories and relocating those jobs
to countries like Costa Rica and China. In the ’80s alone
Levi’s closed 58 plants, putting 10,400 people out of work
and moving about half of its production overseas. Gap did
the same thing, subcontracting with 3,600 factories in 50
countries by 2001.
As a result, Gap and Levi’s, like others in the industry,
are the focus of dozens of anti-sweatshop campaigns internationally,
which have revealed terrible labor conditions in the garment
factories sewing their clothing. Both companies have been
sued by garment workers in Saipan, a U.S. territory in the
Pacific. The suit alleges that the factories, sewing clothes
for a who’s-who of fashion companies, including Tommy Hilfiger,
Calvin Klein, Target and the Limited, practiced indentured
servitude. Witness, a human rights organization, says that
in Saipan, “14 hour shifts, payless paydays and lockdowns
In 1990, Levi Strauss & Company closed a factory in
San Antonio, laid off more than a thousand workers, gave
them horrible severance packages, and then moved the jobs
to Costa Rica.
Jason Morteo understands all of this. He is a 17-year-old
Chicano lyricist, beat junkie and grafitti writer in San
Antonio. On Wednesday nights, he can be found at Bruno’s,
a local restaurant, battling other emcees in the freestyle
competition. (“I would have won first place, except the
other dude started beat-boxing on me.”) He has a front-row
seat for what Levi’s and other clothing companies are trying
to do with hiphop and garment workers.
me, I find it so ironic that Levi’s, of all companies, is
going to try to make a profit off of hiphop culture—on top
of that, Latin hiphop culture—when there’s so many people
here they exploit so much,” he says. “And the companies
do their best to keep that out of the media.”
bury this negative publicity, both Gap and Levi’s spend
hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing, showering
us with images of cool. For years, those images, alternately
flashy and sexy and subdued, were, above all, white.
The formula seemed unbeatable: white models plus brown workers
equals mega-profits. Gap became the largest clothing company
in the world. Levi’s held its own, struggling at times,
but still flexing its iconic muscle. Youth of color continued
to be invisible, except in so far as they worked at garment
factories abroad. (Levi’s code of conduct allows 15-year-old
laborers to work 60 hours per week in its factories.) In
its marketing, Gap focused on selling khakis to the predominately
white professional class and their children, and Levi’s
left the power of its name on autopilot, selling denim to
teenagers in department stores.
Then, after hiphop awoke in the ’90s, reality slapped them
right in the face.
They finally got the hint, and the shift is evident on television
commercials and billboards across the country. Since 1997,
Gap ads have featured L.L. Cool J, Missy Elliot and Run-DMC.
Last season, Gap’s commercials featured deejaying, one of
the least-celebrated elements of hiphop. DJs Shortkut and
Rob Swift cut it up with Shannyn Sossamon, an up-and-coming
Los Angeles deejay. More recently, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes
and Shaggy sang in the “Give a Little” television ads, along
with India Arie and Macy Gray.
Levi’s focused its attention on progressive artists. It
sponsored a Lauryn Hill concert tour. It promoted Mos Def
and Talib Kweli before Mos Def’s career skyrocketed. Most
recently it has scooped up Black Eyed Peas.
But, like most of the fashion industry, Gap and Levi’s were
more than a decade late on hiphop.
a few years, well before Yo! MTV Raps, it was clear
that this was a massive movement that would influence everything
from fashion to automobiles to lifestyle,” says Irma Zandl
of Zandl Group, a New York-based marketing and trend consultant
whose clients include Gap. “Hiphop culture has gradually
enveloped mainstream youth culture not only in the suburbs
but also throughout the world.”
Why the lag? It certainly was not for lack of opportunity.
Hiphop has long been one of the most fashion-conscious cultural
phenomena in America. In the 1980s, its most popular artists
defined themselves with signature products. Run-DMC wrote
a hit song called “My Adidas” that transformed the shoe
into a cult classic. To this day, people rock the Adidas
that Run-DMC made famous. L.L. Cool J did the same thing
with Kangol hats. The list of fashion breakthroughs stretched
on through the years: biker shorts, Daisy Dukes, huge clock
necklaces, African medallions, fat gold chains, sportswear.
The brand consciousness reflects one basic truth about hiphop:
It emerged from despair. Black and brown youth, trapped
in fire-blown ghettos across the United States, used rap
lyrics to imagine an antidote to their desperation. They
watched as the so-called free market created two very different
worlds. In one, their own, emptiness reigned: empty pockets,
empty blocks, empty promises. In the other, every edifice,
every healthy child, every manicured lawn was a testament
to the euphoric, distracting power of capitalism.
Presented with this dual world, some rap musicians became
activists. Others simply proclaimed that the clear antidote
to poverty was wealth. These artists came to define popular
rap culture. They wore thick gold chains, leather outfits,
fur coats and eventually Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci, Donna Karan—symbols
of their success. In the rap culture they created, wealth
and fame could erase any stigma, even the oldest, most basic
manifestation of American racism: the idea that blackness
is ugly. Murdered rapper Notorious B.I.G., who grew up poor
in Brooklyn, once rapped about himself:
never/Black and ugly as ever/However/I stay COOGI down to
COOGI, a luxury Australian knitwear label, sells clothes
for more money than most poor people make in a week. The
company, which never capitalized on its hiphop potential,
is now teetering on the financial edge.
despite the clear evidence, it took the mostly white fashion
world another decade to notice that hiphop, perhaps more
than any other cultural phenomenon in contemporary America,
is a gold mine of mind-boggling proportions. Two things
seemed to block its vision.
One was racism. Rap triggered virtually every racial stereotype
possible in the white imagination. The race-fueled controversy
surrounding hiphop in its first decade was phenomenal. Unable
to move beyond this visceral disgust, and still enamored
of America’s basic whiteness, the fashion industry stayed
Its second blind spot was mass marketing. Companies like
Levi’s and Gap marketed to enormous young audiences—from
10-year-olds to young professionals. To cover such territory,
companies would shoot for the most common denominators in
their marketing strategies. They chose themes and images
that attracted the largest proportion of their audience:
middle-income white Americans.
But economists and marketers noticed that the middle was
shrinking. Economic policy during the 1970s and 1980s created
more wealth and more poverty while reducing the size of
the middle class. Race demographics also shifted dramatically,
especially in certain geographic regions, as people of color
made up an increasing percentage of the total population.
Suddenly, the old marketing strategy—aiming for the all-purpose
middle—no longer worked. In 1997, a market research firm
called Roper Starch released a report suggesting ways to
market to the “Two Americas.” The new approach was known
as two-tier marketing. Many companies, from banks to fashion
labels, created multiple marketing strategies for the same
products: One strategy targeted the wealthy, the other targeted
the poor. For Gap, this meant adding the high-priced Banana
Republic label and the discount Old Navy brand—three versions
of essentially the same product.
Once companies learned to divide their enormous markets
into smaller pieces, it became easier for them to recognize
the value of hiphop. Marketers learned to use hiphop strategically,
while using other approaches for other niches—often all
in the same marketing campaign.
But beyond two-tier marketing strategies, trend-spotters
like Zandl Group and Teenage Research Unlimited pointed
to the real bottom line with hiphop and marketing: White
kids with “purchasing power” were listening to it. They
warned that if apparel companies like Levi’s and Gap underestimated
the impact of hiphop on young consumers—not just on youth
of color, but all youth—they would “suffer dearly,” as Irma
Zandl put it. “Even today, as rock reasserts itself, hiphop
beats and hiphop flava are dominant.”
Tommy Hilfiger listened to the oracles. Tommy, one of the
companies trying to settle with the Saipan workers, was
among the first mainstream fashion icons to cash in on the
hiphop strategy. Its traditional marketing strategy relied
on heavy doses of American patriotism, sharp-jawed white
men, and New England atmosphere to compete with companies
like Polo and Calvin Klein for the men’s apparel market.
But then one day hiphop heads discovered the brand, and
Tommy was suddenly, almost effortlessly, the epitome of
cool. Without fully abandoning its traditional marketing
approach, the company cultivated its hiphop audience on
the down-low with strategies like giving rappers free shopping
sprees—and even clothing a hiphop Santa ornament for the
White House Christmas tree. Snoop Doggy Dogg performed on
Saturday Night Live in 1994 wearing all Tommy gear,
and Tommy sales increased $90 million that year, according
to industry estimates. On the strength of hiphop listeners,
the company’s sales shot past a billion dollars a year,
making it the blockbuster label of the 1990s. Tommy got
so phat that it even tried to buy its competitor Calvin
Klein—the gangster rapper challenging the preppy white model
to a fight.
Rumor swirled around Tommy’s rise to power, as some communities
of color were suspicious of the company’s real interest
in them. For years, urban legend reported various versions
of the same story: that Tommy Hilfiger, the man himself,
told the press (or, as I heard the rumor years ago, told
Oprah Winfrey) that he was disgusted by all these hiphoppers
wearing his clothes, because he was not designing clothes
with such people in mind.
Regardless of whether the rumor was true, it spoke to the
basic irony of hiphop and fashion marketing. In a white-
dominated industry obsessed by coolness, the underdog has
become the undisputed champion of cool.
And Gap and Levi’s are suffering for it.
Though no one believes they will collapse into bankruptcy
like K-mart, many think Gap and Levi’s waited too long to
join the hiphop parade. Gap itself refuses to acknowledge
that hiphop has played any role in its current doldrums.
Likewise, it denies any strategic reason for using hiphop
artists in its marketing, and claims no direct interest
in youth of color. Gap spokeswoman Rebeccah Weiss puts it
chose DJs Shortkut and Rob Swift, as well as India Arie,
because they are talented, we like their music, and most
importantly, they express unique personal style. We cast
them along with many other types of musicians in order to
reach out to many different audiences.”
Levi Strauss & Company, on the other hand, has been
more blunt: “Many white teens identify with black culture,
which they find powerful and attractive,” Marian Salzman,
founding director of TBWA Chiat/Day, Levi’s former marketing
agency, told a journalist in 1996. “A typical gangsta rap
listener is a 14-year-old white boy from the suburbs. An
in-your-face attitude is a marketing hook that screams authentic.”
This was a startling shift for a company that was an icon
of white American culture. The century-old denim pants were
the blue jean of choice for the Industrial Age and the Wild
West. By the 1970s, Levi’s had been marketed by James Dean,
Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
Basking in all of this white nostalgia, Levi Strauss &
Company was looking the wrong way when black and brown youth
turned the fashion world on its head.
has suffered dearly,” says Zandl. “Its popularity among
teen boys has gone from 28 percent in ’94 to 4 percent in
2001—a whopping 86-percent decline.”
In 1996, Levi’s began its hunt for black culture by launching
a television advertising campaign featuring young black
kids scaring the shit out of Wall Street professionals,
asking in the tag line, “Do you fear me?” The controversial
campaign flopped, but has been followed by many others,
including the most recent Black Eyed Peas billboard.
This trend infuriates Esperanza Garza, an organizer with
Fuerza Unida, which works with women and youth affected
by Levi’s plant closures in San Antonio. But she really
hit the roof when she saw Levi’s mega- popular Super Bowl
commercial this year: A young Latino, wearing Levi’s and
a tank top, was break dancing down the street in Mexico
City, listening to Spanish-language hiphop group Control
Machete (of Amores Perros fame). The featured break
dancer was 21-year-old Johnny Cervin, a Mexican-American
hiphopper from Los Angeles.
are trying to sell to us now,” Garza says. “We are the new
market. They can’t fool us. We know who they are.”
While the company courts black and brown youth, she says,
it continues to exploit their parents here and abroad. Levi
Strauss is closing its two remaining factories in San Antonio
in April and “negotiating contracts that are worse than
severance agreements in 1999.”
Jason Morteo puts it this way:
disappointing as a hiphop artist, and as a Latin American,
that I know something so wrong is done to my people, but
people are starting to go out and buy these clothes,” he
says. “People are so deceived, they don’t know the full
truth about what this company has done.”
Pintado-Vertner is codirector of DataCenter, a national
research organization based in Oakland, Calif.