Tangled Up In Blue

Here's a chewy little stat: according to the Justice Department, arrests for violent juvenile crime plunged 23 percent between 1994 and 1997. Analysts attributed these results to a variety of factors, including after-school programs, vocational training and a high profile leadership role assumed by McGruff the Crime Dog. They are wrong. It was a fashion statement.The mid-90s was the era that wide legged blue jeans first came into vogue. Jeans have continued to spread and sag and balloon and droop ever since, until reaching the cartoonish proportions of today's style savvy thug.Jeans, once worn belted about the waist, now dangle precariously from the pelvis in utter defiance of gravity while exposing a massive upthrust of butt crack. Enough material goes into each leg to clothe a family of four. Ragged cuffs trail a block or two behind. No wonder kids today knuckle under to Johnny Law. They can't flee a crime scene without tripping on their clown trousers and going down in a twisted heap of piercings and pants.So they bide their time, waddling through the malls in surly, flapping packs, afraid even to venture outside to suck a butt. If a gust of wind were to catch under the acre of denim they're swaddled in, it could send them soaring over tree tops, leaving their startled cronies to gasp in unison, Duuude... you're like, gone.It is this very same trend that croaked the company that invented blue jeans. After sales nose-dived nearly $1 billion last year and their market share continued to erode, from 48 percent of men's jeans in 1990 to 25 percent last year, Levi Strauss & Co. announced that it will close 11 of its 22 plants in North America and cut 5,900 more jobs."Levi is a wonderful name. The problem is it has stood still," says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report. "It can be guilty of some arrogance in assuming the famous name would keep the product preeminent in the world."While other brands rolled out the bell bottoms, hip huggers and wide-leg pipes, Levi's held pat. If 501s were good enough for James Dean, they should be good enough for today's sneering punk, the company reasoned.In surveys by Teenage Research Unlimited, teenagers ranked Levi's as one of their three favorite brands until last year, when the manufacturer tumbled to No. 8. Teens drive fashion trends but that didn't seem to dawn on the company until recently, when it changed ad agencies and launched an aggressive series of ads targeting 15- to 19- year-olds.Problem was, the ads blew. Not in the same way that the Old Navy spots blew -- especially the ones with that woman who looks like Mr. Magoo in drag lurching around singing the praises of drawstring cargo pants -- the Levi spots were just painfully condescending. Gen Xers gabbing to the camera in that totally unscripted free-form, flight of fancy manner they have, the little chatterboxes. Talking tattoos, drugs, sexuality, relationships with parents and ditching class to catch one last wave. Ironic detachment replacing a sales pitch. The young folk weren't buying."There's certainly validity in what many of our critics have said: that we were complacent," Levi Strauss spokesperson Clarence Grebey said. "Our challenge moving forward is ensuring that we have the right product for today's consumers."But the bad news cuts even deeper for Levi's. They're being shunned by their core constituency: baby boomers. Scrape away their flaking veneer of nostalgia and boomers are icy pragmatists, total consumer mercs. Besides, that button fly becomes a cruel and vexing gimmick once arthritis sets in.Oh sure, boomers still squeeze into their jeans when the occasion warrants. Can't go catch the Stones in a pair of dress slacks and a blazer. But now, more than likely, they don Calvin Kleins, Ralph Laurens, Tommy Hilfigers or Todd Oldhams, ranging in price from $50 to $180 a pair.In all fairness, it's more than just a symbol of affluence, it's a matter of practicality. Boomers hung with Levi's as long as they could, ascending the plumpness scale in degrees, from Regular Fit to Easy Fit to Relaxed Fit. But once they had to go to a perky sales clerk and ask to see something in Cavernous Fit or Roomy Ass, it was time to switch horses.For several years now, designers have been uber-generous with their cuts, inflating sizes to keep an aging and spreading population feeling good about themselves and buying threads. My God, I've shriveled since college! Such shameless kowtowing seems to have paid off. Sales of designer jeans are one of the fastest growing segments of the market.But don't count Levi's out just yet. Wide-legged jeans can't stay in vogue forever. The fashion pendulum always swings back, thanks to the contrarian nature of teens. When Generation Y comes of age and sees photos of their lame-wad parents -- taken with a panoramic camera to keep from cropping out the pants -- and looking for all the world like a carnival attraction, a teeny marble-sized human head, perched atop a ratty wall of denim, obscenely tight, painted-on, vacuum-sealed blue jeans will become their uniform of choice.

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