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Out and Proud: Why Levi's is More Than Rainbow Wear

by Emily Dinowitz
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jun 22, 2018

Consumer companies aiming to inject "coolness" into their brands via inclusivity campaigns, slogan-riddled products and socially-charged social channels, have become quite familiar, and are especially evident during this year's Pride month. Don't get us wrong, we'd rather live in an age where advocacy is trending and brand relevance is computed on a "do good" meter, but the campaign clutter does beg the question, which companies perpetuate equal rights outside of June's celebratory constraints?

Levi Strauss & Co., now in its fifth year of Pride celebrations, has championed equality in all of its manifestations for decades prior, evident in its ardent history and internal culture. As if you needed more reasons to cherish the golden child of American denim, Levi recently launched "I Am _," a Pride campaign honing in on self-expression via video profiles that showcase the unique identities and stories of LGBTQ community members -- inclusive of how said subjects fashion their denim. The clips are fun and sentimental, presenting diverse personalities, interests and adversities that make the campaign feel, well, human.

It wouldn't be a true Levi Pride celebration without ROYGBIV-infused apparel and this year features T-shirts and tanks with "I Am _." billboard-style lettering, playful accessories and of course, denim. All collection proceeds are donated to Levi's LGBTQ partner organizations: Harvey Milk Foundation and Stonewall Community Foundation.

The brand's LGBTQ support is evident in its Pride celebration history, teeming with thoughtful campaigns that pay homage to the pivotal historical events and movements that have shaped the community. In 2014, Levi's launched its origin campaign, inaugurating Pride-themed apparel and emblazoned denim, with proceeds benefiting LGBTQ organizations across the U.S.

Since then, the brand has launched campaigns honoring the Stonewall Riots of 1969, marking the genesis of the brand's work with the Stonewall Community Foundation, as well as spotlighting the work of Harvey Milk. Last year, Levi's honed in on the slogan "Fight Stigma," a term popularized by the widespread HIV panic-induced stigma characteristic of the 1980s, serving as a reminder to never forget the activists who fought for equality.

Levi's legacy in the LGBTQ community far surpasses an annual celebration, with decades of staunch support under its rainbow belt, consistently aligning itself with humanitarian causes since launching in 1873. According to the brand's website, founder Levi Strauss was a notorious San Francisco philanthropist, galvanizing a company culture rooted in human rights impact that now spans government lobbying, grassroots tactics, declarations of inclusivity via idiom-branded apparel, community organizing and charitable donations, spotlighting issues that range from the AIDS/HIV epidemic and same-sex marriage legalization to workplace race- and gender-based segregation.

Jennifer Sey, Chief Marketing Officer, notes that Levi's change-driven narrative is far from unwitting and is deeply rooted in its founding values. "Truly great brands transcend the goods they sell, and they emotionally engage people, connecting them to something more meaningful," she says. "Levi's has always stood for, and fought for, equality."

Levi's LGBTQ activist spirit stems from its organizational policies and actions. In 1992 it became the first Fortune 500 company to extend domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples, followed by a vicious legislative fight for same-sex marriage recognition, which included the filing of a 2007 Supreme Court amicus brief and later, fierce opposition of the Prop 8 amendment. Its fight continued in 2013 when Levi's joined a coalition of supporters urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), fighting federal restrictions on the interpretation of "marriage" and "spouse" to apply only to heterosexual unions.

Given this context, Levi's Pride campaigns feel like story pieces offering continuity to a profound narrative that manifests in its commitment to people, whether that be customers, business partners or employees. Its industry influence, popularized for championing equality via public advocacy, has branded the denim company a pioneer in its value system, which arguably originates from its internal company culture.

The brand's policy on people and equality states that it "aim[s] to influence how people around the world perceive and treat others," and does so by implementing supply chain practices that have paved the way for industry standards, prioritizing worker safety and environmentally friendly practices, desegregating factories well before legislation caught up and providing free HIV/AIDS employee education. Women's rights are not lost in the shuffle -- the brand works with HERproject, which educates factory workers on health and access to health services, and implements company policies in line with the United Nation's Women's Empowerment Principles.

Financial health is included under the internal culture umbrella. Launched by and for Levi's employees, the Red Tab Foundation provides a financial safety net for company workers, retiree and their families, as well as financial wellness education and programming.

Sey suggests that Levi's ubiquitous culture has evolved by placing values at the forefront. "We believe in profits through principles. Great companies are great corporate citizens and operate with integrity, empathy, and courage," she notes.

The brand's people-centric precedent, use of fashion as a change vehicle and refined knack for integrating apparel, philanthropy and culture are probably part of the reason that caring is now cool. As the architect of denim -- a clothing item suitable for the masses via its inherent malleability and timelessness -- Levi's proves its ideals to be emblematic of the very product it creates.

Emily Dinowitz is a freelance contributor working and living in New York City. Follow her on Instagram for sub-par photos of her Brooklyn exploits: @emilydinowitz


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