15 Ways of Looking at the Levi’s Workshop on Valencia

Among the occupations listed: philosophers, seamstresses, and bloggers.

Among the occupations listed: philosophers, seamstresses, and bloggers.

1. “Come in. Roll up your sleeves. Get your hands dirty,” says the sign outside of the Levi’s Workshop on Valencia.

2. Inside, nothing is dirty. It looks something like  a print studio, but a print studio in the hands of a set designer. The pump bottle of Gojo hand cleaner is immaculate, and perfectly complements the bundle of twine a few feet away. The printing presses  are labeled like museum exhibits. In the center of the room, two men with very large cameras are busily taking photographs of Alice Waters.

3. This is the story: Levi’s is launching a new line of work wear. Among its offerings: trucker jacket ($89.50). Chambray work shirt ($79.50). They hired Weiden + Kennedy, an advertising agency based in Portland, Oregon, and Weiden + Kennedy came up with this slogan: “We are all Workers.” They rented vacant retail space owned by Charles Phan, owner of the Slanted Door. Because the Levi’s workshop is  open for only two weeks, they were able to  circumvent the hearing process that chain stores are typically subjected to before renting commercial space in the Mission. Pants will be sold, but the proceeds will go to the nonprofits that are co-hosting the workshop events.

4. Among the offerings at the Levi’s store: free carpenter’s pencils in red, white and blue, printed with the messages “We are all Workers” and “Ready to Work.”

5. 104 years ago and two blocks away, Levi’s opened a three-story factory at 14th and Valencia. A crowd stood around the building at the opening, applauding. It was 1906. Most of San Francisco was still in ruins from the earthquake earlier that year.

6. When that factory closed  in 2002, only 100 employees were still working there. Manufacturing had moved to Asia, and only the most expensive jeans in the Levi’s line were still sewn on site. Like replicas of the Nevada jeans — a pair of ancient Levi’s discovered in a Nevada mining town and sold back to the company, on eBay, for $46,532. Their design was one that the company no longer had any record of  — lost technology, destroyed in the quake.

7. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Levi’s CEO Philip Marineau as saying that the closure was “hard in the sense that there are emotions associated with that history. The pure economics weren’t so difficult.” This was, the article said, Levi’s attempt to “right its troubled finances by becoming less of a jeans maker and more of a jeans marketer.”

8. But selling jeans requires emotions in a way that making them does not. And so, at Weiden + Kennedy’s suggestion, the models in the advertisements for Levi’s new workwear line are all residents of a city called Braddock, Pennsylvania. Many of them are unemployed.

9. Braddock is an interesting place. It was the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and Andrew Carnegie’s first library. It has done about as well as one would expect of a steelworking town in a country that no longer makes steel, which is to say: not well. Since the 1950s, Braddock has lost over 90 percent of its population. In 2005, Braddock gained a hip mayor with master’s degree in public policy and economics from Harvard. His name is John Fetterman. He arrived in 2001 as an Americorps volunteer. He now has Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his left arm.

10. Fetterman’s plan to refurbish Braddock? Marketing. One of the first things that he did as mayor was to put up an edgy website advertising the town. “Destruction Breeds Creation. Create Amidst Destruction” is spelled out in bold capitals on the front page. There is a section with blurry black-and-white Polaroid photos of abandoned buildings.

11. Fetterman has offered free studio space to artists who agree to move there. He’s turned the old church into a community center that hosts avant-garde events and all-night dance parties. Fetterman is pitching Braddock as
 an ideal location for startups. “An unparalleled opportunity,” as the website says, “for the urban pioneer, artist, or misfit.”

12. It could be argued that Fetterman is trying to replicate in Braddock what happened in the Mission — a working-class, industrial neighborhood that is well into its transformation into a place that doesn’t  make much except for ideas, and exceptionally good coffee. The theory has often been floated that urban pioneers, artists and misfits are integral to transformations like these.

13. Levi’s reports that it will be giving the town of Braddock more than a million dollars, plus some help with its urban farming program, in exchange for becoming its poster town. San Francisco gets donations for nonprofits like the Edible Schoolyard and printmaking workshops. What neither city is going to get much of from Levi’s, though, is a job that lasts longer than a few weeks.

14. “It’s great to be able to work full-time as a printmaker,” says Rocket Caleshu, normally employed by the San Francisco Center for the Book, one of the nonprofits involved with the workshop. “Those jobs are hard to come by.” Caleshu is working three jobs at the moment, she said.

15. It almost goes without saying, but every local person temporarily employed by the Levi’s Workshop comes across as fully aware of the strangeness of their circumstances — temporary workers, in a manicured environment. A young worker motions me over and says, sotto voce: “All of these ads say, ‘We are all Workers.’ Look at this,” she says, pulling back the waistband of a pair of work jeans ($97.50) to reveal the label, “Made in Cambodia.”

She looks so earnest, as though she is discovering this for the first time. “Where,” she says, “am I supposed to go to do this work?”

12 Comments

  1. David

    Great, thoughtful article.

  2. I second David’s comment — I really appreciate the mix of contemporary and historic.

    Here’s a nice addendum; this guy went to Cambodia to meet the workers who made his jeans: http://bit.ly/factorygrls

  3. puzzled

    numbering the paragraphs in this story seems a nonsensical gimmick. why?

  4. John

    Damn good, subtle piece.

    Wonder what Levi’s working conditions in Cambodia are like. I don’t mind that ‘we’ includes Cambodians in Cambodia, but I can see how people might find that dissonant.

    Also: Braddock like Marfa like Pittsburgh?

  5. Profile photo of Heather Smith Heather Smith Post author

    Thanks! Weirdly enough, there’s a lot of great reporting on the Cambodian garment industry. This piece by Rachel Louise Snyder is my favorite – she actually lived in Cambodia for several years (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/303/David-and-Goliath).

  6. Mark

    Excellent piece Heather. The one thing the Mission has that Braddock does not have is San Francisco.

  7. Profile photo of Heather Smith Heather Smith Post author

    Re: numbering the paragraphs. Sigh. a) I love Wallace Stevens, and I’m shamelessly and horribly copying him. b) it’s a cheap and easy way to get out of writing conventional paragraph transitions. c) I really, really love nonsensical gimmicks.

  8. Not PC

    Mixed messages here, with a very strong overtone which implies that Levi’s is a big, bad company which has done, and is doing harm to the sanctity of Hipstervi… er, the Mission District.

    As an ex-letterpress printer, I’m going to check out the workshop, which I see as a good thing. I was printing with lead type when it was still (just barely) a viable business, rather than the fetish process it has become. Hm, sort of the same thing happened in the Mission, hm? I’m not vandalizing or demeaning offset printing for taking my job, I moved on.

    Sure, economics have played a large part in the offshore move of manufacturing jobs; as did short-sighted and stupid management. So did unions, which continue to price themselves out of work. The latest complaint, “we don’t want to pay much (or anything) for our own healthcare!”

    I agree that in some cases, unions are necessary, or at least it seems so. Better management would probably work out better for all parties involved.

    I don’t like the high cost of denim myself, and don’t buy new clothes at all very often (thanks to bad management and the disappearance of my financial services job), but have any of the PC and union worshippers figured out what your jeans would cost if they were made in the U.S.? Don’t forget to include that nice pension check for the union workers, who are some of the few that even get a glimpse of a pension these days.

    I’ll be wearing my Levi’s to the workshop while I do some skilled labor.

  9. Great article. Great facts. Great connections. More smarts like this please!

  10. stevemcgee99

    @Not PC: Nice perspective, from an experienced person no doubt – thanks.

    You mention ‘bad management’ often, and I would agree. But also I’d extend that blame beyond the businesses to the government. Especially financial services job losses, where that whole fiasco was caused by ridiculous attempts at central planning.

  11. “everyone’s work is equally important” actually means “unemployed? keep shopping (because your abusers need to cover their investment losses.)”

    in the late 90s to early 00s, pioneering chefs prominently displayed that one can profit from working with small farms, and encourage those producers by making them profitable, by presenting (marketing) the food as high end dining. over the years, this has drawn attention to these practices, as American consumers have the habit of imitating the rich. that is now obsolete because it is detrimental to sustainability.

    in the East Bay, as far back as the early to mid-90s, there were what was described as ‘Vietnamese immigrants’ or ‘black people’ who raised chickens and grew vegetables to be sold for food in their back yards. that produce was sold throughout the SF bay area.
    of course, much fewer people heard about this. people learned about the availability of these crops through direct interaction or word of mouth, and their reach is not beyond their immediate surroundings. their operation was almost construed as illegal as well, because the produce was obviously not controlled by an inspection authority; they can easily be labeled as inferior by price-fixing grocery chains or stores who do not work with the local farmers.
    this was why high end marketing was effective for what we call sustainable farming today. it contrasts with that inferior perception.

    but by the same token, the high end association to sustainable farming is now detrimental to sustainability. sustainability needs to be accessible, so *everyone* does it within each person’s respective community. yet, many people perceive that buying from farmers’ markets would cost them more than buying from price-fixed grocery stores. the people who continue to market that industry to be high end has much to do with that perception. to continue on with high end marketing is irresponsible.

    this irresponsibility is shown once again, by these figures lending their names to be associated with a brand well-known for irresponsible behavior within its industry (which is far reaching and well known, and is partially described in this article.) the storefront is exploitative to people’s perception of the working class the way high end players have been exploitative to something as practical as local farming. as a prominent figure who represent the high end niche, Alice Waters showing up at a staged workshop makes the vanity salient.

    many parallels can be drawn; from exploitative marketing to detriment to their own industries. another parallel that can be drawn: it’s simply a lack of foresight and fear that keep both established companies and figures from changing their strategies. having to answer to knee jerk reactions to stock figures each day keeps the economy from changing and hold the people back. everyone knows what needs to be done, but are they going to get paid for doing so?

    for the millions of people who are working but not compensated, none of them needs brownie points from some advert for working. it is unfathomable that people need to choose between investing their time to standing in line for a handout and putting that time into generating value (work,) but that is exactly what is happening. just look around at your neighbors.

    people have the desire to know how best to generate value to revive the economy. rather than choosing between feeding, clothing, and housing themselves, they need to be able to do all 3 for their work. rather than being pandered to, people who work need to be properly compensated.

  12. Nice piece Heather… I went in a somewhat different direction, looking at the whole Levi’s campaign as an example of the latest efforts of Capital to co-opt our mostly unmeasurable creative output… it’s over on my blog at http://www.nowtopians.com.
    –cc

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