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One more time: Levi Strauss goes public again

Levi Strauss & Co., which gave America its first pair of blue jeans, is public for the second time. The stock, which is listed under the ticker "LEVI," opened for trading on Thursday up 31 percent on very strong demand. (March 21) (Credit: NYSE)

Levi Strauss & Co., which gave America its first pair of blue jeans, is public for the second time.

The stock, which is listed under the ticker "LEVI," opened for trading on Thursday up 31 percent on very strong demand and at one point changed hands at $22.90. The stock offering was priced at $17, above an originally expected range of $14 to $16.

As of the market's close, shares were at $22.56, up nearly 33 percent. 

In a rare move, the New York Stock Exchange suspended its "no jeans" policy on Thursday to commemorate the event, transforming its floor from suits and ties into a sea of blue denim, as its traders sported jeans and denim jackets.

More than 120 employees from Levi's global offices, including CEO Chip Bergh, all outfitted in denim, were on the trading floor. On Wednesday the NYSE tweeted, "Tomorrow we'll be in our 501s."

The 166-year-old company, which owns the Dockers and Denizen brands, previously went public in 1971, but the namesake founder's descendants, the Haas family, took it private again in 1985.

The IPO comes as the iconic brand is staging a comeback under Bergh even as it faces increasing competition and a changing retail landscape. Women are opting for yoga pants or other comfy athletic sportswear that can be worn every day. And the brand is also contending with a shrinking number of department stores, once its traditional venue of distribution.

But since assuming the helm in 2011, Bergh has refashioned the brand and image. It didn't chase after the yoga trend, but rather focused on enhancing the fit of its women's jeans with stretchier fabrics. Bergh also has created buzz with partnerships with celebrities like Justin Timberlake, while increasing Levi's marketing at events like Coachella, where Beyoncé performed in the brand's cutoff shorts.

At the same time, Levi's has been expanding online and juggling between selling to low-end and high-end stores. It has also been opening its own stores.

All of that has helped Levi Strauss turn in a 14 percent increase in sales to $5.6 billion for the year ended Nov. 25, 2018.

"Focusing on product improvements and diversification have been excellent moves," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, a retail research firm. "There's a lot of competition, but Levi's has always been the brand in denim. "

The timing might be right for Levi's. U.S. jeans sales appear to be on an upswing, increasing 2.2 percent to $16.7 billion last year after four straight years of declines, according to data from Euromonitor.

"Things go in waves," says Marie Driscoll, managing director of luxury and fashion at Coresight Research.

It wasn't long ago when Levi's was struggling with a big debt load and had grown too reliant on department stores. During its worst slump the company's sales went from $6.8 billion in 1997, when it helped to drive the Casual Friday trend with its Dockers khakis, to $4.07 billion in 2004.

Levi's is hoping to prove to Wall Street that there's staying power for a legacy name that dates back to 1853 when its namesake founder started a wholesales dry goods business in San Francisco. Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis invented jeans 20 years later after receiving a patent to create cotton denim work pants with copper rivets in certain areas like the pocket corner to make them stronger. By the 1920s, Levi's original 501 jeans had become top-selling men's workpants, according to its corporate website.


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