Riveted to the past

Fading glory

Today's kids are looking with disapproval at that as-long-as-we can-remember staple of cool, Levi's jeans. It could leave a boomer feeling blue.

February 26, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

I remember feeling a stabbing pain not long ago when I asked my 16-year-old why he never wore blue jeans and he brought up the Dork Factor.

Say what?

"They look dorky," he said. "At least, no offense, the kind you wear."

Dorky? James Dean wore blue jeans like these, pal, and he was the coolest guy on the planet. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper wore blue jeans in "Easy Rider," the coolest movie of its time.

Springsteen -- the Boss! -- wears blue jeans. Even Mark McGwire -- the home run king with the bridge pier arms! -- wears blue jeans in those milk mustache ads.

"Whatever," the 16-year-old said. "You brought this up, not me."

"The blue jean is dying," I announced to my wife the minute the boy had left. "Soon it will be worn only by graying, heavyset men nursing a cup of joe at McDonald's at 7 in the morning while talking quietly about their prostates, or lumpy women with tired eyes who sat in the mud at Woodstock and now regret not running off with that stoned shoe salesman they met during the Country Joe and the Fish set."

Then, a story in the morning newspaper offered quiet confirmation of my fear: Levi Strauss & Co., the nation's largest manufacturer of jeans, was closing half of its plants in the United States and Canada and laying off nearly 6,000 workers.

The bottom line was this: Sales last year had declined 13 percent.

The venerable San Francisco jeans empire, founded during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, was tightening its belt after posting losses of nearly $1 billion. Increased competition from foreign manufacturers was one factor.

But so, undeniably, was this: Levi Strauss jeans, once the very epitome of hipness, have simply not been as popular with younger consumers in recent years.

According to an Illinois research firm cited in the article, only 7 percent of teens surveyed named Levi's as "cool," compared to 15 to 16 percent in previous years.

Then, near the end of the article, there was this, the final shovelful of dirt on the Strauss & Co. grave: Jeans from Tommy Hilfiger or the Gap were now more likely to be cited as cool than Levi's.

"It's all over," I told my wife. "We have lost this generation of youth. They . . . they'd rather wear Tommy Hilfiger jeans than Levi's. What a sick world this has become."

Still reeling from the article, I took a ride to the mall that evening to conduct my own unofficial jeans survey.

I headed directly for the escalator and the single most depressing location at any mall: the food court.

There are always tons of young people at the food court, I reasoned. And while they stuffed their fat little pierced faces with pita sandwiches and egg rolls and vegetarian chili, I could check out their duds and see what was what.

The results were pretty much what I expected.

Oh, sure, there were plenty of people wearing blue jeans, but these were mostly men and women in their 30s and 40s, for whom jeans have always been the uniform of casual comfort and cool.

There were lots of teen-age girls in jeans, but these were the retro, hip-hugging, flared-leg jeans of the '60s, causing the girls to resemble a legion of modern-day Marianne Faithfulls.

Young men (at least those at the food court) no longer seem to wear blue jeans, at least not anything resembling the Levi's I was wearing.

These young men wore cargo pants and khakis. In fact, the khaki count was off the charts, so much so that you expected a swing-dancing commercial from the Gap to break out at any moment.

If the teen-age boys wore blue jeans at all, they were the big, baggy jeans that droop below their hips, with a waistband big enough to fit a microwave oven.

(My 16-year-old bought a pair of these monsters from Old Navy or somewhere, didn't like the way they looked, and banished them to an isolated gulag of shelves in the back of his closet. He's back to all khaki, all the time.)

But the snug, faded, straight-legged blue jeans of Levi's fame?

Mostly, it was the Baby Boomers and a few older Gen Xers wearing those, in the usual anything-goes combinations: blazers and jeans, leather coats and jeans, nylon team jackets and jeans, etc.

On the ride home, I did a lot of heavy thinking, about jeans, about life, even about the food court. (How come the Chinese food always looks better than it tastes? Especially the fried rice.)

And that's when I realized this whole business with jeans boils down to two basic truths: Like everything else in life, fashion is cyclical.

And young people are hard-wired with a basic need to rebel, to be different from those who have gone before them.

Just as kids don't want to drive their father's Oldsmobile, neither do they want to wear their father's Levi's.

Fine, I could accept that.

But Tommy Hilfigers?

What are these kids thinking?

Kevin Cowherd, 47, owns at least 15 pairs of Levi's straight-leg blue jeans, some of them so old they are undergoing carbon-dating.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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