For decades, Levi Strauss somehow managed to combine being an American institution with being hip. Marlon Brando wore 501 jeans in The Wild One. The image of James Dean in his 501s, white shirt and leather jacket remains one of pop culture's most iconic images. But, by the late 20th century, it seemed that the brand was losing its gloss. Denim looked like it was going out of fashion, being supplanted by clothing introduced by "athleisure" brands such as Reebok. At the same time, Levi Strauss was caught in a pincer movement between low-cost retailers producing their own cheap jeans and high-end fashion designers like Ralph Lauren muscling in at the top end of the market. In 1999, in a year in which sales slumped by 13%, Levi Strauss shut down 11 factories in North America, laying off 5,900 workers and shifting production overseas. However, reports of Levi's demise proved to be spectacularly premature. Last week, investors piled into Levi's with shares opening at $22.22 each, more tha...

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