On the Fourth of July, Levi’s and Nike SB released a capsule collection collab of apparel and shoes focused on Nike rider and Levi’s fanatic Omar Salazar. Levi’s has been involved with several other collabs in the action sports realm, including a film project with Girl and a line of snow gear with 686, but this new project marks a deeper focus for the demigod of denim, paving the way for a concerted push into the specialty skate sect.

On Levi’s end, the collection kicked off with a super-limited line of premium jeans, before it rolled out a broader release of the new 511s at the beginning of the month. To learn more about the brand’s goals with this line and how it plans to move forward in the skate world, including bringing on a dedicated skate rep team, after establishing this beachhead, we caught up with Joshua Katz, who cut his teeth in Quiksilver’s marketing department before joining Levi’s, where he handles global engagement marketing.

It sounds like this is the beginning of a measured push into the skate industry. Levi's has always been a favorite for many skaters, but hadn't really targeted the retail side. What are you guys doing to better support specialty skate retailers and how does this collection play into that?

Even though Levi’s has only recently begun designing jeans specifically for skaters, we’ve been part of the scene in one way or another since the very beginning.  You go way back to the days of “sidewalk surfing” and they were wearing “White Levi’s”.  In the late 70’s, they were all running Orange Tab Levi’s. Guys like Hosoi were cutting off and customizing their Levi’s Trucker Jackets in the 80’s. And we were leading the charge with slimmer jeans like the 511 in the early 2000’s when guys first started moving away from the baggy stuff  towards jeans that fit better.

But it’s true that, aside from a few fun projects with GIRL, The Berrics, Tommy Guerrero, et cetera we haven’t directly engaged the retail side of the skate community.  This is mostly because, until now, we weren’t fully equipped to partner with the shops in the way that they need and deserve to be partnered with. Sure, we have more expertise, experience and capabilities than anyone in the denim industry. And if anyone is going to design better jeans for skateboarding, it should be Levi’s.  But building the product and getting it out into the world are two different things.  We know just how unique the skate retail world is—a lot of us have been involved in it in one way or another.  And we are sensitive to the culture that surrounds it.

So before approaching skate shops with either our in-line products or performance products designed specifically for skateboarding, we wanted to make sure we had our ducks in a row. We assembled dedicated rep forces so that we could visit the shops one by one.  We tinkered with our back-end systems so that we could deliver products and manage inventory more nimbly.  We allocated resources so that we could help activate the shops through events and displays.  We tapped into the larger Levi’s promotional machine to build awareness around the products and drive customers into the shops.  And, perhaps most importantly, we made sure that the products we built for skateboarders were exclusively available at the places they prefer to buy their jeans: skate shops.

Flip through the Levi’s x Nike “Magalog” to learn more about the collab (to expand the images and read the text, click on the magnifying glass icon):

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Follow the jump for more on the brand’s goals and plans in the skate sector…

Check out details from the line and Salazar putting it through its paces:

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What are your goals within the skate community and what do you bring to the table to help specialty retailers grow their businesses?

We developed products like the “Commuter” and the 511 Skateboarding Jeans because we ride bikes or we skate and we want to be better equipped for the things we love to do.  So when we talk about our goals for the “skate community” or we reference the “skate customer,” we can’t help but include ourselves and our friends in the equation.  That keeps us honest. And it puts pressure on us to do right by the people in our community. That means striving to constantly introduce new products that perform better, last longer and are accessible to the people that want them. That means building long term friendships with the shops and other institutions that hold it down in the cities where we sell our products.  And that means leveraging Levi’s unique heritage to contribute something fresh and exciting to the larger skate culture.
What do you see as the biggest hurdles for Levi’s’s entry into and acceptance from specialty skate retailers and how do you plan to clear those?
Everyone is familiar with Levi’s, but not everyone knows what we have been up to lately. The biggest challenge for us at the moment is getting in front of each and every retailer and educating them on the brand and the products.  For some, it’s just a matter of providing an update. For others, it’s important that we take it all the way back to 1873.  But once people understand the depth and breadth of what we do and the value we put on innovation, craft, and community, it’s usually a pretty easy segue into the skate conversation.  But this process has actually been a blessing for us because it has given us the opportunity to both share our story and learn more about what is needed out there.  Beyond great product at a reasonable price, we hear the need for  product exclusivity,  a responsive small-account service model and sincere engagement in the community at large.  Luckily, none of this was news to us and we had already prepared our business accordingly. We are developing exclusive product for skaters that is only sold at skate retail.  We have developed a dedicated sales force that can work with each of our accounts on a personal, local level. And we have been expanding our existing alliances and programs within the skate community so that we can continue to be a part of the scene that are servicing.

Explain the distribution of this line. Are you and Nike selling it separately, or is it kind of a package deal for accounts?

Although Levi’s has sporadically distributed its products in the “action” channel, the brand didn’t have a dedicated sales force and was hesitant to open up a lot of the accounts that would have made sense for our products.  With this collaboration, and future efforts to build products specifically for skateboarders, everything is changing. We now have dedicated sales forces in both the US and Europe and we have everything lined up on the back end so that we can work with them to effectively and efficiently build our businesses together.  As you know, this is no small task.  And we are making sure to walk before we run.  But over the next six months to a year, we are hoping to develop relationships with a base of solid accounts so that the guys that want Levi’s jeans can buy them where they prefer to shop.

The web blew up when this was announced. How has the initial feedback been from retailers?

The feedback has been really, really good.  It’s especially rewarding to hear this level of excitement coming out of an entirely new group of Levi’s accounts.  It’s a great way to start this new chapter in Levi’s history.
How do these differ from regular 511's?
The fit and basic 5-pocket construction of the 511 Skateboarding is exactly the same as a normal 511.  But the denim that we we developed specifically for these jeans is really special.  The Made in the USA 511 Skateboarding Team Edition jean, which was produced in limited numbers and released only in core skateshops on July 4th, is built out of a virtually indestructible Cone Mills denim fabric that features Nike’s propriety Dri-Fit moisture management technology, stretch, and, most importantly, a Vectran weave that increases the strength while reducing the weight. Vectran is five times stronger than steel and, when woven into the denim fabric, looks, feels and performs better than Kevlar or any other high tensel strength fiber.

The 511 Skateboarding jean that dropped on August 1st is similar in appearance to the Team Edition but it doesn’t have Vectran in it.  This jean is still better than anything else that’s ever been built specifically for skateboarding.  Aside from the performance features that are hidden inside of the fabric, the jeans and Trucker jackets also feature a selection of subtle design elements including co-branded “Two-Horse Pull” leather back patches and co-branded shanks and pocket bags featuring Nike Skateboarding's signature wood-grain pattern.

From a production standpoint, how much larger is the run of the Team and Salazar capsule than the broader one?

The hand-numbered Made in the USA 511 Skateboarding Team Edition jeans were limited to 2,000 pairs.  Many shops were sold out before they hit the floor. The 511 Skateboarding jeans, which came out on August 1st, are still relatively limited but they may be a bit easier to get a hold of.

Working with Cone Mills and producing the more exclusive parts of the line domestically definitely resonate with a certain crowd, but perhaps not with a lot of skaters. How do you better tell this story to your consumers and skaters?
Cone Mills denim has been one of the key ingredients of Levi’s jeans for almost 100 years,  but they are still relatively unknown outside of the denim world.   Even though the Cone Mills brand might not be a major selling point for most skaters, it’s part of our DNA and we are proud to share their story and help people better understand what we have built together.  It may resonate with some and be lost on others. But I think the skate community, more than most, has a profound respect for craftsmanship and authenticity.  Skaters care where things come from and who is behind the products they buy.  And as we begin to build products specifically for skaters, we feel that it’s our obligation to give them access to some of the very few true American stories out there.
How do the prices vary between the jeans and the shoes in the two sections of the line?

The Made in the USA 511 Skateboarding Team Edition retails for $198 and the 511 Skateboarding retails for $98. Additionally, the Trucker Jacket retails for $128, the Omar Salazar LR  for $85 and the Nike Dunk Pro Low SB for $98.

How and where are you guys marketing this line to consumers?

As this is a global program, there are separate and unique marketing efforts tailored to each market. However, here in the USA we have partnered with Thrasher and The Berrics on content and launch events and we are also advertising through a number of other print and online media outlets.  We are also working with a lot of our new accounts to host smaller, local launch events at their shops--kind of to say “Thank you” to them for the support and to help them drive some energy around the product at a shop-level.

Then, of course, we have been making sure to get the product and the story behind the product to our friends across the industry to make sure they have a chance to put it to the test. We have a few other tricks up our sleeve, but, on the whole, we are trying to be respectful to the people, shops, and other brands that have built the community into what it is today. We aren’t trying to explode onto the scene and make so much noise that it drowns out everyone else. That’s not what Levi’s is about and that’s not the way we want to approach this. We are trying to make the best products possible for the people that want them. The best way to market this type of effort is to listen, learn, and build together.

What's the plan for the future in working with Nike? Is this a one and done or a multi-year deal?

This is the first time we’ve worked with Nike SB, and the first time they’ve worked with a brand the size of Levi’s. It’s been a healthy learning for both parties as we’ve both brought unique things to the table, and we’ve pushed each other in ways we might not have had we worked separately. As for the future, it’s wide open; ultimately, we think it’s best to listen to the skate community and let them tell us what they want from us moving forward.