This is what ‘thrown in at the deep end’ means. Diana Dimitian has worked at Levi Strauss since 2015, and took charge of southern Europe for the parent company of Levi’s and Dockers less than six months ago. Significantly, the southern European headquarters for Levi Strauss are located in Paris, a stone’s throw from the Champs-Elysées. In other words, the energetic Canadian manager has had to engage with the French ‘yellow vest’ demonstrations at close quarters. But the situation did not faze Dimitian, who took over in her role from Santiago Cucci. Talking to FashionNetwork.com at the lavish Levi’s showroom in Paris, Dimitian outlined her plans and described her experience in the first few months in Europe.
FNW: Which differences did you come across as you switched continents? FashionNetwork.com: You took over from Santiago Cucci at the start of the year. You spent your career in North America, at Levi’s and, before that, in the footwear industry, with Ecco and the Wolverine group. What drove you to take up the post of VP managing director South Europe? FNW: What do you mean?
Diana Dimitian: Since last October, I was shuttling backwards and forwards between Paris and Canada. And I officially started in my role in January. After three and a half years as managing director in Canada, it was my first opportunity to enjoy an experience in another continent, to discover other countries and another market. Joining Levi Strauss had already been quite a challenge for me.
FNW: Which differences do you see among consumers?
DD: Because I spent 17 years working in the footwear industry. It was my passion. I knew all the players, everyone in the industry. But Levi’s huge asset is that it’s an international mainstream brand with an incredible history. Everybody has come across Levi’s. And at the time, Chip Bergh [the CEO of Levi Strauss] was engineering the renaissance of Levi’s. In the end, denim isn’t so different from footwear. One needs to understand the market segmentation, manage the market, manage the brand. What has really changed for me is that I was very, very closely involved with the product, with shoes, I spent hours on them. Joining Levi’s has released me from this obsession. It’s enabled me to engage with other domains like human resources and organisation, and to improve my operational effectiveness.
FNW: The denim market isn’t one of the most dynamic at the moment. What’s your take on the situation?
DD: Canada was a market where we operated almost independently. I oversaw all operations, and I devoted a lot of time to logistics in particular. Here in Europe, the Levi’s team is in charge of brand management only. The staff is focused on sales, marketing and merchandising. In Canada, it was a question of a market’s operational running. Here, it’s more a question of politics. France, Italy, Spain and Portugal each have their own specificities, their own relationship with the brand. And each market has unique situations, like parliamentary elections in Spain, a difficult environment in Italy and the ‘yellow vest’ protesters in France. Saturday is a peculiar day in the neighbourhoods around the Champs-Elysées. And in terms of distribution, the models are reversed.
FNW: One of Europe’s peculiarities is that it is home to the first stores featuring Levi’s women’s range only. Will you be opening more stores of this kind? FNW: Even though Levi’s has slowed down its growth rate compared to 2018, Levi Strauss grew 10% in Europe in the first quarter. Which is your biggest challenge? FNW: Levi Strauss was recently listed on Wall Street, raising $6.6 billion in capital. While you cannot disclose your results to journalists, can you tell whether this is a gamechanger in terms of your business operations?
DD: In Europe, franchisees have a lot of influence, and the direct retail channel is the most important. In Canada, multibrand retailers have the upper hand. While in the USA, it is digital channels and services that are growing the fastest.
DD: Among men, the more directional consumers opt for more fitted models. North America has a stronger focus on price. But globally, there exists a quintessential Levi’s customer, who is well aware of the 501 heritage. The [501 model] is our worldwide benchmark. The picture is more varied with women. In Europe, there is greater fashion awareness. The fits that are edgiest in Canada are seen as traditional in Italy. Above all, Europe is much more responsive to trends. Products must be an instant success here, while it takes longer to establish a product in Canada.
DD: In some regions, the denim market is decreasing by 2-3%, while it is stable in others. But denim is ubiquitous. For example, Gigi Hadid recently celebrated her birthday with an ‘Only Denim’ theme. Of course, a lot of Levi’s were involved! When a celebrity like her wears denim, it has an impact. Levi’s is at the core of [denim] culture. And, since 2012 and the work initiated by Chip Bergh, we are doing all we can to remain there. We work with music, with ethical values in campaigns like ‘Use Your Voice’, and through collaborations like those with Virgil Abloh, Heron Preston and Supreme.
DD: Santiago Cucci and his team expanded the business hugely in southern Europe. Omni-channel development is now our challenge. This means working on the connection between our brick-and-mortar and online stores. Also, having the same connection with [department store] partners like Galeries Lafayette or Le Printemps. It’s a formidable opportunity. The Levi’s experience must be the same everywhere, even if there might be differences in terms of products or categories.
DD: Levi Strauss invented jeans. We remain a denim specialist, of course. But we have introduced a series of innovations. Our t-shirts and tops have been quite successful. We transformed our shoes and accessories range, and expanded the outerwear range too. The difference is that now we work with the entire wardrobe. Previously, the focus was on our share of the jeans market. Now we are talking about our share of the apparel market. Customers coming to Levi’s must be able to find the right pair of jeans, but also the t-shirt that goes with them. As well as shoes, hats, jackets and belts. Few people are aware of it, but we are market leaders in belts.
DD: Where we can do so, we will do it internally, otherwise we are going ahead with Dobotex for underwear and Haddad for childrenswear. In the latter, [VP Europe] Seth Ellison struck a deal for the whole of Europe last year. We have a dedicated team focused on boosting our licensing operations. Eduardo Guerrero, who has worked in southern Europe, is in charge of this department.
DD: We will soon launch a series of fine t-shirts with graphic motifs. But we think this is only the tip of the iceberg. We are working on fits and new materials. We already customise jeans and jackets, and now we can do the same for t-shirts in some stores.
DD: Because of the stock market listing, this is one of the subjects we cannot discuss. What we can say is that currently we are operating three womenswear stores: one near Nice, one in the Marais district in Paris and one in the Bluewater shopping mall in Kent, in the UK. I think they are very interesting, because women clearly don’t shop in the same places and in the same way men do. For us, these three stores are laboratories where we can test promotions, interiors concepts and more. It’s fascinating, because we take greater risks with these tests.
DD: Our debt was rated, so we are used to operating like a listed company. No, in practical terms [the IPO] doesn’t change our day-to-day operations. The general manager, the CFO are still there, and so is the Levi Strauss family.
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