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26 Mar

Michelle Gass on Life at Levi Strauss

Michelle Gass has placed on the trucker jacket — and it appears to be wearing in nicely.

The previous chief executive officer of Kohl’s Corp. landed at Levi Strauss & Co. as president in January. And now that she’s accomplished her first leg as CEO-to-be, Gass is able to step back out into the highlight, talking to WWD in her first interview since taking the high-profile post. 

It’s been a whirlwind few months with trips from the Levi’s homebase in San Francisco to Barcelona, Paris and London as she gets to know the corporate from the within while also overseeing the flagship brand in addition to digital and business operations.   

Gass has been working closely with Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh, who she described as an “outstanding partner and mentor on this journey,” and expects to maintain the corporate on the course that Bergh has set.

“As I sit here, 90 days in, the strategy seems really right to me,” Gass said. “And if you’ve gotten a method that’s right —  being brand led, [direct-to-consumer] first, diversification — that feels right. There are recent things that may come along of course, but to me, the ability is how we execute those opportunities and the team’s making progress.” 

She pointed to the 18 percent growth on the d-to-c business last 12 months, the indisputable fact that the non-denim business is now 40 percent of the portfolio and the continued expansion within the tops and girls’s businesses. 

RELATED: Levi’s Celebrating 150 Years of 501s With ‘Best Story Ever Worn’

The corporate’s net revenues rose 7 percent to $6.2 billion last 12 months, a rise of 12 percent in constant currencies. Adjusted earnings inched up $604 million from $601 million in an increasingly tough consumer environment.

“Where I initially can are available is, ‘How will we speed up?’” Gass said. “To me, within the short order, it’s about execution. How we take into consideration our go-to market, how we take into consideration our innovation pipeline inside these areas — there’s a lot opportunity, and that’s numerous upside.” 

Gass’ arrival at Levi’s is a culminating moment in her greater than 30-year profession, which began with a stint at consumer giant Procter & Gamble and included 17 years at Starbucks and a decade at Kohl’s. 

Immediately — as she runs the business alongside Bergh — Gass has just a bit little bit of space to take stock of what she’s learned along the best way and judge easy methods to push Levi’s forward. 

Gradual transitions in corporate power will be awkward with the long run and current chiefs angling for legacy and control, respectively. 

Chip Bergh

But Bergh — who turned around what was a stumbling jeans giant, successfully took it public and put it on offense — has made it clear that a solid hand off to a robust leader is a key a part of his job. 

And Gass appreciates the approach as she preps to grow to be CEO by mid-2024. 

“It’s working incredibly well and exceeding my expectations,” she said. “Chip and I actually have known one another for 10 years and…had built a extremely close relationship. I feel we knew coming into this that we could do that together. And it has played out that way.

“Yes, we now have an prolonged transition,” she said. “I think this can be a gift to be with a CEO who I deeply admire and respect and to learn as much as I can from him during this process is amazing because I need to ensure that as he departs and retires off to his next chapter that I’ve benefited from all his knowledge, we’ve benefited from a time together and that we’ve helped set this company up for fulfillment. And I think this process could be very much doing that.”

While Gass is traveling world wide with a plan to hit all the corporate’s major markets by the tip of this 12 months, she is on far more than a listening tour. She has what she described as “an actual job” that was previously handled by two executives, overseeing Levi’s in addition to the more budgeted minded-Signature by Levi Strauss and Denizen brands and running the business division. 

That has her in control of 85 percent of the corporate, overseeing all the things from product design to sales. 

“I’m actually really excited to have each of what were prior separate teams all under my leadership without delay to begin going after a number of the opportunities that Chip and the team identified before,” Gass said. “But how can I help speed up those things while strengthening the leadership of those two critical groups? My responsibility within the short order is to drive the Levi’s business to assist the teams work more closely along with shared priorities, aligned goals.” 

While Levi’s more d-to-c future growth story continues to incorporate loads of brick-and-mortar stores, Gass is clearly excited in regards to the brand’s e-commerce opportunities. 

“There may be numerous upside in that business,” she said. “And whether that’s the loyalty program, the app — I mean, in my prior two lives, I’ve seen the ability of each of those things.”

That has a bit little bit of Starbucks and Kohl’s coming to Levi’s. 

“Kohl’s is an $18 billion retailer here within the U.S.,” Gass said. “Once I joined Kohl’s, the digital business was right around a billion. Once I left, it was $6 billion. We built numerous omnichannel capabilities to do ship from store, buy online, pickup in store, just all types of capabilities, curbside, you name it. And so knowing easy methods to leverage each of the channels individually, stores and e-commerce, construct each on their very own, after which in fact harnessing the ability of each.”

Ian Berry pop up mural Paris Place de la Republique Levi's 501

Ian Berry’s pop-up mural celebrates Levi’s iconic 501 jean on Paris’ Place de la Republique.

Maxime Telesinski | 001symbol / Courtesy Levi’s

Levi’s is a business that has numerous levers as well.

It has its own stores and e-commerce plus a still-substantial wholesale operation and, outside the denim world, Dockers and Beyond Yoga.

Nevertheless it is the Levi’s brand itself that’s the true star — and an enormous a part of that brand’s heritage is its readiness to lean in on issues that go far beyond fashion. 

Levi’s, for example, declared access to abortion “a critical business issue” because the Supreme Court prepared to strike down Roe v. Wade and, in 2016, asked customers to not bring guns into its stores after a consumer by chance shot himself within the foot in a dressing room. 

While accepting the WWD Honor for Corporate Citizenship on behalf of Levi’s in 2021, Bergh acknowledged the results for taking such strong positions.

“Once we decided to weigh in on the gun violence issue, I had unmarked police cars in front of my house for a pair weeks,” Bergh said. “I had death threats, however it was the appropriate thing to weigh in on.”

He said carrying on that tradition of standing up for vital issues was a component of his succession planning. “You wish a CEO who has thick skin, who’s not afraid to stay their neck out for the corporate since it takes thick skin to do it,” Bergh said. 

Gass — who’s risen to the highest of the still male-dominated retail world and squared off with activist investors at Kohl’s — said she does have the requisite thick skin and is totally willing to place herself on the market. 

“Amongst many the reason why I wanted to affix LS&Co. was because how values and purpose-led this company is,” she said. “I actually have all the time been driven that way, if I am going back to my Starbucks days, surely spending near 17 years there where culture and values are at the middle of that organization.”

Likewise, she said she was happy with her work at Kohl’s to grow to be more vocal on diversity. 

“Here at Levi’s, I’m just really excited to follow within the footsteps of Chip and other leaders to proceed to be very purpose driven, values led,” Gass said. “I like the values of the corporate around courage, originality, empathy, integrity. Those align with my values. And what does that mean? It does mean that we take a stand and we’re not afraid to publicly talk in regards to the things that matter to our employees and that matter to our customers.”

Gass’ ascent to the C-suite is a press release of its own. 

“I feel as a girl leader, we don’t have enough of them,” she said of the style industry. “I all the time need to find a way to advocate and be a task model for girls — well, and men for that matter — of all ages, to assist them reach their aspirations. But definitely as a female leader, I feel an amazing sense of responsibility to be an advocate for more future female leaders.”

So Gass is doing a bit little bit of all the things — serving as role model, pushing the accelerator on the brand already growing and preparing to step up again as CEO, where the focus will get even brighter, as she well knows from her time at Kohl’s. 

“While you’re a pacesetter of an organization, you’re proving it on daily basis,” Gass said. “While this company has been on a tremendous run, you’ve gotten to earn it on daily basis. And that’s what I think. I work for our shareholders, our stakeholders, our teams and our customers. And my job is to ensure that I can unleash the talent on this incredible organization and that we are able to achieve the daring goals that we’ve set forth. And I couldn’t be more honored to find a way to do this.”

levi's commercial kingston jeans 501

Levi’s celebrated 150 years of 501s with a glance back at its history.


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