The Softest Sell: Levi’s Photo Workshop

Posted in Events by Nathan Lee Bush on November 18, 2010

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How do you advertise jeans? This most durable material, denim, is also the most durable fashion trend in history. It’s one of those products, like coffee, which is woven into the very core of modern life. How do you sell a commodity so ubiquitous that it’s become banal? After all, coffee is coffee, and jeans are jeans, right?

Well, Starbucks and Levi’s will tell you a different story: it’s the branding, stupid. You have to sell a lifestyle, an experience. You have to take something that is fun and cool, and make your brand synonymous with it. And so, from the depths of it’s fathomless cash reserves, Levi’s has gone and constructed a theme park for creative adults and young aspirants, in the form of the Levi’s Photo Workshop. And what a theme park it is.

Even in over-the-top SOHO, the shopping playground where every brand courting the jet set plants a flag, the Photo Workshop is a sight to behold. You enter under a giant garage door into a cavernous, sweeping space running half a block from end-to-end.

There are two main rooms. In the center of the front space are couches with massive photo books for perusing. Along the right wall is a vintage camera rental counter, where a $100 deposit scores you one of a carefully considered catalouge of analogue classics for 24 hours. The left wall is plastered with pictures visitors have printed in the studio. Upstairs you’ll find the only evidence of a commercial venture: A tiny rack of jeans is theoretically for sale, along with a bunch of cool photo books like Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places. The books are priced higher than retail prices, but I was told the proceeds of the sale goes to one of four local charities of your choosing. This was the only room devoid of visitors I encountered. Making money is obviously not the primary goal of this place.

This front living room vibe is just getting you warmed up. In the back area waits the grand reveal: a humungous white cube of a room. If it wasn’t for the patches of equipment and strobes firing, I’d have thought I wandered into THX 1138. The space is filled at one end with full studio setups, completely free and available for public use (though you should bring a concept if you want to sign up for the main space). At the other end you’ll find a long table iMacs, fully loaded with all the software you could hope for, so you can edit and print your work. A corner filled with pro printers finishes out the final corner of the room.

For a one-off temporary event, it’s amazing how every detail is thoughtfully approached, all the way down to the building materials. Levi’s takes this already beautiful and pristine aesthetic space, the photo studio, and injects it with a reclaimed-wood look of a Williamsburg bar. It’s at once rustic and futuristic.

To top it all off, there are top notch evening events (workshops, openings, lectures) a few times a week.

On the surface, this would seem to be the most magnificent money suck since The Big Dig. No cash is changing hands and very expensive materials and real estate are being used around the clock at Levi’s expense. So how do I know their strategy was working? The first day the Workshop opened the coolest person I know emailed me to tell me about it. There seems to be some word-of-mouth guerilla marketing black magic at work here.

When I visited at three on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I was shocked by the crowds bustling excitedly around. I asked one of the specialists (outfitted in a denim worker’s apron, what else?) when it would be the less crowded so I could play with some of the lights. “This is about as quiet as it gets,” he replied. Sure, Levi’s is footing the bill, but they clearly understand the potential of associating your brand directly with an exciting industry and giving people the tools to approach it.

The Levi’s Photo Workshop feels like a giant philanthropic gesture to aspiring photographers everywhere. “Here’s $20,000 worth of equipment,” it seems to be saying, “now go make something cool.” When a young child, I went to Disneyland. Twenty years on, I recognized the emotion that coursed through my veins when I entered this space. Truly its a theme park for adults.

The Levi’s Photo Workshop is open until December 18th.


Nathan Lee Bush is a photo and video artist in New York City. His pictures are on his site and blog, and his videos are on Vimeo.

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