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10.20.99  
The Small-Biz Owner: Cultural Icon of the Millennium?
Now, real entrepreneurs are showing up in national ad campaigns for clothes

Fair warning, entrepreneurs. You're the official cultural icons of the millennium. It won't suffice to slave away in a garret and make millions by age 30. Now you have to be a knockout and model clothes on the side. Oh, and be a normal person.

The cultural pressure has been building for a while. But Levi Strauss has really raised the ante. The jeans company has chosen the entrepreneur as mascot for its newly expanded Slates line of menswear, with real live ones cavorting in casual-but-chic outfits in a national ad campaign.

For the models, it's the gig of the century. Levi's plucked six unknowns -- who were just "following their true course in life," according to a Levi's spokeswoman -- from behind the proverbial soda fountain and had legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon shoot their pictures. Each ad -- carried in the likes of GQ, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and Wired -- includes a blurb about the "Slates guys," as Levi's calls them. The three-month campaign, which ends in December, targets American men between ages 25 and 34 (the same age range as the models), because that's the demographic segment Slates is trying to reach. And -- Levi's believes -- that's the part of the population that idolizes entrepreneurs.

Are these guys really small-biz archetypes? Well...probably not in Kansas. Most are in design and media in New York or California, which may account for their fashion-industry connections. Take Frank Carfaro, 29, who designs custom metal furniture in New York. He's a welder. Son of a welder. Grandson of a welder, who made Beaux Arts cathedral decorations in Turin, Italy. He quit an analyst's job at Dun & Bradstreet to pursue his passion full-time. Three-year-old Desiron, which Frank started in a garage with his brother, Matt, has sales of $2 million.

The other entrepreneurs are: Alex Bueno de Moraes, a 29-year-old former importer/exporter and a partner in two Manhattan restaurants, the Zoo and Waterloo; Noel Laxamana, also 29, co-founder of San Francisco-based Classified Records, which features Asian and Filipino artists; Sam Calagione, founder of the Delaware-based microbrewery Dogfish Head; and Brent Fletcher, a freelance California stuntman who specializes in cars and motorcycles. (Sam and Brent are apparently shy about giving their ages.)

The photos promote the models' businesses as well as the clothes. Carfaro -- who bears a passing resemblance to Richard Gere -- poses in goggles and gloves on an ultra-sleek four-poster bed he designed. Slates recently debuted its new line to the fashion press in Carfaro's Chelsea showroom. Now editors want to use his pieces as props in other fashion shoots. Restaurateur Bueno de Moraes balances a stack of plates in each hand. Slates has also contributed clothes for the waiters at Waterloo.

Slates contends that it chose these men because they looked so ordinary. "We found when we tested the ads that what people responded the best to were ads that made them feel 'Hey, I could be that guy,'" says Amy Gemellaro, Slates's spokeswoman. Maybe, but couch potatoes they're not. Bueno de Moraes, with his dense bronze curls and impish face, looks like Mercury in flight. More people recognize him on the street these days than his model girlfriend, he says. Fletcher is pictured swinging off the side of a sports car, crash helmet in hand. Calagione's ad shows him in a dance pose, pouring a beer into a glass from a long way up.

So how did these guys get so lucky? In brainstorming sessions about the image for the expanded line (which was just pants), brand director Bobbi Silten kept returning to the idea of the entrepreneur as successful guy (it's a men's line) who doesn't wear ties to work but still wants to look stylish. The entrepreneur concept also appealed to the Slates folks because they see their unit as a small business within the Levi Strauss behemoth. Then the Slates marketers racked their brains for friends or acquaintances who look good on camera. (One model, graphic artist Greg Anderson, is actually an employee of Sony Pictures, not a business owner, but Slates decided he fit in because he followed his "true course in life" by switching careers.)

Levi's isn't stopping here with its entrepreneurial theme. It's also running a "Shortcut to Your Dream" contest to give away $100,000 to one small businessperson from a group nominated by 12 of the magazines running the ads, including Rolling Stone, Men's Health, Men's Journal, and Wired.

Men's Journal, which targets affluent young men, is raring to go, for one. Its nominee will be in the adventure-travel arena. Says Dani Rasmus, director of marketing and creative services for Men's Journal.: "This contest is a way of empowering our readers...More and more people are realizing that working for the man isn't the only way to go."

Feel left out? Don't worry. Slates will choose four more entrepreneurs for its spring ad campaign. So get your teeth bleached and invest in a decent haircut. If nothing comes of it, remember -- you're a cultural icon anyway.


By Margaret Popper in New York
margaret_popper@businessweek.com


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