Is there a more enduring and ubiquitous item of branded wear than a pair of Levi’s jeans? The Coca-Cola of clothing, Levi’s are endlessly popular, instantly recognisable, unfailingly evocative, all but standard issue, and represent a brand that has become globally synonymous with its signature product.
It all began, however, nearly 150 years ago to the day with a patent filed by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis for rivet-reinforced denim trousers that was granted on May 20th, 1873. Strauss was a Bavarian immigrant who, after landing in New York in 1847 to join his half-brothers’ dry goods business, decided to move out West to open his own dry goods operation in San Francisco at the height of the California Gold Rush. Jacob Davis was a tailor and customer of Strauss’s. Accounts of the precise nature of their collaboration vary somewhat depending on who you ask, but suffice it to say that the two of them partnered up to create a design for a durable set of denim worker’s overalls with rivets strengthening the pocket seams that proved so successful it became the cornerstone of an empire.
Given the time and context, the company’s first customers were miners, but within a few decades Levi’s had started broadening their influence. Following the Great Depression, they courted another target market epitomising the American West in the form of cowboys via ads they placed in publications like Washington Farmer and The Arizona Producer. Soon enough their pivot to ranchwear paid off. Just as the Depression meant that Levi’s had to seek out new customers, many of the very ranchers they targeted needed to supplement their incomes by turning their working ranches into ‘dude ranches’ which were in turn patronised by wealthy East Coast tourists who themselves had to limit their vacation expenses by travelling locally instead of heading abroad. All of this cost saving would eventually turn into a windfall for Levi’s as tourists admiring the style of the cowboys they saw on vacation bought jeans as souvenirs and started wearing them as casual wear.
This prompted Levi’s first inadvertent foray into fashion and by 1935 they ran their first ads for women’s jeans in magazines like Vogue and elsewhere. Not long afterward, the Second World War would raise the brand’s profile in much the same way as the Depression had. When war broke out, Levi’s shifted gears and, at the request of the US Armed Forces, shipped their jeans to soldiers overseas all while women in factories and shipyards back home also started wearing Levi’s to work. Then, when the war ended, American soldiers either held on to their jeans and wore them back home or disposed of them in Europe, meaning that large qualities of Levi’s entered an entirely new market and sparked a feverish demand across the Continent. Thanks to WWII, Levi’s went mainstream and by 1950 they had produced 95 million pairs of jeans, each of which cost only $3.50 at the time.
In the 1960s the company found yet another eager target market among young consumers. Pivoting out of Western wear, they directed their efforts toward America’s fastest-growing demographic: teens. Aided in no small part by a clever collaboration with Jefferson Airplane, they successfully broke into the youth market and soon enough became a symbol of the counterculture. Everyone from rock bands to hippies to civil rights activists wore Levi’s in the 1960s and their cultural ubiquity soon made them a global phenomenon. During the Cold War, as a de facto symbol of the West, they became so sought after that a pair of jeans could sell on the East German black market for up to $500 a pop. By the late 1970s, the East German government relented and requested that Levi’s ship over nearly 800 000 pairs of jeans, which young Germans lined up to buy for 149 East German marks (roughly 74 USD).
By the time the Cold War ended, Levi’s — having already conquered miners, cowboys, soldiers, kids, much of the free world, and beyond — set their sights on another new target: the American workplace. Taking up in the early 1990s the mantle of Hewlett-Packard’s casual Friday initiative from the 1950s, Levi’s launched the department store khaki brand Dockers. With it, in 1992, they published a pamphlet entitled ‘A Guide to Casual Businesswear’ which offered examples of office-appropriate outfits featuring Dockers chinos and Levi’s jeans. For better or worse, business casual was born and, by 1995, Levi’s boasted a ten per cent increase in sales bringing them to a then-record total of $6.7 billion.
Today, by Levi’s own account, they operate some 500 dedicated stores worldwide and are available in more than 100 countries. They have grown into one of the world’s largest apparel companies and have become the best-known denim manufacturer globally. Yet, despite all of the change and expansion over the decades, perhaps at the core of the brand’s appeal remains a kind of timeless consistency. While no one can deny — and many a diehard denimhead will be quick to tell you — that the details and quality of a pair of Levi’s have changed a great deal over the decades, there is nevertheless a sense in which the DNA has remained the same. They still make simple, utilitarian, hard-wearing jeans that have somehow proven to be trend-proof. Their appeal has spanned decades, continents, and every conceivable subculture, with famous fans like Albert Einstein, Jack Kerouac, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Springsteen, Run-DMC, and Fran Lebowitz representing just a fraction of their millions of wearers. Of the original Gold Rush denim makers, they are the only ones to survive and, if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to wager they’ll weather another century and then some.
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