Asked & Answered | Levi Strauss & Co. | A Continuous Lean.

Asked & Answered | Levi Strauss & Co.

Aug 24th, 2009 | Categories: California, Denim, History | by Michael Williams

Not too long ago — in an effort to insult yours truly — someone accused ACL of becoming “The History Channel’s” blog. The commenter was attempting to offend, but the remark accomplished only the opposite. I can think of a lot of worse things this site could be. History is the basis for everything that is ACL. With that said, when the opportunity arose to spend the afternoon with Lynn Downey the Levi Strauss & Co. archivist and historian, I could imagine of no better way to enjoy a summer day.

Levis_4

A pair of vintage jeans c.1901-1922 from the Levi Strauss & Co. archives

ACL: It seems like you have a pretty amazing Job, how does this come about, how do you end up becoming the archivist for Levi’s?

Lynn Downey: Sheer amazing luck. I heard that the company was hiring an archivist for the first time in 1989, and my bachelors degree is in History and my masters degree is in Library and Information Science, but I specialized in archival administration and I applied for the job and I got it in December of ’89.

ACL: You didn’t know anyone? No inside track or anything?

LD: No, I just heard about it through the archivist network, that there was this job opening up at Levi’s — and I am the third generation of my family, at least, to wear Levi’s — plus, I’m a writer of California history. I’ve been publishing for years and it seemed like a great opportunity to take a collection that was in chaos and make a working collection out of it, which is always really exciting.

ACL: How much has the Levi’s archive grown since you have been on-board?

LD: When I started my job we had one pair of jeans that was made before 1900, we now have eleven. There were maybe two hundred and fifty pieces of clothing, we now have over five thousand pieces of clothing. There was already a pretty significant collection of documents and photographs, and that’s pretty much stayed constant. And we had lots of great old marketing stuff — which is something I buy on the open market — old fliers and hand bills from the nineteenth century. We have a huge warehouse South of San Francisco where we keep a lot of stuff. (In chimes the Levi’s PR person: undisclosed location!) Completely undisclosed location! (laughing) Don’t even dare ask me where it is. (Laughing.)

ACL: (Pause) Um…I need the address.

LD: (Laughing.)

ACL: And the combination…

ACL: So if an amazing pair of Levi’s were found in a Nevada silver mine in 1988, who would handle that sort of thing? Would it just be ignored? From reading the 501 book, it seemed like back in the older days people would send in their “vintage” denim and Levi’s would just say “thank you,” send the customer a new pair and that was that.

LD: That happened a lot way back in history, but when the whole vintage Levi’s thing happened in the mid eighties the company was absolutely unaware of it, and I wasn’t even aware of it. So I’m starting my job — and I guess people had occasionally called the company to say they had vintage jeans but nobody [at Levi's] did anything. So people are calling me saying “I’ve got a pair of ‘Big E’ jeans’ and I would say. “You have what?” I mean, I knew nothing about the vintage market, but I have been working with this one dealer in Santa Monica my whole career and he really helped educate me about the vintage Levi’s market as I was learning the history, as I got started in my job. But, as soon as people realized that there was someone at Levi’s buying this stuff we got all the phone calls — and the company has given me a generous acquisitions budget every year because they understand how important it is, to have these materials in the collection. First, just because of the heritage — we invented the blue jean and we must have the definitive collection — but also a lot of these pieces are recreated through Levi’s Vintage Clothing, special limited edition pieces and so on.

Levis_3

ACL: Something I have always thought is interesting — and this relates to the vintage market — up until a certain point, say around 1950, Levi’s weren’t sold on the East Coast. So all of the old old Levi’s dating back to the early 1900s are found out west. Is that because Levi’s was just a West Coast regional thing?

Well, it started just as a regional thing, we had the lock on the West and other brands had their own consumer segments. I believe Lee had the South sort of sewn up, and there were some other brands, I think Lee included, that were known in New York. It’s funny, you could always tell where someone was from; if they said “jeans,” then they were from the west, if they were from the East they called them “dungarees,” you could immediately tell where someone was from.

But after World War II the company really realized that with the rise of the baby boomer and the new generation of children that were growing, and with all of the new suburbs that were being built there was a good opportunity for us to expand nationally. The other thing is, that Levi’s continued to be a dry goods wholesaler all the way through WWII. At that point we said. “We don’t need to do this anymore. This represents something that is an anachronism, we don’t really need to be this. But what we have is an incredible collection of manufactured products and we’re going to introduce it back East.” I think it was just pure opportunity.

That is how we began to penetrate the East, with very basic advertising that said that Levi’s were “Right for School.” Because boys in the west wore Levi’s — and I know my dad did — wore Levi’s to school. So that advertising was a way to show that nice clean cut young men were wearing blue jeans, because by the mid-fifties it was the era of the bad boys of cinema.

Levis_2

Levis_1

The quintessential “bad boy in denim movie” is The Wild One with Marlon Brando. Scary guys on motorcycles in denim, white tee shirts and black leather motorcycle jackets that terrorize a town. That movie was originally a short story called A Cyclists Raid by Frank Rooney, and it was based on this infamous incident in Hollister, California — which is in the middle of nowhere in the Central Valley — where the Hell’s Angels came into town, I think in 1947, and they’re all drinkin’ beer and they’re carousing, whatever, but they didn’t do any damage. They sort of just were having a big party, and then Life Magazine posed a guy in the gutter surrounded by empty beer bottles next to his motorcycle and said. “This is what happens when all of these motorcyclists come to town.” It was a totally made up photo. So this guy Frank Rooney writes this story about a motorcycle gang coming into a town and it was kinda scary — and they turned it into the movie The Wild One. But! In [Frank Rooney's] story they’re wearing motorcycle khaki jumpers, and not denim. But when they went to make the film, code for “bad boy” in film by the mid-fifties was denim. So when they rode into town on those motorcycles [in The Wild One] and they were in denim, immediately [the locals] knew they were going to be trouble. If they would have rode into town in the khaki jumpers people would have thought that the highway patrol was there. That’s how quickly costume designers and directors could make a statement about their characters, simply by what they were wearing.

Marlon_Brando_The_Wild_One

ACL: Was that true [that bad boys were wearing denim] or was that just costume designers and directors projecting that on the characters?

LD: One thing that was happening, literally, was a lot of WWII soldiers had come back from the war where they had been risking their lives for four years and they were expected to come home and move to the suburbs, start having babies and wear the gray flannel suit and work. A lot of these guys were like, no! And they put on their jeans, got on their motorcycles and they hit the road. Or they were like Jack Kerouac, and the guys would say, “this is not my American dream.” And this was terrifying to America and the establishment that was trying to impose order to a society that had been in chaos for four years because of the war. So these guys were demonized, but they were doing nothing. They were demonized because they weren’t conforming and they were wearing jeans. So people just made this leap culturally, and then Hollywood absorbed that culture for film.

To be continued…
Comments: 41

41 Comments to “Asked & Answered | Levi Strauss & Co.”

  1. nick
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 8:48 AM

    quality. i wish this were the history channel blog.

  2. Brian
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 9:40 AM

    What is the 501 book?

  3. STONER
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 10:45 AM

    I’ve had the fortune to work with Lynn and I really couldn’t be more envious of someone’s career! She’s done an amazing job at the archives and she’s, in part, spawned an entire industry of Japanese selvedge denim, to name just one. It’s an amazing period of time to be a denim freak and the fact that Lynn is so accessible is a real testament to her work ethic.

    One slight correction, though: during that weekend in Hollister in 1947, it was Wino Willie and the Boozefighters MC who could really claim responsibility for the spark that ignited the “Wild One” frenzy. The 3-patch club is still active and I think one of the guys who were there that weekend is still alive…

  4. Scooter
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 11:26 AM

    Being a business geek, I would love to know how the whole denim industry came to be and how the players fit together. Lee was mentioned, where did Wrangler come in, what denim companies that lost (went out of business), etc. Was Levi’s the first denim co.? If not, who?
    I’m Bill Kurtis….

  5. TJKingKong
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 12:11 PM

    I want khakis with that buckle in the back. I will take denim with that buckle in the back also. Who are we going to convince to make them for us? I suggest Bill’s or J.Crew.

  6. Jon
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 12:33 PM

    I sort of wish I could have this blog delivered to my house on a monthly basis in some sort of paper form. would love to read it over breakfast, but breakfast and computers are not friends.

  7. Michael Williams
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 12:39 PM

    Brian — I think the 501 book is internal or something. I tried to find it on Amazon but don’t see it. I think the LVC folks gave it to me. http://twitpic.com/f46tm

    Scooter — did you seriously just ask if Levi’s is the first denim co? You’re pulling my leg right?

    Jon — I’d like to say I was working on that. Maybe a Kindle is the answer?

    —ACL

  8. chaz
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 1:06 PM

    You get that book when you buy LVCs. Or at least I did.

  9. jfox
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 1:48 PM

    librarians for the win. who else needs an archivist… i have my eyes trained on a few (talking to you Orvis/Carhartt)

  10. Jon
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 2:10 PM

    Haha, I think I’ll just print off your blog and staple it together.

    in response to TJKingKong…

    I think I may have just the ticket. A small Japanese denim company by the name of Ooe Yofukuten do a pair of jeans called the Logger… They’ve got the buckleback and everything. The nature of Ooe revolves around the consumer being able to customize their product, and as such you would easily be able to order a pair of Loggers in a khaki-esque fabric and they’d ship ‘em right off to ya.

    Take a look here to see the Logger: http://ooe-yofukuten.com/05.html

    and email info@ooe-yofukuten.com for prices (should be around $120) and more information. Also, don’t be intimidated by the huge amount of choices you’d have. I believe they have somewhere around 150+ fabrics to chose from… I forget what number the khaki bit is, but the model you’d eventually want is XX05 (XX being the khaki fabric number)

    So yeah. Don’t you love the internet! Now you can get what you want.

  11. Jon
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 2:13 PM

    ALSO …

    Nom de Guerre does a utility jean that might tickle your fancy…

    http://www.contextclothing.com/item.php?id=837

    bit more expensive, and may not be worth it as with Ooe, those guys (it’s just two) put your jeans together themselves and the quality might even be a bit better.

  12. spacelounge
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 2:32 PM

    Levi’s was not the first denim/jean brand. There were others before them but what they did was use rivets instead of thread to secure the pockets to the pants, which is also what they got their 1873 patent for.
    But perhaps even more significant to Levi’s success was their building of a brand and the use of branding on the outside of the garment, something that hadn’t been done much before. A testimony to how powerful branding was, is that _everyone_ does it today.

    While Levi’s for sure are iconic etc., there were other brands too at the same time, making essentially the same thing. Not everyone wore Levi’s all the time.
    There are tons of unbranded jeans or jeans from small brands that we don’t know much about from the early 20th century, sometimes the jeans were even handsewn.
    You can also find jeans that look very much like Levi’s, with the same detailing and rivets and even the arcuate. The reason for this was of course that Levi’s had a good product and reputation, and that these brands wanted to sell based on it.

    Levi’s has a great history, but workwear does not equal only Levi’s and I think sometimes the Levi stories should be taken with a grain of salt, or at least that they should be complimented with other accounts of what life was like back then.

    I guess my point is.. that Levi’s was not the only one. The others just aren’t around anymore(Key) or as active in the heritage niche(Wrangler, Lee, Big Smith), so we hear more from and about Levi’s.

    Btw, great interview Michael.

  13. David
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 5:14 PM

    Very well written. I appreciate how much ACL is dedicated to bringing to light the contributions of American icons to our collective national history. When you think about it, Levi’s has influenced fashion more than people realize. Ralph Lifshitz wore Levi’s. Calvin Klein wore Levi’s. Giorgio Armani wore Levi’s (Giorgio still wears Levi’s even though he markets his own jeans at over $200 a pair). All were inspired by Levi’s, not just the jeans themselves, but the American spirit the jeans embody. Levi’s is part of the fabric of America.

    Thanks ACL for keeping us in touch with our history and for helping us discover those who are honoring the old craftsmen and artisans by continuing to hand-make goods in America.

  14. Sailor Tony
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 5:26 PM

    @Scooter

    There’s a book called by James Sullivan called Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon that goes into the history of pretty much all of the major (and obscure) brands in denim history.

    Also Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks by Paul Trynka is a great resource on denim history.

    Both are available on Amazon

  15. newgrass
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 5:44 PM

    Very interesting and informative. Looking forward to the continuation. Where are those photos from? Are those part of your (Michael) or Lynn’s personal collection?

    It’d be awesome for Levis to take their archival collection and put it into a public museum or something. Even a comprehensive book of all the stuff they have archived would be cool.

  16. Paul
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 6:07 PM

    History is OK with me. I love it in all its contexts. Its the place to learn. And in this post – I learned something – thanks for your keeness.

  17. Scooter
    on Aug 24th, 2009
    @ 10:24 PM

    Thanks, Tony.

  18. Kolby
    on Aug 25th, 2009
    @ 12:30 PM

    awesome post here!

    I was shocked to find her email address posted on the Levis website when researching some vintage jeans. I couldn’t believe I could just email someone like her and she would actually respond and help me find more info.

    I would be very interested in seeing how the vintage jeans have influenced modern styles. Sort of an evolution of Levis.

    Looking forward to part 2

  19. Jared
    on Aug 25th, 2009
    @ 3:09 PM

    great interview… great questions

  20. Andrea
    on Aug 25th, 2009
    @ 10:51 PM

    I live in the hope that someday Lynn will post an image of the 1918 “Freedom-alls” on the web site – early 20th century women’s workwear is on the scarce side. I’ve seen some of the patent information from that period, but not the garments themselves.

  21. Classics Patriot
    on Aug 26th, 2009
    @ 1:16 AM

    So when are they going to start making Levi’s in America again? And I mean the whole product line.

  22. Scott U
    on Aug 26th, 2009
    @ 11:44 AM

    A minor correction: Hollister is not in the Central Valley, and is merely on the edge of nowhere. It sits about a half-hour south of San Jose, on the west side of the Coast Range — many other California towns have a better claim to be in the middle of nowhere.

  23. robbie
    on Aug 27th, 2009
    @ 2:36 AM

    anymore info on the XX line you mentioned becoming available at several US retailers?

    up until that post, Japan and Cultizm.com were the only places i knew of consistently carrying the brand.

    also, there were a lot of other jeans around, but levis made jeans acceptable for all people to wear.

    my grandfather who lived through the depression, migrated to california and then back to Oklahoma won’t wear jeans… there was a stigma he says that was attached to people who wore jeans back in those days; they were dirt poor, had been to prison, or both. he said he had to wear jeans, no one wanted to… its what they had. they were durable, they lasted, but you damn sure didn’t wear them to town.

    the fact jeans are accepted, and are worn in public and by women is something which can be attributed directly to levis and its marketing.

    i wish levis marketed more than the just the 47′s from the LVC line, the sunset chambrays and their t-shirt line are badass.

    robbie

  24. Andrea
    on Aug 27th, 2009
    @ 10:30 AM

    Thanks, Tony.

  25. Rob
    on Aug 28th, 2009
    @ 9:34 AM

    @ TJKingKong,

    Dockers sold some special edition K1 khaki´s in Europe this year with buckles in the back. They´re expensive but very nicely done with selvedge cloth and nice detailing. I think they´re not really based on actual historical items, but rather made to suggest the pre war era.

    you can view them here:
    http://doshaburi.shop.multilingualcart.com/goods.php?lang_id=en&goods_id=1275
    http://doshaburi.shop.multilingualcart.com/goods.php?lang_id=en&goods_id=1393

  26. t. rex
    on Sep 1st, 2009
    @ 11:43 AM

    http://www.healthesmoke.webatu.com/

    Jeans were sturdy and very long lasting back then.In the past 20years, Even GOOD brands like Levis have lowered their quality to the point that a new pair of 501′s will begin fraying at the seams and sprouting rips and tears within a year if not less.I bought a pair of 501′s when I was 21 that were still whole unripped and VERY comfortable 15 years later.EVERY pair I have bought in the last 10 years have ended up in the trash in less than 3 years. the Levi name is NOT synonymous with long lasting quality anymore, now it just means OVERPRICED crap.

  27. Bud P.
    on Sep 3rd, 2009
    @ 9:48 AM

    The 501 Book is a book that was attached like a hangtag to special edition jeans sold definitely in London (I got mine at either Son of A Stag or Butcher of Distinction)…anyhow, it is amazing. It is bound in a muslin cover, and the book tells the story of key jeans from the Levi’s archives. It is a fantastic thing.

  28. Dean
    on Sep 5th, 2009
    @ 9:28 PM

    Levi’s is really is the original- it’s the only jean a man should ever wear

  29. J.C.
    on Sep 8th, 2009
    @ 5:40 PM

    t. rex – what is your definition of overpriced?? I manage a Levi’s retail store and we carry jeans priced from $14.90 – $78.00 (that INCLUDES ‘premium’ and selvedge denim.)Try finding a pair of “designer” jeans for that price. Our prices easily rival Lee, Wrangler, etc., and just as with any clothing retailer, certain styles and fits will be more expensive than others. And as far as quality, Levi’s is still at the top of the game when it comes to making jeans that last. If your jeans are falling apart within a year, you might rethink your methods of cleaning your jeans – washing in cold water and hanging up to dry, or dry cleaning, are the best ways to keep your jeans lasting for decades (yes, decades!!)

    Also, a slight correction to spacelounge’s post: The rivets that set Levi’s apart from other jeans at the time were originally used to reinforce the seams in the fabric around the crotch, seat, and pockets, not to attach the pockets to the jeans. The idea came from tailor Jacob Davis, whose mining and farming clients often complained that the seams on their denim workpants were not sturdy enough. He knew of riveted horse blankets that were extremely durable, and he got the idea to put the copper rivets on denim pants. He did not have enough money to patent the riveting process, so he enlisted the aid of Levi Strauss, a dry-goods manufacturer in San Francisco in May 1873, and jeans as we know them today were born!

  30. Russ Wade
    on Sep 23rd, 2009
    @ 1:34 PM

    I have an original pain of Levi’s, black, cuffed, buckle in back from the 1950s. They belonged to my brother, who was killed in an automible accident in 1958. They have been kept in a cedar chest all this time. Some minor damage but pretty good shape. where might I sell them?

  31. Michael Williams
    on Sep 23rd, 2009
    @ 1:36 PM

    eBay!

  32. Axel
    on Nov 1st, 2009
    @ 2:33 PM

    Let’s face it, today’s Levi’s are cheap, imported crap. Cheap as in junk, not cheap in price. So, yeah, that makes them overpriced. Lee jeans are all imported too, but they are better-fitting and higher quality. For one thing, you don’t sit on your wallet in Lee jeans. The fact that Levi’s is making “vintage” jeans and charging a huge price for them, when the jeans they made in America not that many years ago were the best quality jeans you could buy is a sad statement on the state of manufacturing and hucksterism in the USA today.
    I bought only 501′s for years. Never had to try them on, just bought my size and they always fit the same. I remember the first pair I bought that were made in Mexico. The waist was too tight, the back pockets too low, the watch pocket too wide, the legs were “stovepipe”…. I realize that styles have changed over the years, but the reasons for these changes were solely to make a cheap, uneven product slapped together in third world countries by what amounts to slave labor that Levi’s could sell for an even higher price.
    There’s no pride in the manufacturing of Levi’s jeans today. It’s only about making money. It’s fine to celebrate what the company once was, but don’t mistake it as resembling anything that exists today.

  33. Ekky
    on Nov 3rd, 2009
    @ 11:30 AM

    When did levi start making levis in mexico??

  34. Mark wessler
    on Nov 15th, 2009
    @ 2:28 AM

    Russ…u can goes to oldestlevis.com and write to the owner of the site regarding your pants. He could help u for sure!

  35. Matt
    on Nov 27th, 2009
    @ 7:56 PM

    I had a student in my US History class a few years ago, and aspiring designer…albeit 17 years old. She was bored most of the time until I told the class their project could include design, machinery, film..etc. She came alive and did a whole project on 20′s fashion. Your blog has already provided me with dozens of ideas for students who aren’t into the typical stuff, but love material culture!

  36. RICHARD
    on Dec 19th, 2009
    @ 1:22 PM

    IS THERE A CODE ON LEVI JEANS THAT IDENTIFIES THE DATE THAT THE JEANS WERE MADE?

  37. Mike
    on Jan 27th, 2010
    @ 2:46 AM

    Some of Levi’s competitors in the 1870′s & 80′s were the Green Baum Brothers, Neustadter Brothers, A.B Elfelt and co, Banner Brothers, Toklas and Brown just to name a few. These companies had there own patents for pocket reinforcement and it was said that the Neustadter Brothers pants, were know on the west coast more than any brand come the turn of the century. By the time that Neustadter was bought out in 1932 they had been in business for over 80 years. It’s a miracle that we know Levi today, family members and relatives were willing to step up and keep the company going. I am publishing a book in 5 months that focus on Levi Strauss and it’s competitors in the 1870′s and 80′s

  38. Mike
    on Jan 27th, 2010
    @ 3:38 AM

    I thought I should mention what the very first levi label said, Levi Strauss and Company sole proprietor and manufacturer of the patented riveted duck and denim pants. Levi Strauss only made pants for the first year of production. I have what might be the oldest Levi ad from May 9th 1874, the bottom of the ad reads none genuine unless bearing our copyrighted leather label. With that information we did a search at the library of congress and came up with what the very first patch said. I have what is most certain the oldest pair of Levi’s there will ever be, first few months of production. I have a way to date early Levi’s, it’s all about the size of the cinch strap. A cinch strap for people who don’t know is the built in belt that you could adjust in the back of the pants, also called a buckle back to some people. We are also researching a man by the name of J wall who patented the first belt loop on pants in 1883. We think this is why belt loops don’t show up on other pants until the turn of the century.

  39. Mike
    on Jan 27th, 2010
    @ 4:08 AM

    Something that might interest some of you is that a report in 1876 gave the number of chinese that worked sewing pants for Levi Strauss 180 chinese and 38 non- chinese. It was reported that a china man would sew a pair of pants for 7 cents. Levi’s competition was using chinese labor so this might of forced Levi Strauss to do the same. Sometime after the riots in China town in 1877, Levi Strauss used white labor only. We have a ad from the 1880′s stating that Levi Strauss was the only one made by white labor.

  40. Mike
    on Jan 27th, 2010
    @ 4:46 AM

    I have a question, I saw that the LVC line had a reproduction from 1875. The label on these pants had none genuine unless bearing this trademark, from my research the first time Levi started using the words trademark is when they came up with the two hoarse label around 1886. We found that the two hoarse label was not registered as a trademark until 1906. On Levi ads from the late 80′s they used the word trade mark most of the time but not always. I have never seen a piece of levi from 1875 that had riveted cinch straps or a watch pocket that was placed off the waist band.
    I have never seen the arcuate stitch show up on a 1875 Levi, I think these pants would most likely be from the mid 1880′s. If any one has seen the words trademark on any Levi ad or bill head before 1880 I would love to see it.

  41. Mike
    on Jan 27th, 2010
    @ 4:56 AM

    I have found that Jacob Davis was probably the first one to put a watch pocket and a back pocket on a pair of denim or duck pants. I also think he was the first to decorate the back pocket, just not in 1873 more like 1876 or 77. I find that the first decorative stitches were under the front pockets from pants most likely made in New York. I cant find any proof that denim work pants were being made in San Francisco in the 1860′s. I think most of your work pants were coming from New York.