Archival Khaki in San Francisco

I don’t want to say that this fell through the cracks, but a few months ago I was in San Francisco for a quick business trip and I took the opportunity to visit Ms. Lynn Downey at the Levi Strauss & Co. archive. You may remember my initial meeting with Lynn when I interviewed her during a research trip to New York. (Read that interview here.) “Next time you are in San Francisco you should come by and see the archive.” Lynn told me casually at the end of our meeting in New York. Little did she know I fully intended on taking her up on that offer.

When you walk into the sprawling Levi’s complex on Battery Street you enter a large lobby that feeds several floors of offices, but if you make a hard-right there is a fairly small museum area with a few different archive displays that are open to the public. Connected to that room is the library-like space that serves as the main office (if you want to be dramatic you could call it the “nerve center”) of the Levi Strauss & Co. archive. Now if you are thinking about a Mission Impossible style break in, let me assure you that the archives are well defended.

Talk about stimulus overload. Walking into the archive was a daunting opportunity, interesting stuff was all around you. But where to start? Lynn and I chatted as she gave me the lay of the land, but my mind was wandering as I assessed my current situation and thinking about all of the cool stuff I was about to see. Since we spent so much time discussing denim in New York, Lynn prepared a whole bunch of old Levi’s khakis and “Tab Twills” garments for me to see. Actually, now that I think about it, Lynn must have been in a really good mood that day, because she even let me try on a 1920s deadstock twill jacket. Just looking at the items in the archive is a privileged, trying things on was a whole other adventure. (I will spare you the picture of me in that jacket.)

Many people don’t realize that Levi’s has been making non-denim pants since the early 1900s. And to be honest, some of the non-denim items that I saw in the archive are a few of the best things that I have seen from Levi’s. Case in point, the duck-cloth jacket that was in a main display in the mini-museum before you enter the archive. (Photos three and four below.) I’m almost positive that that jacket was used as inspiration for a piece from LVC Japan a season or two ago. Or that Tab Twills Cramerton cloth military shirt also pictured below. That is a piece that the Dockers designers have incorporated into their new K-1 offerings this spring – along with a few different military reproduction chinos made from that same Cramerton cloth – really nice stuff. Actually, check back Monday for a new designer that is also working with Cramerton twill.

There’s something to this whole Khaki thing. After visiting the archive, the more I see a khaki comeback on the horizon – from Levi’s via Dockers which has recently been revamping their stuff. Not to mention brands like Save Khaki, Nigel Cabourn (see previous post) and even New York based label Unis is predicting a khaki comeback (1:30 mark of this video). J. Crew, Club Monaco, plus a few others are also promoting lots of khaki goods. (Again, watch Monday for another participant in the khaki revival).

Getting back to the archive, it is interesting to see that parallel history of non-denim clothing. While I was visiting I briefly met Miles, who is one of the LVC designers. He had flown in from Amsterdam to work in the archive for a few days, to get inspiration and to soak-in the historical detailing. When I met him I couldn’t help but to think, “now this is a guy who has a great job.” Living in Europe, flying in to San Francisco (one of the best cities in the world) to dig through historical clothing from a brand that has become a symbol of America. Lucky guy. I have to say though, just one day to visit is enough to make me happy for a long time. It turns out, my Disneyland is in San Francisco.

Notice the gent on the left in the chambray? That's Miles, an Amsterdam based LVC designer.

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Comments on “Archival Khaki in San Francisco

    smulmaskinen on February 27, 2010 6:05 AM:

    The Denim Dolphin, I like that one. Also, you should post the photo of you in that jacket, it’s a whole different than seeing a bunch of pants and shirts on hangers or flat on a table. Just photoshop on a dolphin face if you want to be anonymous.

    Mr Ryan on February 27, 2010 9:20 AM:

    Good Stuff!!!!

    Andrea on February 27, 2010 10:19 AM:

    Michael – Do they have a date on the jodhpurs?

    I’ve recently learned that this style of jodhpurs is referred to as “elephant ear.” I see them offered in catalogs and as home sewing patterns into the 1930s, but they seem to become extinct during WWII.

    The advertising indicates that they were worn for any strenuous activity such as hiking or skating, as well as riding.

    Chris on February 27, 2010 10:38 AM:

    Thanks for the glimpse into the Levi nerve center. I hope the “Koverall Nightie” enjoys a renaissance sometime soon. What is that? A union suit?

    reteptterrab on February 27, 2010 6:09 PM:

    There is most definetly a khaki comeback about to strike!

    Conrad on February 28, 2010 12:10 AM:

    Jolly nice post!

    Caroline, No. on February 28, 2010 12:45 PM:

    Wow. Fascinating stuff. Love the teddy in the dungarees. And the jacket drawers. Something sad about them all being stored away like that, but obviously great that they’re being preserved. Khaki, the colour at least, is all over the A/W 2010 collections, so you might be spot on with that prediction.

    drew spruill on February 28, 2010 9:54 PM:

    Check out the KEEPS KIDS KLEAN on that sign!

    You know they won’t be using that KKK thing again! Even if they reintroduce the Koveralls, I’m sure they’ll be changing that spelling!

    Makaga on March 1, 2010 1:38 PM:

    Thanks for posting. I used to eat in the Levi’s cafeteria right to the left of the open-to-the-public displays. Wished I had know about the archive when I worked nearby and would have tried to arrange a viewing.

    Victor on March 1, 2010 3:05 PM:

    Sweet! Thanks for the post and Pics!

    Matt on March 1, 2010 3:20 PM:

    Color me embarrassed. I did not know that khaki’s ever went out.

    Matt on March 2, 2010 10:52 AM:

    Great post! They have some amazing stuff at the Levi’s archives.

    Rui Lima on March 6, 2010 12:19 PM:

    The perfect place to work on denim research and development, it`s everything that a jeans designer needs…feel the history on true garments!

    jhn on March 15, 2010 7:15 AM:

    I’ve not seen a khakis maker better than Bill’s Khakis, in concept or execution. Further innovation is not needed.

Comments are closed.