Levi Strauss’s arrival in the US, 160 years ago this week, was to change fashion forever. And it all began with a tent, says John Daly
HEN a Bavarian tailor named Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco on Jan 10, 1853 — 160 years ago — he did not know his name would become one of the most recognised of trademarks.
Arriving in that town where singer Tony Bennett would later ‘leave his heart’, the diminutive, 24-year-old Strauss joined thousands of European immigrants intent on making their fortunes in the chaotic Gold Rush. Unlike the others, who headed for the riverbeds to pan for elusive nuggets, Strauss opened a dry goods store.
Among his provisions were rolls of blue canvas to make into tents. “You should’ve brought pants,” he was told by grizzled prospectors. Ordinary trousers did not withstand the digging, Strauss discovered, and stronger ones were badly needed. Flexible to the demands of his customers, he quit the tents and started making pants — a move that would change fashion. Turning his canvas rolls into hardy, all-weather trousers, he christened them by their manufacturer’s lot number — 501. To the hundreds of prospectors who crowded his store, they became known simply as ‘Levi’s pants’. A legend was born.
One of Levi’s clients was a fellow tailor, Jacob Davis, who inserted metal at the points of most strain, and the ‘riveted pants’, as he called them, became an instant hit with his customers. Their success prompted him to apply for a patent on the process — but he was short the $68 required to file the papers. Enter Strauss, an astute businessman with capital to invest, who saw the product’s potential. A partnership was struck, and on May 20, 1873, the two men received patent #139121 from the US Patent and Trademark Office. For cultural historians, the date became the official ‘birthday’ of blue jeans.
When the patent expired, dozens of garment manufacturers imitated the original, riveted clothing made popular by the two pioneers.
But regardless of the imitators, it was two visionary immigrants, Strauss and Davis, who transformed denim and metal into the most popular clothing product in the world — blue jeans. Today, a well-preserved, 19th century pair of Levi’s might fetch €50,000. A Levi ‘Cowboy’ jacket of the 1940s will fetch €5,000, while a pair of never-washed 1930’s Levi jeans, complete with a ‘buckleback’, will make €2,000.
As with so many cultural icons, Hollywood had much to do with spreading the word. As the 1930s and 40s dawned, Levi’s began to cast off their working-class origins when movie stars like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers made blue jeans all the rage.
What were designed as prospectors’ working britches gained the irresistible aura of romance and adventure. The bad-boy, devil-may-care image of Marlon Brando and James Dean in the 1950s, in films like On The Waterfront and Rebel Without A Cause, established blue jeans as the uniform of the day for the baby-boomer generation.
In 1960, the company dropped the word ‘overalls’ from advertising and finally started calling them, simply, jeans. In the decade that spawned ‘flower power’, Woodstock and sartorial rebellion, Levi’s were perfectly placed to capitalise on the demand for fashion statements around the cultural explosion into casual wear.
After the conservative 1950s, the combination of Hollywood and rock music proved fertile ground for these former goldminers’ pants to flourish. With the Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, the Doobie Brothers, Jimi Hendrix and Santana laying down a percussion beat for our be-denimed butts to boogie to, movie stars like Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, Kris Kristofferson, Nick Nolte, Bo Derek, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard and Clint Eastwood made just the right ‘cool’ visuals for a generation who had decided they would be forever in blue jeans.
For true jean aficionados, it was always a case of accepting no substitutes — Wrangler were too country ‘n’ western and Lee too middle-aged fart. Like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, Levi’s were a statement of who you were and what you stood for — no explanations required.
Even the politicians copped quickly to the power of blue denim and the youth vote, with Vaclav Havel, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton among the strongest devotees.
ADVERTISING TO A NEW GENERATION
With numerous competing brands entering the market in the way of designer denim from Guess, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Gap, the 1980s forced Levi’s to make new rules in the advertising jungle. On Dec 26, 1985, the famous Laundrette advert aired across the world. Posing Nick Kamen naked except for his boxers as the machine cleaned the dust from his denims, a backing track of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ proved an irresistible combination. Result? Marvin’s reissued single hit No 1 and Levi’s sales catapulted 800%.
In 1991, Brad Pitt appeared as a just-released prisoner standing alone in the desert dressed only in his boxers. Slowly, out of the sand clouds rides a buxom damsel on a motorbike who throws Brad a pair of Levi’s and a camera. Donning the jeans, he snaps off a few shots of the prison gates before hopping onto the pillion seat to zoom off. Result? Sales of Levi’s again went through the roof and Brad hooked up with Thelma And Louise on a one-way ticket to fame.
In 1999, Levi’s introduced their Engineered Jeans to combat the ‘Jeremy Clarkson effect’ — middle-aged wearers turning younger consumers off the brand. A young man and woman run at a wall that explodes as they hit it. They land in a forest and begin running up the trees before leaping into an endless night sky. The no dialogue film was set to Handel’s ‘Sarabande’. Sales went stratospheric, up 200%, with 15 to 25-year-olds.
Levi’s campaign for 2003, championed the Type 1 jeans using CGI technology to superimpose mice heads on actors. Filmed by director Michel Gondry, its backing track by Nellee Hooper went up the charts — as did Levi’s sales.
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