In 1873, Levi Strauss partnered with Jacob Davis for a patent on riveting pants. It marked the birth of the iconic Levi’s jeans. Transcending the socio- cultural zeitgeist, it was favoured by miners, cowboys, Hollywood legends, counterculture rebels, rock stars, students and high fashion, and continues to be a wardrobe staple even today.
Levi Strauss [1829-1902] was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria to Hirsch Strauss and his second wife, Rebecca Haas. Two years after his father succumbed to tuberculosis, eighteen- year- old Strauss emigrated with his mother and two sisters to the United States, to join his brothers Jonas and Louis, who had established a wholesale dry goods business in New York and began to learn the trade himself. When news of the California Gold Rush made its way east, Levi travelled to San Francisco in 1853 as West Coast representative of the family business and opened a branch of their dry goods business in San Francisco’s Market Street.
While Levi continued his family’s dry goods business in San Francisco where they outfitted miners, a prospector asked what he was selling. When Strauss informed him he had canvas for tents and wagon covers, the prospector replied, “You should have brought pants!,” saying he couldn’t find a tough pair that would last long. Strauss had the canvas made into overalls, and although the miners liked it, they complained it tended to chafe so Strauss substituted a twilled cotton cloth from France called “serge de Nimes.” The fabric later became a cult as denim and the pants were named, blue jeans. However, his breakthrough came in 1872, when he was approached by Russian-born American tailor Jacob Davis to partner him in a business venture. Davis had added metal rivets to the pockets and the base of the button fly of denims, making it unlikely to rip at the seams. Seeing the potential of the riveting process, Strauss agreed to pay $81 to apply for a patent and partner him. The patent was granted to Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss in1873. He first used lot numbers to differentiate products they manufactured and it was in 1890 that 501 was used to designate copper-riveted waist overalls.Today, brand spokespeople claim that denim overalls were so popular then that miners and prospectors would say, ‘Have you heard about these pants from Levi’s?’ Over time, the name just stuck. The slogan — “For Men Who Toil.” Over the years, design improvements were made — the blue jeans, with copper riveting, had two rows of V-shaped orange stitching on the back pockets, so customers could easily identify it as Levi’s. Belt loops appeared in 1922 and zippers replaced the button fly on some styles in 1954. These rugged jeans helped make Levi’s a millionaire and he expanded his business interests over the years, buying Mission and Pacific Woollen Mills.
Levi’s 501 is legendary, transcending from Thirties cowboy films to the wardrobes of Hollywood A-List and teenage fans. The association of Levi’s with youth, rock ‘n’ roll and individual style flourished in the Sixties. Legends Marlon Brando and James Dean popularised the image of the denim-clad teenage idol and rock ’n’ roll stars cemented the style; hippies anti-war protestors wore jeans to show support for the working class; feminists and women’s lib organisers wore jeans in an effort to demonstrate gender equality. By late Seventies, jeans were a must- have with the Studio 54 jet set. The Sixties and Seventies was an era where youth led a change in the social- political- cultural zeitgeist with peace marches, desire for sexual freedom and an explosion of music, with Levi’s jeans woven into the fabric of that time. Some high schools banned jeans, which only increased its iconic status as the emblem of youth and rebellion. Once the patent ended, several brands entered the denim market but Levi’s 501® continues to rein as the world’s first blue jean and is the blueprint even today.
Philanthropy is woven into the fabric of Levis. The brand invests a significant portion of its annual earnings back into the communities and is acclaimed for support of social issues that aligns with its core values of empathy, courage, integrity and originality. The brand is actively involved in increasing voter engagement by working with organisations that register voters and helps ensure that all Americans who want to cast a ballot are able to do so. It has also pledged ongoing support for gun violence prevention by advocating for gun safety measures and has established ‘Safer Tomorrow Fund’ to support non-profits and youth activists working to end gun violence.
Levi’s embraces sustainable practices by training employees to be advocates for responsible water stewardship. It has been, and will continue to be, supporters of equality and non-discrimination. In fact, Levis was the first Fortune 500 company to extend health benefits to domestic partners and have continued to use its voice to advocate for an equitable society. The Levi Strauss Foundation’s philanthropic work is grounded in the company values and its mission is to advance human rights and well-being of underserved people. The foundation has advanced social change in HIV- AIDS, worker rights, worker well-being and social justice.
When Levi Strauss passed away in 1902, his estate was reportedly $6 million. The bulk was left to family members and donations were made to local funds and associations. To this day, the brand aligns itself with the principles that guided his life and commitment to community, philanthropy and quality.
1853: Levi’s sold its first pair of riveted jeans.
1935: Levi’s introduced its first pair of ladies’ jeans.
1955: Zippers appeared on Levi’s jeans.
1974: Company sales reached $1 billion.
2016: Albert Einstein’s Levi’s jacket was sold at Christies for £110,500.