Thu, 13 October 2022 at 7:00 pm
James Dean gave them a bad boy image. Marilyn Monroe showcased their sex appeal. Elvis wore the first black pair, while Bruce Springsteen chose them for the cover of Born in the USA. Tony Blair hardly seemed to be out of them in Number 10.
Chances are, you have a pair in your wardrobe – I know I do – and whether they’re 501s, 511s, 701s or Ribcage, they’ll feature the familiar red tab, brown leather patch and button fly that make them one of the few brands that can legitimately lay claim to that horribly overused term: iconic.
Don’t take my word for it: a 19th century pair, found in an abandoned mine in the American west and covered in white wax from the Victorian miner’s candles, has just sold at auction for $87,000 (£76,800). Kyle Haupert, the 23-year-old vintage trader from San Diego who bought them, said: “I’m still kind of bewildered, just surprised at myself for even purchasing them.”
I’m not surprised, Kyle. If there’s one thing I know, as an avid Levi’s wearer, it’s just how this 150-year-old brand – started by a Bavarian immigrant who sold his blue jeans to California’s Gold Rush prospectors – transcends age, gender and trends. No other jeans have the capacity to unite Barack Obama, Alexa Chung and Jeremy Clarkson. From indie kids to 50-something dads; the fashion front row and Hollywood stars – there’s something about Levi’s.
I own six pairs and am rarely seen in anything else. Many other millennials feel the same: there are WhatsApp messages demanding to know exactly which style so-and so was wearing at the pub last night. When Levi’s re-released its classic 501 style this year with a cropped ankle, Instagrammers (Levi’s has eight million followers) went wild.
Levi’s retail at around £100, though my favourite Kick Flares (sadly discontinued) cost $10 in a bun-fight at the New York flagship store, where I swiped them from under the nose of a teenager. I’m sure they found another pair – Levi’s now sells more than 1.25 billion pairs of blue jeans worldwide every year.
It’s even more extraordinary given that, by 1999, Levi’s was in distress. Younger shoppers turned to new cult names like 7 for All Mankind and Diesel, while Levi’s were associated with older men desperately trying to cling to their youth. Profits fell from $102.5 million in 1998 to $5.4 million in 1999. It was a bitter pill for them to swallow. Who can forget Nick Kamen peeling off his 501s in a launderette to Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it through the Grapevine? Back then, Levi’s held sway beyond the high street: The Clash had their only UK number one with Should I Stay or Should I Go after it was featured in a Levi’s ad. In the early 1990s, these ads helped the likes of Babylon Zoo and Mr Oizo climb the charts.
There was political power, too. In the 1950s, US students were banned from wearing blue jeans after a rebellious Marlon Brando sported 501s in The Wild One and made denim seem dangerous. Levi’s responded by introducing white jeans. They crossed the Iron Curtain, too, becoming a cult symbol of dissent among Soviet teens in the 1980s.
They have barely changed since. It is, perhaps, that trend-dodging that has prompted the Levi’s comeback and seen the company target $10 billion of sales by 2027. There have been tweaks – zip flies and boyfriend styles – and clever collaborations with hot brands such as Ganni, Vetements and Comme des Garcons. Famous younger fans have emerged: the Kardashians wore Levi’s on their 2017 Christmas card. Even Kate Middleton joked in an interview that she only had one poster in her bedroom growing up: “I had the Levi’s guy on my wall, not a picture of William, sorry.”
Levi’s have stayed true to what they are – which is why that 19th century pair doesn’t seem all that unfamiliar. They might no longer be aimed at blue-collar workers, but they bridge the divide between practical and cool. They feel rebellious, while also being entirely unremarkable. No one judges you if you’re wearing Levi’s – which, in my fickle wardrobe, counts for a lot.
It’s why vintage ones have held their value. In 2018, an 1893 pair sold for almost $100,000 to a buyer in Asia, while 1970s pairs upcycled by brand Re/Done retail for upwards of £600. Levi’s introduced their own slow fashion scheme in 2020 to buy back customer’s used jeans, spruce them up and resell them. The brand has started using organic and recyclable cotton, launching a “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign last year.
The truth is that making new jeans is simply not good for the environment. Good job that Levi’s mysteriously seem to last forever… more than a century if the US auction pair is anything to go by. I may never have to buy another pair. Then again I am going to New York next month.