A CENTURY UNDER THE INFLUENCE:
HOW LEVI’S HAS REMAINED COOL FOR ONE HUNDRED YEARS.
By Drew Ligget
BEING COOL IS NOT SOMETHING THAT LASTS FOREVER. MOST OFTEN, IT DOES NOT LAST LONG AT ALL.
Trends evolve, tastes change, fads die. This a constant of life. Watching Ringo Starr perform in 2018 or reading the recent Rolling Stone profile of a sad and lonely 55 year old Johnny Depp is all one needs to see to know that even being among the coolest people on Earth at one point in time does not guarantee you a life time seat at the cool kids table. (Unless you are Keith Richards, then you do all the drugs and never die and always remain cool). Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Jean Michel-Basquiat, and Tupac will always be young, energetic, rebellious, and cool because they were not around long enough to grow old and lose touch with relevancy. Like musicians and artists, fashion brands must also evolve and find new ways to remain culturally relevant or risk undoing their status as modern and important (ie JNCO). Demand needs to be manufactured constantly, emerging trends have to be addressed, and influential early adopting consumers must continue to be interested in your brand or it will simply fall out of fashion and ultimately become a staple of malls from Reno to Tallahassee. The point is, becoming relevant is the easy part, staying relevant over a long period of time is next to impossible.
If a clothing designer is fortunate enough to find a way to break through the noise and have a moment, they may become successful for a couple of seasons. If the designer happens to tap into a cultural trend and all of the right people are both wearing and talking about their collection, it could become a brand name and have a nice multi-year moment of popularity. If the brand is at the forefront of the culture and manages to create a trend, it may have a half-decade long stay at the top before the next cultural shift happens and a new era of editors, icons, and influencers are on to the next thing. The brand can then try to adapt but look like they are chasing trends, or it can become a symbol of a foregone era (ie JNCO). The point is, becoming relevant is the easy part, staying relevant over a long period of time is next to impossible.
The one exception to the unofficial rule of cool that I have seen in my lifetime is the Levi Strauss Co. Consider this, when Levi’s was founded, America only had 31 states. Levi’s has been in business longer than Coca Cola, Ford, and McDonalds and today it is more popular and profitable than ever, somehow defying every rule of the fashion life cycle, and defeating our ever-shortening attention spans. For the last 150 years, the thing that has set Levi’s apart from every competitor is that, along the way, their denim pants and jackets have become the de facto uniform for nearly every relevant influential disrupting youthful subculture since the 1930’s. The story of the life and growth of the Levi’s brand is the story of the emergence of youth culture itself, including rock and roll music, beat poetry, skateboarding, and counter-culture. Because of the continued adoption of Levi’s by every dominant subculture, it has earned the one thing that no amount of money can buy, authenticity.
By now, everyone probably knows the origin story of the Levi Strauss Co. If you do not, here is a quick summary. Levi Strauss immigrated to San Francisco in May of 1853 and started a dry goods business, predominantly selling his merchandise to gold miners. After noticing how frequently customers were buying cloth to repair torn pants, Strauss came up with the idea to reinforce the points of strain on the miners’ pants with a rivet. On May 20, 1873 Strauss received US Patent 139,121 for his riveted pant idea and the denim jean was born. The simplified narrative of what happened between 1873 and 2018 would be that Levi’s used their patent as a head start on the competition and cornered the pant market, but it was a very long and fortunate ride from turn of the century farmers and miners wearing Levi’s to collaborations with Supreme and Virgil Abloh. What happened in the 145 years since Patent 139,121 was issued is a story as compelling and diverse as all the innovators, creators, and rebels who defined the modern version of America.
In the early part of the 1900’s, Levi’s jeans were mostly utilitarian, aka functional not fashionable, and worn almost exclusively by ranchers, cowboys, lumberjacks, and blue collar workers who favored them for being inexpensive and built strong. The riveted denim jean first became some semblance of a fashion statement when Nestor Studios opened in Hollywood and began producing the first Western films. The protagonists of these films were gun-slinging cowboys and bounty-hunters who lived adventurous, hard-drinking, nomadic lives and they all looked cool as hell on the silver screen in their Stetson hats, bandanas, spurs, and Levi’s jeans. The rise of the film industry and distribution of Westerns created some of the first nationwide trends and made denim synonymous with effortless cool. John Wayne wore a rugged pair of 501’s in the 1939 film Stagecoach, all of a sudden everyone wanted to dress like the rebellious loner who never left home without his Levi’s and always arrived just in time to save the day and get the girl.
During World War 2, jeans were still seen as workwear, more of a costume then an every day staple of a young persons wardrobe. After the war was won, thousands of GI’s returned home and struggled to reintegrate into mainstream society. Searching for identity and looking to rekindle the camaraderie of war, they started and joined biker clubs. Members were by nature anti-social jaded young men who rejected the social norms of the times, a formula that defined the next generation of “cool” in America. MC’s, short for Motorcycle Club’s, (and more accurately “outlaw”) adopted Levi’s as their uniform for riding and working on their bikes because they could take a beating and somehow continue to look better the more worn in they were. If cowboys in Western’s made wearing jeans appear heroic and noble, MC riders took denim jeans to another level and made them dangerous. In the 1950’s two films brought the biker club subculture into the mainstream, 1953’s The Wild One and 1954’s Rebel Without a Cause starring Marlon Brando and James Dean respectively. These two films cemented the idea of jeans being the uniform of the young, withdrawn, rebellious, and cool.
In the years that followed the birth and immaculate rise of rock and roll, (1950’s – 1980’s) Levi’s was continually adopted as the de-facto uniform for radical non-conformist groups that also became style icons. Musicians, beat poets, greasers, and hippies all chose the utilitarian functionality of denim to personify the ideals of giving power to the people. When Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Stacey Peralta, and the rest of the Zephyr Skateboarding team completely altered the limits of what could be done on a skateboard, they did so in their team uniform of Levi’s jeans, Vans shoes, and a Zephyr competition team t-shirt. The Z-boys from Dogtown are still the monolith of cool in surf and skate cultures today. When Eazy-E dealt drugs in Compton to fund what would become Ruthless Records and NWA, he did so in his personal uniform of Nike Cortez sneakers, a clean white tee, and Levi’s 501 jeans that covered the sock he liked to keep his cash in. To this day, Eazy and NWA are the godfathers of West Coast rap and though their last album was released in 1991, they are still teaching new generations how to dress.
Levi’s ascension from utilitarian workwear to fashion leader is unlike any other because it mirrors the rise of American individuality. The incredible true story of America’s youth rejecting the ideals of previous generations, finding their voice thru rock n’ roll and later rap music, rebelling against societal norms of how to dress and behave, forming their own clubs and subcultures, and eventually creating movements that have defined who we are today. From John Wayne to Jack Kerouac, from bikers to surfers, the path to infinite cool has been forged out of not giving a fuck until it is necessary to save the day or get the girl, and Levi’s has been around for all of it as the explicit uniform of giving the finger to the powers that be.
Even though Levi’s rise to prominence from humble workwear brand to fashion giant has been a story as fascinating as the cultural and youth movements of post-war America, the golden rule of cool is still absolute, and that is, that it does not last forever. Michael Jordan can join the Wizards and become mortal. Elvis Presley can get fat and die taking a shit. John Travolta can become known exclusively to anyone 30 or younger as the crazy person who introduced the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem. There is no such thing as a life time seat at the cool kids table and even the Levi Strauss Co. knows this. They know that in the mid-90’s they did not bother to address the emerging cultural trend of the baggie jean. They know that they catered too much to the big box retailers in the early 2000’s and alienated the boutiques that had become the new clubhouses for the trendsetting youth. They also know that they missed out on another trend born out of skate culture, the skinny jean of the mid-2000’s. All of these things cost them market share and allowed smaller brands who have no business trying to compete with Levi’s to steal some of their most valuable customers. They know that no matter how cool you once were, no kid will ever be alright with shopping at the same place their parents shop, and they have worked to address this by building new collections within the brand that aim to reclaim their status of “uniform of the youth”.
Moving into a new era of fast fashion and faster trends, will Levi’s be able to keep their spot at the cool kids table? That will depend on how much they can continue to care about servicing the small but incredibly influential subcultures of outlaws and creators who carried Levi’s to prominence in the first place.