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High points in the storied making and marketing of denim.
This story first appeared in the November 1, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
1853–1873: Levi Strauss, an immigrant from Buttenheim, Bavaria, moves to San Francisco and opens a dry goods business, mostly wholesaling men’s clothes to general stores in the West. In 1873, he and Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno, receive patent number 139,121 for riveted men’s pants, and they begin selling “waist overalls,” the first blue jeans. Davis partnered with Strauss because he needed $68 to file the patent application. Levi’s begins stitching the “batwing” symbol on its rear pockets. It’s the oldest U.S. apparel trademark still in use today.
1889: The Lee Mercantile Company is founded by Henry David Lee, who opens his first garment factory in Salina, Kan., producing dungarees and jackets.
1890: Levi’s assigns the style number 501 to its men’s waist overalls, which is used to this day and is now practically synonymous with classic jeans.
1891: Brothers Moses and Caesar Cone found the Cone Export and Commission Co. and establish a mill in Greensboro, N.C. In 1896, the company’s first denim production facility starts up. In 1948, the company’s name is changed to Cone Mills Corp.
1904: The Hudson Overall Co., a precursor to Wrangler, is founded. In 1919, the company changes its name to Blue Bell Overall Company. In 1943, Blue Bell acquires Casey Jones Work-Clothes Company and, with it, rights to the Wrangler name. It launches Wrangler jeans in 1947.
1908: The denim firm that would become Lee Cooper, first founded as Morris Cooper, is established in England. The brand would become commonplace during World War II, when clothing was rationed and jeans cost just a single ration coupon, compared to 26 coupons for a suit and 16 for a dress.
1913: Inspired by his chauffeur, H.D. Lee creates the Union-All, which combines a dungaree and jacket in one garment. The design helps turn Lee into a household name.
1926: Lee introduces the zipper fly on its “cowboy pants.” Babe Ruth endorses the garments, called “Whizits” after the sound made by the zipper.
1934: In the midst of the Great Depression, Levi’s creates its first women’s denim pants under the “Lady Levi’s” name and, a year later, introduces its iconic Red Tab to the back pockets of jeans.
1942: The crotch rivet is removed from Levi’s jeans, due to its tendency to heat up when the wearer is seated in front of a campfire.
1944: Lee introduces its “Lazy S” stitched logo on its back pockets, meant to evoke a pair of longhorns when the two pockets are viewed together.
1947: Yonehachi Tsunemi founds the company that will become Edwin in Japan, initially importing jeans from the U.S. In 1961, the first Edwin-branded jeans are sold.
1953: Marlon Brando stars in The Wild One, and James Dean in East of Eden two years later, both seminal moments in cinema for blue jeans. Biker culture begins, and jeans start to become part of popular culture rather than just workwear.
1960: Levi’s starts calling its product “jeans” instead of “overalls” in its advertising. In 1967, the brand removes the rear pocket rivet from 501 jeans, reflecting their increased use as leisure garments.
1969: VF Corp. acquires the H.D. Lee Company, including the Lee jeans brand.
1969: Donald and Doris Fisher found The Gap with a single store in San Francisco that sells only Levi’s jeans and records. They place ads in local papers advertising “four tons” of jeans at rock-bottom prices. The store is named after the Generation Gap. In 1973, they begin adding other national labels as well as their own Gap-branded product. By 1975, sales reach $100 million.
1970: Frenchman David Mechaly launches MacKeen, a European-style jean that becomes a hit in fashion-forward boutiques and is on the leading edge of the designer jeans fad of the Seventies, selling for $65 a pair.
1972: Billy Kolber partners with brothers Michael and Jimmy Shane to launch Faded Glory, which helped popularize the bleached denim look in stores like Merry-Go-Round. Kolber later became president of Bonjour jeans.
1975: Japan’s Edwin begins to use “old washing,” a precursor to stonewashing, as a wash technique to break in its jeans. Actual stonewashing would begin in 1981.
1976: Paul Guez and Maurice Sasson introduce Sasson jeans, marketed with the “ooh-la-la Sasson” tag line. Gloria Vanderbilt jeans are launched by Murjani Corp. They’re advertised during the Academy Awards and become bestsellers.
1976: European-style designer jeans are all the rage. In The Bad News Bears, Tatum O’Neal agrees to play for Little League coach Walter Matthau if he promises to buy her a pair of “French” jeans.
1977: The Israeli-born Nakash brothers—Joe, Ralph and Avi—found Jordache after operating several jeans stores in New York. The brand is marketed with a provocative television advertising campaign featuring a topless woman riding a horse through the surf. Jordache’s more recent campaigns have starred Brittany Murphy, Elizabeth Hurley and Heidi Klum.
1977: Calvin Klein partners with Puritan Fashions to launch the brand’s first jeans line and sells 200,000 pairs in its first week in stores. Fellow designer Halston derides Klein: “Only a pig would put his name on blue jeans.”
1978: Renzo Rosso and Adriano Goldschmied found the Diesel brand. Gap partners with Ralph Lauren to launch Polo Western Wear in its stores.
1980: Calvin Klein launches its infamous Brooke Shields commercial, directed by Richard Avedon, in which she whistles “My Darling Clementine” and then suggestively purrs, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”
1980: Former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland tells The New York Times, “Blue jeans are the most beautiful things since the gondola.”
1981: French-Moroccan immigrants Georges and Maurice Marciano open a fashion store in L.A. that sells, among other labels, their Guess stonewashed jeans with zippers at the ankles and a distinctive triangle logo. Brothers Armand and Paul join later, and Guess ad campaigns turn models like Carre Otis, Claudia Schiffer and Anna Nicole Smith into household names.
1983: Yves Saint Laurent tells New York magazine: “I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all I hope for in my clothes.”
1986: VF Corp. acquires Blue Bell Holding Company Inc. for $762 million, which includes the Wrangler and Rustler brands, giving it a 25 percent share of the worldwide denim market.
1989: Wichy Hassan and Renato Rossi found Italy-based Sixty Group, owner of the Miss Sixty and Energie labels.
1990: J.C. Penney launches its Original Arizona Jean Company brand and sales soar to more than $500 million within five years.
1991: Designer Karl Kani joins L.A.-based Cross Colours, one of the first denim-based brands to target African-American youth with a baggy, oversize aesthetic.
1994: Snoop Dogg appears on “Saturday Night Live” wearing Tommy Hilfiger, helping to transform the brand into a hip-hop phenomenon.
1996: Lee launches National Denim Day, inviting participating companies to allow employees to wear jeans to work in exchange for a $5 contribution to the fight against breast cancer. Since then, the event has raised nearly $80 million.
1996: Earl Jean, considered the first influential U.S. premium denim label, is founded in L.A.
1999: Scott Morrison launches Paper Denim & Cloth with backing from Mudd’s Dick Gilbert, with prices that break the $150 barrier. Nudie Jeans is established in Sweden, one of a wave of Scandinavian brands, including Acne and WeSC, to become prominent in premium denim.
2000: Seven For All Mankind is founded in L.A. by Peter Koral, Jerome Dahan and Michael Glasser, selling $13 million in its first year. Dahan and Glasser later leave in a dispute and found Citizens of Humanity in 2003.
2000: Designer Adriano Goldschmied, often called the Godfather of Denim, and L.A.-based Koos Mfg. team up to found AG Adriano Goldschmied.
2002: Diesel and Karl Lagerfeld launch a denim line under the Lagerfeld Gallery by Diesel name. More recent designer denim collaborations include Proenza Schouler and J Brand; Marni and Current/Elliott, and Jean Paul Gaultier and Levi’s.
2003: Signature by Levi Strauss & Co. is launched in the mass channel, at retailers including Wal-Mart and Target.
2010: Gap launches Gap1969.com, a Web site dedicated to its denim brand and heritage, and opens its first creative office in L.A. n