His classic pieces, sold at his Denim Doctors store near downtown Los Angeles, are many decades old and fetch about $200 to $300 for a pair of jeans. But his most valuable pair of denim pants are much, much older and are not at the store. They are safely locked away.
In early October, Stevenson and his bidding partner, Kyle Haupert, a San Diego vintage denim dealer, paid $76,000 for a pair of 1880s Levi’s that were being auctioned off in an RV park at the Durango Vintage Festivus in northern New Mexico.
After paying a buyer’s 15 percent fee, the blue jeans ended up costing $87,400. Haupert paid 90 percent of the price tag, and Stevenson kicked in the 10 percent Haupert didn’t have.
Now the two are strategizing how to maximize their investment on the pair of jeans, which were found years ago in a mine shaft somewhere in the American West, the site a well-kept secret.
These jeans are extremely scarce. Collectors estimate there are fewer than 10 pairs of Levi’s jeans from this era in private hands. “Levi’s dating to the late 1880s are rare,” conceded Tracey Panek, the director of the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives.
Panek said the San Francisco company has its own collection that ranges from the earliest Levi’s riveted denim pants from the 1870s to current Levi’s, but she didn’t say how many.
Stevenson said he knows of fewer than 10 pairs of 1880s Levi’s held by collectors in Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Sweden and the United States.
That makes this recent purchase by Stevenson and Haupert, who didn’t respond to interview requests, more intriguing. Right now they want to hold onto the jeans because they believe the value will only rise. “We’re hoping to make a lot of money on this later on down the road,” said Stevenson, a seasoned denim dealer who opened his first vintage denim store in 1994.
Currently, the two aren’t actively seeking to sell the blue jeans. Instead, they envision letting the vintage piece increase in value, like a fine painting cherished for its artistic details.
“It is an amazing thing to own something like this,” Stevenson said. “Right now, we are in chapter one of a five-chapter story. I would like to acquire a few more really old vintage jeans. It would be great to put them in a curated event that attracts the attention of people who might otherwise buy a valuable painting or sculpture.”
They could possibly display the vintage pants at Art Basel or have a well-known influencer photographed with the old Levi’s. “For denim collectors, the more pristine the jeans, the more valuable they are. So, if they looked like they literally were out of the box, a jeans collector would pay $120,000 to $150,000 easily,” Stevenson explained. “But an artistic art collector, they’re looking at it from a very different point of view and might pay more.”
The jeans are in relatively good condition for having been left in an old mine for more than 100 years. There is a cloth repair patch along the belt line and the pants are sprinkled with wax from candles used by miners to light their way. The back has only one pocket, instead of the normal two pockets seen in later iterations.
Printed on the inside of the pants is the phrase, “The only kind made by white labor,” which was put in after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States. Levi’s points out that it stopped printing that phrase in the 1890s and today is totally against racism and promotes equality.
While the extremely rare jeans won’t be offered for sale soon, the owners are open to making them available for museums as part of a retrospective on American denim or American fashion.
Stevenson and Haupert have had inquiries along those lines. One of Stevenson’s clients in Japan asked to rent the jeans for a few days as the main attraction at his store’s sales exhibition where lots of vintage denim will be sold.
The Durango Vintage Festivus, where the 1880s Levi’s were sold, was organized by Brit Eaton, a vintage denim hunter, who put together this first edition of a four-day event held at the Tico Time River Resort in Aztec, New Mexico.
Stevenson was there to stock his store and find merchandise for wholesale clients back in L.A. Haupert, a vintage clothing dealer, drove with friends from San Diego to check out the festival.
When the bidding for the 1880s Levi’s started, Stevenson had already spent a good deal on merchandise and could only bid so far. The bidding started at $20,000 with an online pre-bid, and then increased to $28,000. “I raised my hand up to move the bid to $50,000,” Stevenson recalled. “After that, a lady started bidding against me. I paused at $60,000.”
Then Haupert, who was sitting right behind Stevenson, leaned forward and asked the denim specialist what he thought of the jeans. “I said, ‘They’re great. They’re really, really good.’ They’re wearable, which is the only pair like that that I’ve seen with my own eyes in 20 years,” Stevenson said. “The guy who found them in a mine shaft, Michael Harris, a denim historian, said he had been to 50 mines in the last five years and hadn’t found anything of equal quality. So that to me indicated they were really rare.”
Stevenson knew Haupert was in a position to bid strongly, but he could only go so far. So, they decided to team up as the price rose.
Their winning bid made headlines around the world, and they were inundated with interview requests. Now they are pinching themselves in amazement that they are the owners of some very sought-after jeans. “It’s kind of mind-boggling,” Stevenson said.