Fads come and go, but iconic style never fades. That may be the most fundamental lesson of “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,” a new exhibit set to begin Thursday at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
WWD’s exclusive walk-through and interviews ahead of the opening revealed a denim treasure trove of American culture, with some 250 garments, photos and documents spanning the company’s 167 years, and then some.
The journey starts with Strauss’s emigration from Bavaria and takes visitors through the founding of his original dry goods business during the Gold Rush era in San Francisco, the patent written alongside Jacob Davis for the famous copper rivet that secures the jean pant in 1873 and the destruction — and revival — of the company headquarters in the fires after the 1906 earthquake.
“I think that in many ways, you might compare the exhibition itself to a pair of well-worn jeans,” said Tracey Panek, an archivist at Levi’s. “There’s a pair that has lasted for well over 100 years there. There are a lot of holes and little bits and pieces of it — it’s been torn up — and what remains is this well-preserved piece that has endured the test of time to tell a remarkable story of endurance. The company has gone through a great deal of change and still remains relevant today, and that’s a story I hope visitors will take away when they visit.”
Indeed, the museum walls are thick with a sense of history and American culture.
Here, jeans are as equally at home with laborers in the 1800s as riding astride motorcycles decades later as symbols of rebellious youth.
“When those blue jeans were first invented in 1873, it was almost exclusively for miners and workers, so it was really about their durability and ability to withstand significant manual labor,” said Heidi Rabben, curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
“[In] the 20th century, they become very much bound up in this idea of the American West and cowboys and that culture. Hollywood itself starts to extrapolate that ideal and bring it out into popular culture from there, and that leads us into the last chunk of history, roughly 1950 to the present day,” she explained. “Pop culture to counter culture, that’s when the blue jean starts from this hero figure of the cowboy into the anti-hero — the kind of American youthful rebel spearheaded by films like ‘The Wild One’ with Marlon Brando and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ with James Dean.”
The decades turned, but blue jeans carried on, billowing as the bottom hems of the hippie movement in the late Sixties and Seventies, or sparkling as high fashion in the hands of design houses such as Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier. Artists like Keith Haring emblazoned the garments with their art, and Madonna writhed to fame in painted-on, cut-off short shorts and black fishnets, as seen from her Girlie Show tour.
That’s just for starters. Remarkable dots fill the gaps in between, connecting Levi’s lineage across famous names, from Lauren Bacall to Lauryn Hill, and brands like Nike and Harley Davidson.
The gallery itself is cast in thematic colors of red, white and blue. At the center sits Albert Einstein’s leather Levi’s jacket, a rare non-denim article of clothing in the collection.
One display shows off the first Lady Levi’s from 1934, while another item tells the story of how the company promoted the durability of its product — touting lifelong longevity — by setting two horses to pull apart a pair of jeans, in an epic equine tug-of-war to showcase its strength. Another towed a car using a pair of Levi’s.
Further down, Bing Crosby’s custom denim tuxedo jacket beckons.
According to Rabben, “there’s a great story that goes with that: In Canada, he had been rejected from a hotel wearing blue jeans, because they were too casual. You know, at the time, they were considered very, very casual wear. Levi’s got wind of this story and created a denim tuxedo for him to wear.…That’s apparently how the term Canadian tuxedo originated.” Or so the story goes.
In the far corner, scenes from “The Breakfast Club” and other movies featuring Levi’s-clad stars play near a set of mannequins wearing looks from the 2015 film “Straight Outta Compton.”
Equally impressive are the ephemera, curiosities and other unusual — or remarkable — items. Visitors won’t have to look hard to find the car upholstered in denim, the accessibility pants featuring closures along the sides or the jeans covered in elaborate and stunning drawings, the handiwork of an inmate lingering on death row.
Notably, items like Levi’s Google Jacquard Trucker Jacket aren’t on view. Not that technology didn’t have a place in the show. There was Steve Jobs’ famous “mom jeans,” which he typically wore with a black turtleneck at keynotes and press conferences, as well as the advertising lounge dedicated to playing Levi’s commercials going back to the Sixties. And, of course, the film clips in the media viewing corner of the gallery.
But much of the exhibit’s impact comes from the analog items. Einstein’s jacket. The oldest pair of 501 jeans in existence. The paper ads spotlighting Levi’s cowboy branding. The modern spin on the theme via Jake Gyllenhaal’s “Brokeback Mountain” attire.
As the company reflects on the past, it’s quite natural to look to the future. And Levi’s very much sees its future in innovation — from a digital device plugged into a jacket sleeve to social and sustainability initiatives.
The fashion industry at large seems to have woken up to its greater responsibility. For Levi’s, it sees the call to arms as a natural extension of its legacy.
“I think the company understands itself very much in the context of the values of the founder, Levi Strauss, and the values of the family, descended from over the last 160-odd years,” Paul Dillinger, Levi’s head of global product innovation, told WWD. He described the corporate culture as one that believes in a responsibility to lead in areas like social justice, fair labor, environmental responsibility and resource conservation by breaking new ground in product innovation.
“It’s very similar to the focus on product innovation at the founding of the company, when we were trying to build a more durable product by adding a copper rivet,” he said. “It’s material innovation in service of objective product value.”
Now, Levi’s is investing in creating value that’s informed by issues like climate change and global fair label standards. According to Dillinger, those influences are what’s driving some of the company’s initiatives today — “much like that need for a better path for miners for more durable, more useful [garments] driving innovation back in the 1870s,” he said.
For instance, Levi’s has been working with hemp, which is more sustainable compared to conventional cotton cultivation, and developed a new cottonized version that looks, feels and wears like cotton fibers.
“We launched it this past spring a year ago, and we evolved it as a white denim. We evolved it into a rinsed indigo denim for fall. But this spring, we’re about to come to market in men’s and women’s with a cottonized hemp that looks like a washed, faded pair of Levi’s,” Dillinger continued. “But it does not feel like a burlap sack — which is the true elevation in the hemp space. To get it to feel good.”
Dillinger describes the work as an “important sea change in our approach to industrial conservation,” because it starts with a sustainable crop, then modifies it without negative environmental impact to offer consumers an uncompromising product.
“If they didn’t read the hangtag or know some of the interior markings, they would be wholly unaware that they’re wearing an industrial revolution,” he said. Even better, it’s ultimately recyclable or, rather, easily “redeployable” as material for use in other items or in other ways.
The company credits the consumer for being the driving force for the effort. “That it shows up for women consumers for the first time this spring is a really important evolution,” he said, adding, ”that the women’s consumer demand signal for this type of product is pulling these ideas through, rather than trying to push them onto the consumer.”
That would mean clothes made from this cottonized hemp may not wind up in a museum exhibit someday. And that may suit the company just fine.
Levi’s has always been “a canvas for personal expression,” Panek explained. “They were born as a blue-collar, working-class pant. In many ways, they’re a grassroots garment, and they worked their way up over time and across the globe. I can’t think of a brand that could do that, and be able to capture all of those things, and tell that story in the way that Levi’s does. That, perhaps, speaks to the idea of just what kind of democratic brand it is.
“It’s really the people’s garment, in many ways,” she said.
All photo credits, unless otherwise listed: “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style” (installation view), at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, on view Feb 13–Aug 9, 2020