Lynn Downey is the only Levi Strauss & Co. employee who travels on the job with a 6-foot, 9-inch bodyguard. That’s because, as company historian, she’s responsible for the safekeeping of the denim maker’s irreplaceable treasures: genuine Levi’s jeans dating as far back as 1879, just a few years after the very fi rst pair of 501s were created in 1873. Downey brought a group of those noteworthy jeans—along with her bodyguard—to the MAGIC trade show in Las Vegas, and gave several presentations to curious denim buyers and aficionados about the history of the blue jean, which Levi’s is very proud to have invented. Donning white gloves, she showed off the company’s prize possession: the 1879 jeans that are valued at $125,000 and usually live in a fire-proof safe at Levi’s headquarters in San Francisco. Made from 9-ounce denim, the jeans feature suspender buttons and a cinch back, as was the style for workwear during that time.
“From the tell-tale wrinkling on the back of the knees, we can tell that the owner of these jeans was almost certainly a cowboy, who spent a lot of time on horseback,” said Downey.
A major earthquake and fire in 1906 that ravaged much of San Francisco destroyed Levi’s headquarters and all of its historic artifacts. Downey was hired in 1989 to reassemble a Levi’s archive and now has 11 pairs of jeans in her possession that date prior to 1901, mostly acquired through private dealers and auctions.
“We bought these from a New York dealer for $25,000,” she said, holding up a pair of frayed and patched jeans from 1890. “It was a steal. He didn’t know what he had,” she added with a gleam in her eye. But the Levi’s archive isn’t just about preserving relics. The company’s designers constantly turn to vintage models for inspiration for new styles. “They come in and bring cameras and sketch pads and look for certain washes or details they want to re-create,” explained Downey. “The archive is a living resource for Levi’s.”