Levis: The Most Ubiquitous, High-Fashion Workwear Brand
Picture a pair of perfect-fitting, high-waisted jeans: medium-wash, straight-leg and marked by a leather embossed emblem at the waistline. The back pockets feature a curved arch made of tan stitches and a red tab with white writing graces the inner right pocket. This is a pair of Levi’s, the classic denim brand that celebrated its 145th anniversary earlier this year.
The company was founded by Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant who came to the U.S. in the 1800’s. In 1853, Strauss opened a store in San Francisco selling American staples like blankets and Western clothing, but it wasn’t until twenty years later that Strauss made his first pair of denim pants. Complete with a button-fly closure, five pockets and copper rivets to enclose the seams, these jeans were a prototype of the 501’s we know today. Just over 145 years later, the Levi’s brand remains a symbol of American culture, celebrating its workwear past while simultaneously using strategic collaborations, meticulous legal practices, and a sustainable business model to stay relevant and authentic. It is the only workwear-rooted brand that can mold to any style, social group or spending method, making it accessible and appealing to the anti-fashion crowd, vintage-enthusiasts, and high-fashion lovers alike.
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Levi’s jeans were originally constructed for cowboys, miners and engineers to wear during work, but entered the realm of everyday wear in the 1940s when they were adopted by every subcultural group imaginable. Beatniks and bohemians sported beat-up Levi’s in the 40s and 50s, hippies made patchwork recycled versions in the 60s and 70s, punks distressed and studded them in the 80s, and grunge groups wore baggy versions with plaid shirts in the 90s. While Levi’s helped these groups mold their society-eschewing image, the brand simultaneously achieved mainstream notoriety.
One of Levi’s most notable enthusiasts, Marilyn Monroe, sported a tight-fitting pair of Levi’s in the 1961 film, “The Misfits,” a story in which her divorcee character falls for Clark Gable’s rugged cowboy persona. The movie wasn’t an endorsement deal with the brand—just pure coincidence—yet girls who emulated Monroe scooped up Levi’s after seeing the film. This iconic movie moment was pivotal for Levi’s, as it demonstrated the workwear brand could set fashion trends.
Nearly 60 years later, Levi’s still embraces these roots by creating collections inspired by cultural moments and subcultural aesthetics. The brand reissued Albert Einstein’s Menlo leather jacket, one of the first pieces he wore in the U.S. Then there’s the recent collection inspired by Beverly Hills 90210. The “Brenda” and “Donna Martin” mom-jeans mimic the 90s styles worn by Jenni Garth and Shannon Doherty’s characters in the show. For Spring/Summer 2018, Levi’s created Hawaiian-printed shirts and relaxed denim inspired by the skate and surf culture of the 80s and 90s.
These novelty items have certainly boosted Levis’ reputation, but a few successful collections aren’t enough for a business to achieve long-term profitability in the fashion industry. Levi’s has achieved its longevity through numerous collaborations with a range of different brands. In 2017, Levi’s announced 50 different collaborations which helped increase its total revenue by seven percent that year.
In a recent interview with Complex, Levi’s Global Head of Design Jonathan Cheung said that the company won’t stop collaborating, but will continue to be picky about the brands it partners with. Levi’s executive VP JC Curleigh recently told The Business of Fashion that the collaborations are part of the brand’s effort to set market trends and appeal to all different consumers.
Today Levi’s repertoire boasts a variety of collaborations from mass retailers, streetwear companies, tech firms and luxury design houses: think logo tees and revamped 501’s for Urban Outfitters, denim Air Jordans for Nike and denim jackets emblazoned with basketball logoed patches for the NBA. There are brightly-colored corduroy pieces for Opening Ceremony and a jacket with a built-in iPod remote that Levi’s created with Google. If you want to splurge, opt for the artfully reconstructed patchwork and printed jeans that Levi’s created with Vetements and Junya Watanabe—they will set you back $600-$1000.
Vetements' styles, which are fully reconstructed and feature zippers all over, went unequivocally viral in 2016. They have been worn by the likes of Kendall Jenner, and nearly every fast-fashion retailer has made some sort of replica, many containing exposed zippers and frayed hems. The Junya Watanabe collaboration, which features plaid patches on the knees, extra buttons, and intricately detailed stitching, haven’t been replicated simply because they are so unique.
Celebrities and fashion’s elite crowd seem to love every type of Levi’s—whether it be a high-end collaboration or a classic vintage pair. Even Beyonce sported a pair of Levi’s cutoffs while performing at Coachella this year, and in true Beyonce-form, balanced them out with some glittery custom Balmain boots. We also have more down-to-earth celebs like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Garner and Olivia Wilde, who will sport baggy Levi’s with a plain white tee for their everyday outings.
Despite its high-fashion ties, Levi’s denim remains a staple in the wardrobes of the anti-fashion crowd and vintage-lovers alike. Even if you can’t afford to buy the fancy $700 Vetements Levi’s, you can thrift a pair at your local secondhand shop for around $15. Levi’s are sold at almost any and every thrift store imaginable and are often lived-in and distressed, a process that mainstream denim brands spend hours to achieve. It can take some time to find a pair that fits you correctly, but if you don’t have time or patience to sift through racks of unmarked jeans, you can save up and purchase a pair of “reclaimed vintage” jeans for approximately $80-$120. Thousands of reworked, remodeled vintage Levi’s are on the shelves of Urban Outfitters, Reformation, and Re/Done. Each pair is one-of-a-kind, and the curating and styling have already been done for you.
Then there’s the crème de le crème of old Levi’s—Levi’s Authorized Vintage, which launched at the end of last year. California native Jeff Fuller spent years collecting Levi’s and acquired 50,000 styles from nearly every decade. Levi’s bought Fuller’s collection last year and is selling each pair online for around $200. They come in all kinds of washes and fits, and some are punked-up with writing and rips from previous owners. You can even have these jeans perfectly tailored for you—all you have to do is visit Levi’s flagship store in Soho. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.
Levi’s pays just as much attention to manufacturing new products as it does to restoring its old ones. The brand is directing its efforts to meet the fashion industry’s sustainability goals. The industry has a national goal to produce “zero-waste” by 2030 and Levi’s plans to use 100 percent recycled cotton within the next two years. The brand is also part of the Sustainable Apparel Association and has produced both a “waterless” and a “wasteless” collection. Not to mention, Levi’s offers public lists of its manufacturing suppliers and fabric mills to show customers they use sustainable materials and ethical compliance standards in their factories.
Ethical manufacturing is just part of how Levi’s maintains its integrity. The company also works hard to ensure that its products are original and that no other brand copies its trademarked designs. Levi’s has more than 40 employees that search the world for copycats. In the early 2000’s, Levi’s sued more than 100 companies—from Von Dutch to Esprit and Zumiez—for copying its signature arc stitching. The most recent offender is KENZO, an LVMH-backed brand whose Britney Spears-La Collection Memento No. 2 featured a pair of jeans with a white tab on its back pocket. Levi’s slapped the luxury brand with a lawsuit last month, arguing that the white tab is too close to its signature red tab logo. The variety of brands that have copied Levi’s demonstrates the brand’s inherent ability to affect different sartorial tastes and social classes.
The humble jeans worn by workers and working-class subcultures have become a form of high fashion while maintaining their accessible origins, and we have the hippies, the punks and other subcultures to thank for this fashion revolution. Levi’s disrupted society with styles adapted by deviants, but over time, the commercial clothing market undoubtedly took notice. As per Hebdige’s subcultural theory, new styles are usually seen as “forbidden” before they hit the mainstream mass. Just last year, Levi’s took in $4.9 million in revenue—up 7 percent from 2016. Levi’s appeals to every consumer and stays true to its workwear roots, while maintaining a sustainable and successful business model. In its 145 years, Levis has never been more authentic and accessible. Its profitability is just a bonus.