In Conversation With Fashion Icon Levi’s 501® Jeans On Its 150th Anniversary

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It is the early 1870s. In his tailoring shop, Jacob Davis is busy at the machine – his “work pants” have found many takers in the thriving mining industry in California. The resourceful Davis adds copper rivets on canvas trousers making the pants more durable and adding to the ease of movement. Convinced about the potential of the product. Davis gathers his copper riveted waist overalls and hauls it over to his dry goods supplier Levi Strauss. The two team up on a denim and duck canvas version, which they patent in 1873, and this was the officially launch of what would become known as the 501® jeans.

The thing about the 501® jeans is that it’s no longer considered just a piece of garment. It’s part of a culture, an icon. It’s been a favourite with the fashion crowd in particular. Hailey Beiber has been a fan of the jeans- one that she’s described as a relaxed fit that she loves. Kendall Jenner has often been spotted in the jeans, her pick for a casual day about town, or for a coffee run. Marilyn Monroe’s off duty look often featured the 501 jeans long before she strutted her stuff in the popular jeans on screen in The Misfits. Supermodel Cindy Crawford has also been a patron, her 2016 throwback inspired a whole collaboration with the brand.

The jeans celebrates 150 years of being around, and we caught up with the 501® jeans for a freewheeling chat.

Steve Job’s signature denim

ELLE: You’ve been around for 150 years! That’s a long time, how do you feel?

501® jeans: You know, when you’ve been around for as long as I have, time becomes a mere construct. I have seen historical moments and cultural, and been worn by icons and legends but what strikes me is that every generation has accepted me with open wardrobes. Sure, I have seen my share of distress (there are was a time in the 90s when I thought I would be reduced to mere threads), but time and again, people have thrown me on and trusted me to be part of their greatest moments. That is a truly humbling experience.

ELLE: You’ve also come to become a pop culture icon. What’s it like to have such a cult fan following?

501® jeans: When I started out, way back in 1873, I was made for miners, it was hard work. Over time I become popular with cowboys and rodeo drivers, as that hardy, workwear staple. But when, John Wayne wore a pair of cuffed 501® Originals in the movie Stagecoach in 1939, that’s when I was mainstream and things really started changing.

But I think I truly came of age after WWII. This was when teenagers embraced my silhouette – I went from being work pants to casual wear- and so found my calling in pop culture. Motorcycle clubs, artists, musicians, everyone was wearing me. And then Marlon Brando wore me in 1953’s The Wild One and it was at that point that I also become a sort of a symbol of counter culture, of anti-establishment, if you will. 

There’s the fact that some of the most stylish people have multiple pairs of me in their closets possibly do have something to do with this.

ELLE: In the 60s, you were all pervasive, but also had controversy around you. Tell us a little bit about that.

501® jeans: Someone once popularly said, ” Haters gonna hate”. When you’re everywhere, you are going to have people who want to find a chink in the armour. I was at Woodstock, I featured prominently on people during the Civil Rights movement as well as the Mods and Rockers of the UK. Bob Dylan wore me for an album cover. That was a quite a fan moment for me actually.  In fact, I might have been in the eye a bit too much, with the underpinnings of a counter culture movement, which meant that blue jeans often got banned from school. But hey, that didn’t stop anyone from wearing a pair of jeans. 

Lady Levi’s, the company’s first jeans for women

ELLE: Oh absolutely you did. You then went global in the 70s,80s and 90s. You couldn’t turn anywhere without spotting you. A true global icon.

501® jeans: In these decades, I like to think of myself as omnipresent. Word on the street was that you could find me in the black markets of the former Soviet Union, considered a bit of a prized possession. In Japan, vintage clothing was having a moment and getting your hands on the vintage 501® Originals gave street cred. And there were many versions of me. Rock stars like Kate Bush and Kim Gordon wore me shredded and torn, while hip-hop stars like Run D.M.C. and N.W.A preferred them crisp and dark. I also had patrons in people from the tech world, like Steve Jobs. The jeans he favoured were almost always me and of course, the much discussed black turtleneck completed the look.

Sportspeople have also taken a liking to me. Naomi Osaka has often been spotted in a pair. My straight leg silhouette clearly has a lot of takers. In fact, in 2013, Barack Obama sported in, what has now become an oft-cited moment at a sports game.

From workwear staple to a must-have fashion piece, I have come a long way. I was named “fashion item of the 20th century,” by Time Magazine in 1999, a title few can claim and it’s quite exciting.

- Digital Editor


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