No, I am not talking about the French anthropologist who applied structuralism to indigenous societies. Rather it is the blue jean company that has fallen upon hard times, much to my dismay. I imagine that after posting this and the one on Barneys yesterday, this will be the last I have to say on the rag trade for some time to come.
After going from a 34 waist to a 31, I have had to replace my trousers some of which were over 10 years old including a pair of Levi’s 501 blue jeans. I have had a pair of such jeans going back to 1961 in my freshman year at Bard College when upperclassmen advised me that they were “cool”. They have a button fly and shrink a size or two after the first washing. The material was like stiff and heavy canvas when it first came off the shelf but softened and faded most pleasingly after about a dozen cycles through the washing machine.
Unfortunately the 501 jeans Levi-Strauss sells today have nothing in common with my original pair except the name. The material is thinner and cheap looking. They are also prewashed. The upside is that you don’t have to worry about shrinkage. The downside is that they look like crap.
If you go to Amazon.com, you will find the “most helpful critical review” of the Levi’s 501 jeans:
Real 501’s are made of 14 oz canvas-like material. These “Iconic Rigid” jeans are made of some sleazy, much lighter material that takes on a carefully contrived set of wrinkles to make them look like they’d been worn to bed soaking wet and dried out overnight. If you want real 501’s stay away from these. I sent mine back right away.
Before revealing how this state of affairs came to be, a look at the roots of this garment manufacturer would be useful.
Levi Strauss (the first name is generally a last name in Jewry, it means a member of a priestly caste) was a German Jew who launched his blue jean company in 1853 out of San Francisco. The jeans were actually pioneered by a Latvian Jewish tailor named Jacob Davis who purchased denim from Levi Strauss. When the miners and other hardscrabble men who bought pants from Davis kept coming back to have them patched, he came up with the idea of reinforcing them with copper rivets at the points of maximum stress like the pockets corners. As is often the case in design, functionality and beauty are joined at the hip.
Although they started out as work clothes like the Carhartt brand, they became a fashion statement in the 30s and 40s with the growing popularity of dude ranches. The look became popular in Hollywood films, with James Dean in “Giant” being representative.
As well as Marlin Brando in “The Wild One”.
By the time I got to Bard College, Levi jeans had become popular among the early 60s hipsters—most of whom were strongly influenced stylistically by the beat generation. Bob Dylan wore Levi’s.
Rapidly approaching my 69th birthday, I suppose I seem a bit foolish trying to dress in the same style I had adopted in 1961 but then again I remain attached inexplicably to the habits of my youth, including Marxism. It looks like I will be wed to Marxism for as long as I live but unfortunately the Levi 501 jeans will go by the wayside.
So what happened? This article puts it altogether:
The Guardian, Sunday 3 June 2007
Story of the blues
By Hadley Freeman
Levi’s was the original denim brand. In 1873, Jacob Davis, a tailor, hooked up with Levi Strauss to create a special pair of trousers for a woodcutter that were strong enough to hold in his bloated stomach. But things have come a long way since then and many industry observers say Levi’s has failed to keep pace.
Since 1996, the company’s sales have been dropping fast. It has lost billions of dollars in sales, closed dozens of factories and laid off nearly half of its workforce because, competitors say, it failed to take advantage of the change in the denim market when jeans shifted from being seen as a work garment to a style statement. Jonny Sorensen, the chief executive of Von Dutch, one of the denim brands Levi’s is suing, told the New York Times: “[Levi's] missed the boat. Now they want to make a lot of noise and scare people away.”
Calvin Klein introduced the concept of designer denim back in 1978, and Helmut Lang upped the ante two decades later by giving his jeans designer prices. But it wasn’t until the late 90s, with the emergence of Earl jeans from California, that the denim craze truly took hold. This label shifted people’s perceptions of jeans: no longer were they chunky workman wear but a sexy item that showed off a woman’s figure. In Earl’s first year, it had a turnover of $600,000. In its second, sales rose to $10m. In 2001 the company was sold for roughly $86m. “A woman now needs a different pair for every occasion, just like shoes: some days you want a sexy pair, other days you want to be more relaxed and slouchy,” says Suzanne Pendlebury, womenswear buyer for Harvey Nichols.
But the emphasis here is on “new”: jeans are not what they once were – baggy, frumpy, clumpy – and the mid-priced classic brands, such as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler, have struggled in the new marketplace. They have been squeezed out between, on the one hand, the flashier designer brands and, on the other, the cheap ranges offered in supermarkets and on the high street. Topshop’s Baxter jeans, for example, sell 18,000 pairs a week. Both the top and the bottom ends of the market have focused on denim’s new fashion-based image. Lee and Wrangler, on the other hand, have struggled with stagnating sales. Last year, Levi’s ended an eight-year fall in sales but it is still trying to recoup its losses from its period of what Onda describes as “steep decline” in the late 1990s.
Levi-Strauss’s collapse raises all sorts of interesting questions about the commodity. Here is a product that underwent no significant changes since its birth around 150 years ago. It began to die in the marketplace as soon as people like Calvin Klein began to market blue jeans as a fashion item rather than a workaday garment (even though it did have its own esthetic.)
To what extent are there real benefits in style changes? Also, what was the role of such a “proletarian”, no-frills garment in destabilizing societies that were based on the rejection of commodity fetishism? The Levi-Strauss website recounts the role of their product in the Cold War:
Back (Then) in the U.S.S.R.
Russia – part of the former Soviet Union – is a fairly new market for Levi’s® jeans, but the company and the brand actually visited that country more than fifty years ago.
In 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to increase cultural contact between the two countries in order to ease tensions between the Cold War rivals. The agreement stated that exhibits are “an effective means of developing mutual understanding,” and both nations agreed to host exhibitions from the other country. In 1959 the United States Information Agency coordinated the American National Exhibition which was sent to Moscow. Vice President Richard Nixon opened the Exhibition on July 25. (Remember the Kitchen Debate?)
Included in the displays of American culture, science, and technology was a good- sized booth created by Levi Strauss & Co., filled with displays of 501® jeans and Western-themed advertising. Staffers wore jeans and cowboy shirts, and 501® jeans were also worn by entertainers hired to treat the crowds to some down home American music.
Although jeans were frowned upon by Soviet officials as symbols of decadence and western imperialism, the products on display had to be replaced almost daily. Why? As explained then by the international press service R&F Features, “Eager Soviet visitors handled – and occasionally helped themselves to – display samples of the all-American denim pants.”
Levi’s® jeans were a coveted, but forbidden capitalist item in the Soviet Union for the next thirty years. Then, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Russian citizens could buy “real” (not black market) Levi’s® jeans for the very first time.
The LS&CO. Archives has a letter from one such happy customer, a woman named Larisa Popik, who wrote us in August of 1991:
A man hasn’t very much happy minutes in his life, but every happy moment remains in his memory for a long time. I’m not the fanatic of clothes, but the buying of Levi’s jeans (501) is one of such moments in my life. I’m 24, but while wearing your jeans I feel myself like a 15-years-school-girl, I feel myself like a graceful, slender and beautiful girl.
Thank you very much for such comfortable, soft, light and nice jeans. Good luck to your kind and necessary business!
So, Levi 501 jeans—a vanguard fighter for capitalist restoration—now falls victim to the very process it seemed contrary to.
Maybe there’s hope for Levi’s in filling a niche for those wealthy enough to purchase jeans that perhaps allude to their birth in a place totally the opposite of where they are sold now: Barneys.