Look pretty… and you’re bound to, in these sparkling new separates from Levi’s Denim Family.
I love a good company history, and Levi’s by Ed Cray did not disappoint. It’s not a complete history because the book was published in 1978, but in a way it makes it all the more interesting to know what has happened in the company in the past thirty-six years.
You might know that Levi Strauss was an immigrant who ended up in San Francisco. There he opened a dry goods store soon after his arrival in the city in 1853. His brothers in New York shipped goods to him which he then sold first as a peddler, then as a shopkeeper. His big moment came in 1872 when tailor Jacob Davis wrote to him about marketing the duck cloth (canvas) overalls he had devised. To make them stronger, Davis put in metal rivets at certain stress points.
Strauss and his brothers applied for a patent for Davis, and the rest is, well, history. Davis sold a half interest in the patent to the Strauss family in return for them handling the manufacture of the pants. Soon Levi Strauss and Company was selling riveted jeans all over the West.
At first the brothers tried having the jeans manufactured in New York and then shipped to San Francisco, but it soon became apparent that shipping problems made a local factory necessary. A factory was contracted in San Francisco, and it produced the jeans until the earthquake in 1906. By that time Levi had died and had passed the company on to his nephews. The old factory being damaged, the company decided to build a new one which was owned by them. For the next one hundred years Levi’s jeans would be made primarily in factories owned by the company.
Through the years, the growth at Levi Strauss and Co. was ongoing and consistent. Even though the family grew wealthy and the company greatly increased in size, the product was mainly regional, being confined to the American West. And the company was still owned and run by the descendants of the Strauss family.
It took World War II to bring about big changes. Until the war and the scarcity of materials, there had never been any changes in the design of the jeans, which was the button fly model 501. During the war, the back cinch belt was eliminated along with six buttons that were for suspenders. And for a while there were no belt loops, but they were added back after the war. During the war many GIs and war workers stationed on the West Coast had discovered Levi’s jeans, causing a demand for them nationwide. It was just what the family had been wanting – a new market for their product.
The factory in San Francisco was no longer able to keep up with demand, and so Levi Strauss and Co. opened factories all over the country. They also expanded their product line which included women’s wear. The company had experimented with Levis for women in the 1930s, but the line was not successful, but the more casual lifestyle of Americans after WWII made jeans more appealing to women. Along with the jeans, Levi Strauss made casual separates to coordinate with the colors of the jeans and the shorts made of denim.
Levi’s became even more popular with young people because they were being worn by actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, but it was the counter-culture movement of the 1960s that really caused the jeans market to explode. Take a moment and think about how interesting it is that a movement that was protesting against the status quo was the catalyst for an economic boom for the denim industry.
After the 1960s the growth continued at a frenzied pace. International expansion took place, with Levi’s jeans being manufactured in the countries where they were sold. Changes in the design had to be made, especially through the bell-bottom years. But by the mid 1970s the company was over-extended in some of their markets, and the quality of the jeans made outside the USA had slipped. The company had to take drastic action to correct the problems and save Levi Strauss and Company’s reputation.
Through all the years and the ups and downs, Levi Strauss remained a company that was committed to their employees. During the time that factory was closed due to the earthquake, employees continued to receive a paycheck even though most of them were not able to work. The owners managed to keep the factory going during the Great Depression. Factory employees made a higher wage than was the industry standard. The Strauss family took pride in making sure their employees were happy and not tempted by the union organizers.
The book ends in 1977, but there were signs even then that big changes were coming to the clothing manufacturing industry. For the first time some Levi Strauss employees lost their jobs due to a reorganization of a distribution center. It was, of course, a drop in the bucket compared to the American jobs lost due to manufacturing of Levi’s products being out-sourced in the years to come.
Today, Levis Strauss and Company is still owned primarily by the descendants of the family of Levi Strauss. None of the family is involved in the management of the company. Very few Levi’s products are made in the USA. The book sure makes one nostalgic for the good old uncomplicated days of the 1950s.
I lucked into this book at a thrift store, but it can be bought very cheaply on Amazon. It’s an entertaining and interesting book, though the parts where the author sings the praises of the charitable work of the Strauss family gets a bit tedious.