Heritage DenimA History of Levi Strauss
The story of denim is intricately intertwined with the modern history of the USA, the West, and specifically San Francisco. What else encapsulates this once scrappy city’s spirit better than a pair of humble work pants, created by an immigrant for hard working labourers, reinvented continuously with the passing of time, and exported across the globe?
Once, on a road trip in Bavaria, I made a pit stop in Buttenheim, the kind of medieval town that pop up storybooks imitate. I visited a white and blue timbered house that was now a small museum, dedicated to a man who was born and raised in the town. His formative years from 1829 to 1847 were spent in this picturesque German town, and then he left, travelling as far west as he could, first to New York, then eventually on to San Francisco. He would forever change the way the world dresses; his name was Levi Strauss.
Levi Strauss & Co has its headquarters in the heart of San Francisco, and it couldn’t be more different from its founder’s humble birthplace. Inside the soaring atrium, awash in Californian sun, I browse vitrines containing an array of veteran denim from a tattered pair of pants once used to tow a car, to a blinged out jacket adorned with bottle caps and trinkets. This is The Vault, the lobby exhibition space of Levi’s, and it is a crash course on the clothing conglomerate’s corporate history. With displays such as Gold Rush era dungarees, photographs of denim clad WWII soldiers, and jeans worn by celebrities like Beyonce, however, this little showcase might as well be a tribute to Unites States history at large. The story of denim is intricately intertwined with the modern history of the USA, the West, and specifically San Francisco. What else encapsulates this once scrappy city’s spirit better than a pair of humble work pants, created by an immigrant for hard working labourers, reinvented continuously with the passing of time, and exported across the globe?
Paul O’Neill, Head of Design at Levi’s Vintage Clothing, is entrusted with bringing original designs from the archive back to life. Stitch by stitch, rivet by rivet, O’Neill revives old garments that had previously been relegated to memory by replicating a few of the 20,000 historic garments in the archives each year. “Today’s fashion trends do not influence how we curate Levi’s Vintage Clothing,” O’Neill says, explaining that he actively tries to ignore current fads when deciding which items to resuscitate. “We are always digging into American history, looking for new stories to tell.”
As I leave the Levi’s building, I spot Coit Tower, a slim, 64 m Art Deco monument surrounded by boxy two storey homes. Next, I walk up Filbert, a street so steep that at one point, it simply gives up, turning into a set of wooden steps scaling Telegraph Hill toward Coit Tower. The stairs zigzag under a canopy of gnarled trees and then through terraced gardens. The air is scented with honeysuckle and other flowers I can’t name, and far above the noise of the streets, the only sounds I hear belong to a feral flock of parrots that have found their home here. Like most San Franciscans, these red masked parakeets are descendants of migrants from elsewhere; originally from the Andes, it’s likely they came to San Francisco as pets before taking to the wild again. From the tower, I watch San Francisco shimmer through the recurrent fog that has begun rolling in. The enigmatic Transamerica Pyramid soars through the translucent curtain, flanked by anonymous grey skyscrapers. With one hand I blocked them out; right underneath my palm are pastel hued Victorian houses dating to the late 19th century. I remember what O’Neill said about digging into history in order to tell new stories. Orienting oneself to the past to create a brand new story today had sounded like an oxymoron – especially in the context of this tech boomtown where a youthful workforce devotes their lives to building the newest, shiniest gadgets – but looking down at the city unfurling beneath me like a quilted blanket, his comment makes sense. From a trading post of the Muwekma Ohlone people to a Spanish mission, a Gold Rush port to tech epicentre, the city has come a long way. But despite the trappings of a hypermodern technopolis, San Francisco is an old fashioned town at heart.