What separates a classic from an icon? A few hundred years, give or take. From farmhands to tech billionaires, Levi’s shares a compelling slice of historical Americana through a curation of archival 501s.
It was the first snowfall of the year and a chilly morning mist descends at Passage Lhomme in Paris. The smartly dressed fashion week crowd threads carefully on the icy cobblestones, takeaway coffee cups in hand and is subsequently rewarded with a different kind of January blues.
On this discreet cul-de-sac, Levi’s has transformed a sprawling atelier into a temporary showroom housing iconic pieces from their impressive archives, preciously hand-carried by the house’s historian Tracey Panek all the way from San Francisco.
Ever the careful custodian, Panek steers me towards the genesis of this showcase: a pair of jeans that is estimated to be 133 years old. Tagged as the Barnyard 501s, the item has been unearthed from a barn in Northern California and likely belonged to a farmer. “Denim is a traditional workwear fabric, used to build really tough garments,” reminds Panek before sharing: “So this is all the dirt that the farmer got all over his pants, but you really can’t see it as much as the blue color hides it.”
Panek points to a circular shadow on the upper right side of the jeans, hinting on the original purpose of that small inner pocket. “It was created for a very common accessory in the 1800s, the pocket watch,” she explains. Various other marks attest to the years of wear and tear, joined with a slight patina of muddied workdays. It was beguiling to witness, fascinating like most excavated artifacts. In a time where global superstructures seem to be in their most fragile, when canonical history itself seems negotiable and arbitrary, here is a physical proof that withstood the test of time.
Even decades after, the item reflects a touchingly human experience and something universally relatable until today. Material reality taking the role of personal timekeepers, and as recording devices go, denim proves to be sturdy and particularly resilient. Surely, we all have that one pair of jeans that have stayed with us since forever.
The cult romcom Sisterhood of Travelling Pants would not have had much success (nor a sequel) without an ounce of truth in its basic premise: trusty blue jeans as a personal diary. Frayed cuffs for all the miles walked, nervous hands in pockets making deeper and deeper creases, splotches of acrylic or bejeweled back pockets bookmarking certain aesthetic explorations. An everyday essential logically translates to a watchful witness of our daily lives. Automatically sentimental just with the recurrent proximity to our bodies, it’s able to record the minutest details that we often brush over ourselves.
Another archival piece present in the show takes this affective element and amplifies it a hundredfold. Bartered outside a poker hall, the Prison Pants from the 1970s recount 30 years of one man’s life in jail. Using his white denim jeans as a blank canvas, he sketched detailed illustrations, cryptic patterns and personal manifesto throughout the course of his three-decade incarceration. “I had a tattoo artist into the archives at one time and he said that this is a particular type of prison art,” explains Panek. “It’s a very different kind of perspective but it’s also a tip of how Levi’s have been used as a canvas for self-expression.”
Here, Panek touches slightly on an important note, her close participation in the brand’s collaboration proccess. Contemporary fashion has proven that a deep and well-maintained archive could be a substantial source for successful re-editions and newer interpretations of past silhouettes. However, it takes a small hour with Panek, to witness her verve, to see that this goes deeper than the usual nostalgia mining. “One of the unique roles that I get to be in as the historian is I don’t just look back. I get to work with the designers who are creating our future products,” observes Panek.
An evolution that sits in concordance with the house’s values, but also a careful examination of a rich, multi-faceted history. A literaly unpacking of historical references, ranging from the very big (Steve Jobs’ personalized pair of jeans as part of his unofficial uniform or Virgil Abloh’s sherpa denim jacket iteration for the Off-White collab) to the more intimate (dusty 501s from an abandoned mine discovered by an adventurous teenage girl and then worn throughout her teenage years.) Sartorial memories serving as solid attestations to the longevity of Levi’s denim coupled with a dynamic desire to always innovate and adapt to current zeitgeist. The faint imprints moving from the 19th century pocket watch to today’s omnipresent smartphones, effectively redefining what it means to be truly timeless.
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