THE INTERNATIONAL headquarters of Levi Strauss & Co. looms over the northeast tip of San Francisco Bay, a sprawling modernist complex of red brick and glass. Tucked away in a small office, adjacent to the main building, is where you’ll find many of the company’s most valued possessions— and, arguably, its most valuable employee. Lynn Downey is the historian at Levi’s, the gatekeeper of the nearly 7,500 garments and significant materials in the label’s archives. She radiates passion for her work, and it’s evident from the top of her head to the cuffs of her vintage 501s—quite literally, considering her hair is dyed the colour of Levi’s famed copper rivets.
Despite the fact that all of the brand’s records from its first five decades were wiped away by the San Francisco earth- quake and fire of 1906, since joining Levi’s in 1989, Downey has grown the archive’s collection of pre-1900 jeans from a single pair to 11, including the world’s oldest known dungarees—a tattered pair of 501s circa 1879, discovered at the pit of an abandoned mine. A quick tour of Downey’s office reveals even more remarkable treasures: a pile of personal letters from Cary Grant, declaring his love for Levi’s western shirts; a predictably flamboyant denim jacket hand-decorated by Sir elton John; a model of a collaborative AMC car with custom denim interiors.
Speaking with Downey is just as fascinating, her conversation peppered with tangential historical anecdotes—including, among others, dozens of stories of how Levi’s jeans have saved people’s lives. “One guy, literally, someone shot him and the bullet bounced off the top button of his jeans.”
The sustained worldwide appeal of Levi’s is no mystery for Downey. “I always say eve- ry generation gets the 501 jean it needs,” she says, “because every generation decides what it’s going to say by wearing jeans. In the ’30s, if you were wearing jeans and you weren’t a labourer, it was a sign of solidarity with the working class. In the ’50s, wearing jeans meant you completely rejected the whole suburban grey-flannel-suit ethos of post-war America. People use jeans as representations. No other piece of cloth- ing will do that.”
This year marks the 140th anniversary of the 501, and Levi’s has chosen to celebrate with an ambitious new collection inspired by traditional Indian garment-dying techniques. The original blue jean has been reinterpreted in an ultra-modern, lightweight fabric and dyed in eye-popping hues with names like Clove, Ivy Green, and Mineral Red. It’s safe to say that Levi’s culture of pushing boundaries has been preserved, but don’t ask Downey where the illustrious brand is headed next.
“How should I know?” she guffaws. “I’m a historian! The one thing about Levi’s is that it’s never static, and it doesn’t live in the past—that’s what they have me for.”