Levi’s Is Creating a 501 Experience in San Francisco

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Levi’s is giving a boost to its hometown, San Francisco.

The denim giant is creating an immersive, open-to-the-public 501 Experience opening Friday at the beleaguered city’s historic Skylight at the Armory venue in the Mission District.

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As part of its yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of the 501, the activation will highlight the brand’s association with San Francisco, its birth city, with an archival gallery, opportunities for customization, a pop-up store, hometown marketplace and more.

The 40,000-square-foot venue will host several installations, bringing the bounty contained in the brand’s archives, housed in its Battery Street headquarters, to the public.

“It’s the first of its kind, the largest public display of our archives of 501s ever,” said Chris Jackman, vice president of global brand marketing at Levi’s. “It’s going to be really tactile and inspirational. You can sit and hang out and be in it. There are only so many places you can sit and feel the brand.”

On display will be the oldest pair of Levi’s jeans, as well as denim worn by the Rolling Stones, Lauryn Hill, Leon Bridges, Patti Smith, Damien Hirst, San Francisco gay activist and politician Harvey Milk and Bay Area tech pioneer Steve Jobs.

The pieces will show how the 501 went from Gold Rush-era workwear patented in 1873 to become a canvas for social history, fashion and pop culture, which the brand continues to mine, partnering with K-pop group NewJeans on a spring campaign for the 501, and a concert to be held in Seoul on 501 Day, this Saturday.

To recognize the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, the denim brand has also teamed with Rolling Loud, the first and largest global hip-hop music festival, as their first global partner. There will be special Rolling Loud music shows in San Francisco, Tokyo, Paris and London on Saturday as well.

More amusing pieces of Levi’s history will also be on display, including one of the famed Levi’s denim-blue AMC Gremlin cars from the 1970s, with copper-colored interior stitching, denim pockets with a Levi’s tag, and a Levi’s logo on the fender.

An operational denim loom will let visitors participate in the loom to pattern, cut and sew experience in a factory space based on the Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab at the headquarters. There will be a chance to create “Made in San Francisco” 501 jeans using laser customization, wash and arcade finishes, in consultation with Bart Sights, Levi’s production expert. Only 150 pairs will be created, each hand-numbered.

A denim workshop will offer on-site repairs, and workshops on sustainability, upcycling and denim design from brand partners including Nicole McLaughlin and 625 Industries.

Of course, there will be a pop-up shop, too, featuring all manner of 501s and some exclusives, as well as trucker jackets, T-shirts and shorts. The store will have its own tailor, where visitors can customize new pieces on the spot.

Another retail element, a hometown marketplace will offer a curation of local vendors, including Verve Coffee Roaster, Woodshop, Tunnel Records and Humprey Slocombe Ice Cream.

“We had an experience at Art Basel in Miami a few years ago, and it was open to the public with a lot of different stations where you could interact with the brand. And some light bulb moments went off there. As we started to get closer to ‘The Greatest Story Ever Worn’ campaign that’s out now, a big part of that storytelling was coming out of the archives….So it all came together and zeroed in on San Francisco,” said Jackman of the genesis for the idea, which follows a trend of open-to-the-public brand activations such as the Barbie Experience now open in Santa Monica, Louis Vuitton’s “200 Trunks, 200 Visionaries” traveling exhibition and more.

San Francisco has been getting a bad rap lately, particularly its downtown, with Nordstrom recently joining a long list of retailers leaving the neighborhood including Whole Foods, Anthropologie, Saks Off 5th and Coco Republic, citing a lack of foot traffic since the pandemic, and unsafe conditions.

“It’s the birthplace of the 501, we never thought of doing it elsewhere,” Jackman said. “The goal was to pay homage to the city, to everyone who has touched felt and made the 501 what it is today. We’re faithful to San Francisco.”

The Levi’s 501 Experience is aimed at all ages, non-ticketed and free to the public from Friday to May 27.

Jackman said while this exact experience will not travel, the brand is having similar activations in 20 global cities, including London, Seoul and Bangkok.

“The 501 is the blue print for all jeans that followed,” he said. “We felt it was the right time to celebrate.”

The year of celebrating should pay off; Levi’s expects the 501 to generate $800 million in sales this year, a 70 percent increase since before the pandemic.

Levi’s chief executive officer Chip Bergh told WWD last month, “I always say, when your most iconic item is cranking — and the 501 is cranking right now — it’s a really good sign for the strength of the brand.”

Launch Gallery: Inside Levi’s 501 Experience in San Francisco

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