Q&A: Levi’s Design Director and Historian on why the 501s are more than just a pair of jeans

·14-min read
levi's 501 150 aniversary hailey bieber
levi's 501 150 aniversary hailey bieber

You can’t bring up denim without talking about Levi’s. Go deeper into the conversation, and chances are the 501s will completely take over the discussion. 

It’s been 150 years since the 501s first saw the light of day. Everyone from presidents and CEOs, supermodels and hippies, to miners and builders have owned at least a pair of the famous Blue Jean. A lot has changed over the past 50 years – much less 150 – and few things have survived the test of time, but Levi’s legendary 501 has remained relatively untouched. So what is it about this particular pair of denims that’s had the world wrapped around its little finger for well over a century?

levi's 501
L to R: Tracey Panek and Paul O’Neill (Image credit: Levi’s)

For this age-old question, we sought only the best and most qualified people, Paul O’Neill and Tracey Panek. Paul is the brand’s Design Director for Levi’s Collections, and he manages Levi’s Vintage Clothing, Levi’s Made-in-Japan, and Levi’s Skate divisions, but you’d know that from a mile away based on how he made denim-on-denim look cool. He has, after all, worked on Levi’s Vintage Clothing for 14 years, where he creates concepts for new collections.

This also means that he works very closely with Tracey, the brand’s very own Historian. In addition to managing the archives, Tracey sniffs out marketing pieces, letters, catalogs, and everything else that helps to document the history of the company. She also fact checks to ensure all stories that the brand tells are accurate, and most importantly, lends her knowledge to the designers, who are the biggest users of the archives. Most of the collaborations and people that Levi’s works with start with a visit to this sacred space, which allows them to understand the aesthetic, origins, and products of the brand. For collaborators like NIGO, Supreme, and Stussy, working with Tracey is but a rite of passage.

But back to the 501s. In light of its 150th birthday this May, we dive deep into Paul and Tracey’s mind to learn about the history, culture, and evolution of the GOAT. (Plus, tips on how to properly wash your precious pairs, straight from the experts’ lips – finally).

Q&A: Levi’s Design Director Paul O’Neill and Historian Tracey Panek on 150 years of the Levi’s 501

Almost everyone owns a pair of 501s, but few know its history. Tell us about how this iconic pair came about.

TP: Its origin story is really one of partnership and innovation. Levi – who was an immigrant to America – comes to California during the Gold Rush. He sets up a dried goods whole sale business selling products like fabric and umbrellas and it becomes very successful. 

By 1872, Levi’s had been in San Francisco for almost 20 years, and he gets a letter from one of his customers, a tailor called Jacob Davis. In it, Davis asked for supplies like fabric, but he also shared an idea he had for making tough pants. Davis lived in Nevada not far from where the Comstock Lode was discovered, which was a major silver mining discovery that helped build San Francisco in the early years. The miners who worked there needed tougher pants, following requests from a woman who complained that her husband’s pair kept tearing. Davis had the idea of taking a tiny piece of metal – the rivets that we know today – to reinforce the pockets, because that’s where their hands would go in and out of the most. 

He created these pants, gave it to the customer, and word started going around. When he couldn’t keep up with demand, he wrote a letter to Levi, inviting his company to take out a patent with him and to partner on manufacturing them. That patent was granted on 20 May 1873, and we refer to that day as the birth of the modern blue jean which we would eventually call the 501.

PON: Yeah, it’s the ultimate collaboration. The story’s so fascinating, but what’s so special about the 501 to me is that it came from something so practical. It was a great solution to a problem and it birthed something that became so iconic. And if you look at the timeline of the jeans, you’ll see that it began in 1890 when we first gave the lot number 501.

Why do you think the 501 are so significant in the fashion world?

TP: First, it’s lasted 150 years and still looks (relatively) the same; all the important design features are still there, so one of the reasons is certainly its durability. I think Paul talked to the idea of it being simple. One thing I really appreciate is how the 501 really revolutionised fashion. I read a book by a sociologist called Global Denim several years ago, and in it they theorised that on any given day, nearly half the world’s population is wearing blue jeans. I tested this out, and you can too. It really has become the global garment, and I think that’s the massive testimony to how much it’s changed fashion.

When would you say then, that the Levi’s 501s went from being a practical workwear to fashion statement?

TP: I’d say it was when Lady Levi’s, the first women’s blue jeans which were the women’s version of the 501, appeared in Vogue magazine in 1935 on an article about dude ranches. It’s where people would go to vacation and they’d want to dress up as a cowboy. And the article says, “If you want to have a great time, get yourself a pair of Lady Levi’s, wear them cuffed and wear them with a Stetson hat.” So you start to see that people are using the jeans to dress for the occasion. 

After WWII, you see other instances of it. Europe was rebuilding after the war, and America had the first all-American fashion show in Paris in 1947. American manufacturers – including Levi Strauss and Co. – were invited to go, and one of the products they bring is the Lady Levi’s. They were worn by identical twins there, who stood out because everyone else were wearing couture gowns. But they were very well received and you start to see the blue jeans being accepted as a fashion statement. By the ’50s and ’60s, Hollywood starts to use the 501s in costumes, and then you start to see that shift to younger people wearing them as a way to express their personal style.

Was it at this fashion show in Paris that Levi’s moved into Europe as well?

levi's 501 denim blue jeans james dean
James Dean at a gas station with his silver Porsche 550 Spyder he named Little Bastard, just hours before his fatal crash. (Image credit: Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images)

TP: It was probably one of the ways that Levi’s was exposed abroad. Before that, American GIs during WWII also wore Levi’s with a white T-shirt when they weren’t in uniform, and people in Asia and across the Pacific and in Europe saw them for the first time, so that would be the first kind of entry into the market. By the ‘60s, we had so much interest overseas that we established an international division.

PON: Before that blue jeans were limited to dude ranches and certain ideas in Hollywood that was very Western, but they were really just workwear prior to that, and T-shirts were considered underwear. So it must’ve been shocking for people to see soldiers wearing underwear and workwear to go out to for a drink. Then James Dean and Marlon Brando pick up the look and it’s now rebellious and dangerous. But then, of course, 10 years later in the ‘60s, all the kids were wearing the same look to school, and now we’re all sitting here in these ‘dangerous clothing’. 

The beauty of the 501 is how it’s not only so accessible, but also that it’s the ultimate blank canvas for all of these different subcultures and generations. And you can see how hippies may have added panels in to create flares, how punks tapered and bleached them, or how other kids prefer to wear them really oversized. So everyone can take this very simple, classic garment and create something that’s completely unique to their own movement or their scene. They all look very unique, but they’re all wearing 501s, just in different ways.

How do you think the jeans have influenced culture over the last 150 years?

1960s August 1969 Teenage Boys And Girls Overloading A Car On Their Way To Woodstock Music Festival Bethel New York Usa. (Image credit: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
1960s August 1969 Teenage Boys And Girls Overloading A Car On Their Way To Woodstock Music Festival Bethel New York Usa. (Image credit: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

TP: It’s really the people who were wearing them and what they were doing in them that created these moments in history. So if you think about the rising youth generation in the ‘60s and Woodstock, these kids were all wearing denim; they’re wearing 501s. We have a 501 in our archive that was worn by a guy named George Calper, who wore his pair with a yellow psychedelic owl and a peace sign to Woodstock and people loved it. And because they’ve been worn so widely, they’ve become part of what’s happening in culture.

PON: If you look through history, people who were wearing 501s always stood out amongst their peers. People like Jackson Pollock were always wearing denim. Patti Smith always wore her 501s, as did Bob Dylan in the very early ‘60s when he was starting his career. 

Bob Dylan and his then girlfriend Susan Rotolo on the cover of his album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan and his then girlfriend Susan Rotolo on the cover of his album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Actually, his then-girlfriend, Susan Rotolo, used to slash the side of his jeans to add a little piece of fabric into them, so they would fit over his boots, and that was probably eight years before Levi’s made boot-cut jeans. But yeah, these people really become cultural icons.

And can you imagine like, when it was like designed as this workwear garment, what it was like for some of the older generation in the company just seeing it take off. No one could have anticipated this, and all of a sudden, they just had to let go of it. It had its own life. There were no rules anymore; it’s so cool.

How have you kept the 501s relevant for people today then?

PON: I think the changes in the 501 in the last 150 years have been very minimal. But there’s never been a time when the 501 has not been relevant. But we’re paying attention to what’s happening, and we’re looking to make some small tweaks.

TP: Yeah, and I think right now, young people love thrifting. As a historian, I’ll say that our products get better with age. They’re fine with it being trashed, torn, and older – they actually get more street cred by having it look that way. 

Since we’re on that topic of thrifting, what should people look out for if they’re on the hunt for a pair of vintage 501s?

TP: You’re going to want to look out for the button fly as opposed to the zip. If you’re looking for something that’s early vintage, look for the red tab on the back and a capital E on it.

The other thing that’s a good determinant of age is to look for the label on the inside. The longer and thicker the stack of tags are, the newer it is. So if you open up and there are no tags at all, they’re gonna be early.

PON: Yeah, and if you see Selvedge on the edge, you know that it’s around ’83 or pre ’85, so that’s always something cool to look for. And then like Tracy mentioned, if you have a capital E on the tab, it’s before 1971, so they become very expensive and rare in thrift stores. 

What’s the best way to season a new pair of 501s then?

TP: You need to earn your fade (laughs).

PON: They used to be rigid and sold unwashed, and they were always shrink-to-fit, which means that you’d have to buy them too big and they would shrink to fit you. People would sit in a bathtub with them to get them to fit their body shape really well. For the first 90 to 100 years, this was the only way you could buy them. We never started to wash jeans till the 1980s, when young people would do it on their own.

TP: We heard stories from people, “I sat on a brick stairway and I move back and forth,” or from sailors,”I hung mine over the edge of the ship. So they could get submerged and covered with the water.” They wanted them to look worn. And then we finally got a clue, “Oh, they really want them this way,” (laughs).

 If you could customise your dream pair, what would it look like?

TP: Maybe it’d have gold cast buttons. Or a little extra pocket where I could put my phone, something like that would be nice.

PON: I don’t ever want to customise them because I think they’re perfect. For me. It’s about finding the right shade of blue and fade because I’m always looking for vintage jeans. I’m a purist when it comes to the 501s.

What can fans of the Levi’s 501 look forward to?

PON: We’ll be launching the replica of the very first Blue Jean. There’s also some fun projects coming, such as this one that we’re calling the International 501. We’ve taken all the packaging, the branding, the sundries, and we’ve translated it. So we’re doing one for Japan, where everything’s translated in Japanese on the garment. There’s also one for India where it’s all in Hindi. And of course there’s the ’54 501, which is based on the ’54 pair that we have in the Levi’s vintage clothing timeline and in our archive, but that’s going to be a bigger story within the main Levi’s collection. And also, there’s the 1981, which is when the first official women’s 501 was launched.

And just so we clear this up once and for all: How should people wash their 501s?

TP: There are so many different messages. Again, everyone interacts with the 501s differently. I’ve personally washed my 501s – not very often, but I do watch them from time to time. And when I do wash them, I turn them inside out and on a very low heat setting, pretty much a cold wash. Then I would hang them on the line to dry.

PON: I rarely wash my my vintage pairs, but for the regular pairs I also turn them inside out and wash them cold. But yeah, you hear all sorts of crazy stories. Some put vinegar on them to try and eliminate the smell while others put them in the freezer. People do all sorts of crazy things to not wash them. When you don’t wash your 501s, that’s when you will get this really visual wear pattern where it’s really high contrast with all the cracks. But I do believe washing the fabric makes the fabric stronger.

About the Levi’s 501 Experience in Singapore:

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the jeans, Levi‘s is holding an interactive pop-up Levi’s 501 Experience for two days.

Dates and times: 20 May, 11am – 10.30pm; 21 May, 11am – 9pm

Location:72-13 Mohamed Sultan Rd, Singapore 239007

Admission is free for the public, and guests can expect activities such as denim workshops with FIN Crafted Goods, a NewJeans-themed party with DJ Clammr on 20 May and Sundowner with DJ TINC on 21 May, as well as denim customisation workshops with patches and embroidery at the Levi‘s® Tailor Shop. There will also be a Levi‘s 501 Experience Retail Shop where you get first dibs on the Levi‘s 501 150th anniversary collection, including the Levi‘s 501 Original Banner Pant and Trucker Jacket.

Register here.

The post Q&A: Levi’s Design Director and Historian on why the 501s are more than just a pair of jeans appeared first on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.