Levi’s 501 – 140th Anniversary Archive Workshop with Lynn Downey

Earlier last month, Stylesight’s denim team was lucky enough to be among the select group of journalists invited to meet Levi’s legendary historian (Queen of the archive) Lynn Downey in London as part of Levi’s 501 140th anniversary. Taking an in-depth retrospective of the iconic jean, Downey conducted the workshop with some of the rarest 501 archive pieces from the past 140 years, as well as a look at the first ever non-denim 501 launching for S/S 13.

This coming Monday, May 20, 2013, marks a milestone moment, both in the world of fashion and in American history. 140 years ago to this day, the original denim tailor Jacob Davis and San Francisco-based businessman Levi Strauss received the patent to their copper riveted waist overalls, marking the birth of one of the world’s most celebrated garments: the blue jeans.

With such an extensive and treasured history, Levi’s has ensured that its record of timeless products are never forgotten. Safely preserved inside their headquarters in San Francisco lies an archive of over 20,000 rare and unique examples of Levi’s clothing and artifacts dating back as early as 1873. The figure behind this vast accumulation is none other than California native Lynn Downey, who for the past 24 years, has been acting as Levi’s in-house archivist, overseeing the preservation and documentation of the company’s revered archival collection. It has been said that Lynn has done more for Levi’s history than any other person, piecing together their broken history (bringing back and collecting what Levi’s had lost in the [1906] earthquake and subsequent fire ) they have had over the past 140 years. An idol in the denim industry, Lynn has been championed for solely for curating Levi’s private library of denim from a mere 5,000-piece back-catalogue, to a collection that’s now worth approximately £1.9m.

Lynn’s UK visit was part of Levi’s ongoing celebrations as part of their 140th anniversary of the 501 jean. Lynn travelled with her a selection of rare archive 501 jeans from as early as 1873. What made the event even more special was that this was the first time the archive 501 jeans have traveled from the archives in San Francisco to the UK. Some of the key pieces included one of the earliest 501s from 1880, the 1890 501 “Calico Mine” found in the Mojave Desert in 1948, as well as more novelty pieces like an ’80s 501 signed by none other than Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.

Taking an in-depth retrospective of the Levi’s history and the evolution of the 501, Lynn talked the small crowd through some of the key features of the jeans on display as well as reciting a few tales behind each of the pieces. Her enthusiasm and passion behind the product, quick wit and excellent sense of humor made the already rich history even more pleasant to hear. After Lynn’s exceptional presentation, the audience was invited to take an up-close look at some of these relics. Here’s what we saw that day, accompanied by some of Lynn’s fabulous quotes.

“The five-pocket jean started life as a four-pocket jean in 1873. This is the closest to what we have so far to what the original would have looked like. I can only date it to a span of dates because certain design features lived in combination of others. I know this was made 1873 – 1886.”

“I speculate that this pair of jeans was owned by a cowboy — from the the wrinkle nesting at the back of the knee, it is identical to pairs that I KNOW have been worn by cowboys. And the damage here to the leg openings is very similar to boot or spur damage, spur bites — I love that term — which is very typical of cowboys as well.”

“I also buy the vintage photographs, letters, papering, marketing — everything that expresses how we did our business, how we sold the jeans, how people felt about Levi’s.” – Letter sent to Levi’s from customer dated 1954


“This pair I’ve had independently appraised is worth about $150,000, which is hilarious because when I go to Tokyo and tell people that, they say ‘is that all?!’ To me they are priceless, naturally.”


“One day I open up this box from Levi’s Japan and I pull the tissue paper apart and it says this. And I screamed ‘Oh My God it Says Mick Jagger on it.’ So we have a jacket and a pair of jeans signed by the whole group.”
501 Jean from The Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge tour 1995 Tokyo, Japan.

For further reading on Lynn’s visit to London, read GQ’s exclsuive interview as well as Selectism for further images.

Images courtesy of Levi’s and Selectism. 

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