San Francisco: Levi’s Archives and Lynn Downey

We spent last week in San Francisco and dropped by the Levi’s headquarters to visit Lynn Downey in the Archives, an always pleasurable and inspiring experience.

For those that don’t know, Lynn manages all the garments, photographs, and documents in the archives; dating, organizing, and caring for the priceless collection in her possession. She has been with Levi’s for 23 years and is the last word in Levi’s history. Her trusted conservator Stacia is in charge of maintaining, cleaning, and restoring pieces when they come in; they are the only two people in the world who know the combination to the fire-proof safe where the rarest items are kept. “If both of us die in a plane crash they’ll have to get a blow torch to get in there,” Lynn jokes. “I have a couple of pieces out on exhibit, but when this is full it’s about a half a million dollars in vintage — hence the limited access.”

So is the vault air tight?

“Well it’s actually fireproof, which means there’s no air at all. We have to open them up every day because otherwise mold will grow; so yes, it’s completely hermetically sealed. Any temperature that’s comfortable for humans is fine for denim.”

Last time, we went through the more obvious choices: the oldest pair of Levi’s from 1879, known as XX and the famous Nevada jean. This time however, we thought we’d ask her all about jackets, then delve into the vast collection of advertising and marketing innovation that the brand has been so famous for throughout their 140-year history.

Lynn dived into her fireproof safe to bring out some of Levi’s oldest jacket samples. Incidentally, Lynn told us that the name “Trucker” is a nickname that the Japanese gave the jacket after their association with American “truckers” who famously wore the piece.

The styles were actually called blouses from the French word blouson. I hate the word “Trucker” as it is not historically correct!

So into the vault she delves, and out comes the most beautifully decayed pleat-front Blouse.

We actually now have what we think is the world’s oldest jacket right here, which came out of somewhere in Southern California and it was in pieces. Stacia had to basically rebuild this from the ground up.

And when did you find this one?

Just early last year, so quite recently. It’s a rare triple-pleat originally from the 1880s and we’re 99% sure it’s ours. On one button you can just see an SS. The rivets are our style and we were actually the only company that was allowed to make riveted clothing for a certain period of time, so it must be ours. I cant be 100% sure, but I’m 99% sure.

It’s a “Pleated-Front Blouse” or as some would call the “Type 1 Blouse,” which incidentally is also a Japanese clothing collector term, not a Levi’s term. It’s named that because it has just one pocket. The pleats were sewn down, but you could take out the stitching and open out the pleats for more room, so detail was purely function. Great if you want to layer up in the Winter.

So things come in all the time?

Well actually I’ve been here for 23 years and it’s not the volume we used to get because we only made so much. Except I do know a guy who knows the people who explore the abandoned mines of the West, and sometimes if they bring out clothes then they’ll sell them to him and Levi’s.

Everyone knows you’re the person to come to then?

Well some people sell to me and others won’t. The vintage world can sometimes be like High School, you know?! (Laughs)

So what happened with the next evolution of the jackets?

Well, here are some more recent jackets, this “Type 2 Blouse” is pretty much the same as the “Type 1” except is has an extra pocket and the old fashioned back cinch has been replaced with synch side adjusters. This was pretty much the key style of jacket for early 20th century until about 1953. This one is 1953 to 1962.

This came into being in 1962: The evolution of this classic style had to be updated from what Dad wore to something for the baby boomer of the 60s would buy, so we completely changed the design to modernize it. I think we were also trying to counter the Lee Stormrider jacket, which came into being in 1933. They added the side pockets in 1984,I’m not so keen on that detail but it serves its function! Sorry, that’s just my personal opinion!

The style of the jacket altered and depended on consumer habits. After the war, the classic synch back waist was re-considered as job roles changed and practicalities shifted from one necessity to another.

What about jacket fits? Did they alter much? Obviously the styling stayed the same, but did jacket silhouettes alter like the classic 501 fit alters with fashion?

Not with jackets. A jacket is a jacket: very simple, purely functional workwear. It wasn’t until the 80s when they got a little more fitted. Speaking of jackets, have you heard about the Bing Crosby Tuxedo?

I have but I’ve never seen it…

He was a huge Levi’s fan because he had a ranch in Elco, Nevada where he was the honorary mayor and loved his practical workwear. One day in 1951, he and a friend were out hunting and decided to go to a hotel. They were head-to-toe in Levi’s and the person didn’t recognize Bing Crosby so they were denied entry as it was seen as low-class to be wearing denim.

When he got home he told his neighbors who then contacted Levi’s telling them what had happened. Levi’s created the Denim Tuxedo, which they presented to him at the 1951 Silverstate Stampede (a rodeo event in Nevada). He loved it and wore it to a lot of commercial appearances for his next movie. It was then used as a sales tool by Levi’s: replicas were made to sit in store windows with the story, etc. It was a really great story and people loved it.  The family still has the original tux too.

What about Levi’s archival advertising, do you keep all of that here too?

Yes we do, in all these filing cabinets. Let me show you a few highlights…

Anybody who had a consumer product in the 19th century made what was called a trade card, it was a gift with purchase and people collected them like they’d collect baseball cards today. So if you bought a Levi’s garment you would get a trading card.

In 1889 flyers were given out to potential customers that didn’t already carry the product. This would show a customer all the different types of clothing made and on the back all the different attributes of the clothing. This was before we printed catalogues, so a salesman would take his horse and wagon up to potential customers and show them this. In 1897, Sachs handed out a children’s book made buy Levi’s as a gift with purchase, which was also really sweet, but clever too because the advertising was aimed at Mom and Dad.

The promotional pieces we worked on really varied. Here is a promotional pocket knife from 1910 advertising children’s clothing, and then there were the Blue Velour Olympic training suits from 1980. We even have a limited edition Gremlin car from 1974 Levi’s Edition American Motors Corporation.

Wow, what an amazing tour of the Levi’s heritage!

Lynn has started writing posts for the Levi’s blog and recent posts have included newly uncovered information about the 201 jean, a feature on the Spring Bottom Pant, the renowned XX Jean, and ten facts about Levi’s Straus himself — all great posts with more to come. So check out the blog if you want to hear Levi’s history straight from the expert.

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