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How the Levi’s 501 Managed to Become a Style Icon

Over the last 145 years, Levi’s has been creating a huge legacy within the fashion and denim industry. The brand effortlessly embedded itself at the heart of subcultures and communities.

Pioneer of denim, Levi’s managed to set itself apart from its competitors by creating an iconic silhouette lasting through generations. The 501 have been worn by everyone from rockers and mobs to geeks and even presidents.

Read on to discover how a simple pair of blue jeans came to be a style staple in today’s fashion scene.

Text by : Maxime Fumaneri

It all started on May 20, 1873, in San Fransisco when Levi Strauss, a Bavarian-born dry goods merchant, partnered with a Nevada-based tailor named Jacob Davis. They put rivets in western working pioneers’ pants for the very first time in history.

Soon, the first riveted clothes made out of denim - the traditional and durable material used for men’s workwear - were made and sold.

In a very short period of time, the jeans (called 'overalls' or 'waist-overalls' till 1960) became a real success and sales increased considerably.

All the fashion classics are born out of utility. Strauss and Davis proved this in 1873 with what would become the most popular fashion apparel on Earth: the pair of jeans.

In the aftermath of the WWII, the blue jeans became a real symbol of disobedience and youth rebellion.

As the GI returned home from war, biker clubs quickly replaced brotherhoods. As bikers needed robust and strong clothes that could withstand rain, wind and all the road hazard they naturally adopted the 501 and the denim jacket as their uniform. Members of infamous motorcycle clubs like the Hell Angels used their jacket as a canvas to show their affiliations.

In the early 1950s, the blue jeans were popularized by James Dean in 'Rebel without a cause' and Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One'. At this time, the 501 embodied a symbol of juvenile delinquency that led to the banishment of Levi’s in schools, restaurants, and theaters. This only made them more desirable and the Levi’s 501 become a must-have for every American youngster.

Given the symbol of rebellion the 501 represented, it was just a matter of time before the iconic blue jeans hit other subcultures and counter-cultural communities. The 501 found itself an important place in intellectual and activist movements like beatniks, hippies, and LGBTQ communities. Levi’s jeans were uniquely linked to this exciting and revolutionary era and became a symbol of self-expression and anti-establishment movements.

Far from its initial release as a utilitarian garment and before there were brands dedicated to skateboarding, the Levi’s 501 was an undeniable choice for skaters. They were looking for extremely durable gear that would remain intact despite the wear and tear from skateboarding.

Compared to other regular Levi’s, the skateboarding collection is made out of two materials (cordura and lycra) that make the jeans better for the practice of skateboarding. The Levi’s skateboarding gear is often put in the spotlight by skateboarding videos starring Levi’s team riders, establishing once again the key role of jeans in subcultures.

Furthermore, Levi’s is also very involved in local skateboarding communities and helps initiatives like Byrrrh and SKATE in Brussels to see the light of day.

Some of the most influential musical artists have been wearing Levi’s for generations. The musical world has a long-standing relationship with denim that goes all the way back to the 50s with rebel artists like Elvis Presley and to the 60s with The Rolling Stones, the Ramones, and Jefferson Airplane.

Hip-hop artists have always had strong ties with jeans. In the 80s, rappers like Big Daddy Kane, the Beastie Boys and Run DMC were already rocking straight legs 501 with Adidas and bucket hats.

For over half a century now, Levi’s has arguably been the unofficial uniform of music. So as to celebrate its strong and long-established relationship with music, Levi’s teamed up with the world famous artists like Alicia Keys, Skepta, and SZA to launch the Levi’s Music Project to provide a revolutionary musical education.

The 501 have been worn and endorsed by people from all walks of life and their appeal is undeniably wide-ranging. For years, they have been seen as the uniform of the outlaws.

It comes with no surprise that with such rebellious roots, the fashion world would quickly embrace them. Symbol of the pop-culture and subcultures, its versatility and its ability to endure the fickled of winds fashion trends are the key reasons for its everlasting success.

Anyone from Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Springsteen, Kurt Kobain to Kanye West and Rihanna, flexed the jeans in their own way, proving that the 501 is not only a fashion icon but also a piece of American history. For 145 years Levi’s has managed to be a part of numerous distinct styles and subcultures because of denim’s inherent attitude. As you wear a pair of Levi’s, the less they become a pair of jeans, the more they become your pair of Levi’s jeans.

It’s difficult to find a garnement as embraced and loved over the world as jeans. In many countries like Japan where the denim has a strong cultural impact in the way Japanese people dress, tastemakers tend to have a strong obsession with American fashion like Levi’s and vintage military clothing. So it’s not by chance that the biggest Levi’s connoisseurs and collectors are Japanese.

With the rise of DIY movement, Levi’s has developed the Levi’s Tailor Shop concept that will help you rocking the coolest denim in town. The concept is simple: you can have your denim jacket or your pair of jeans customized with almost anything possible.

Last May 20th, which marked the 145th birthday of the legendary 501, Levi’s organized in its Antwerp location a personalization session with brand ambassadors like Nico Bellagio, Yung Nnelg, and Texas Schiffmacher.

Consistency is key to longevity. Levi’s is one of the top current brands in the fashion industry that is trying to stay ahead of its time and to stay committed to its core desire to remain authentic despite the fast-changing trends.

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