As the Historian for Levi Strauss & Co., I have an unusual challenge — making the past relevant to a company developing innovative new products and building a promising future. How do I make 161 years of heritage connect to current initiatives? By creating inspiring experiences with authentic company artifacts layered with deep story telling.

Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) dates to the California Gold Rush era when Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco to make his fortune — but not in gold. Strauss set up a wholesale business supplying stores throughout Northern California and Nevada, including mining towns along the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Early LS&Co. company catalogs read like something from Sears & Roebuck. We offered everything from ladies corsets and lace collars to umbrellas and fabric. LS&Co. thrived and Strauss became a leading businessman and philanthropist.

In 1872, almost twenty years after his arrival in San Francisco, Strauss received a life-changing letter. One of his customers, a tailor from Reno, wrote to him asking about his interest in partnering on a patent for a unique new pant made with metal rivets at the stress points of pockets. Strauss embraced Jacob Davis’ idea and invited him to San Francisco to oversee the manufacturing of the world’s first blue jeans.

How do such origins continue to inspire innovative thinking today? Two recent experiences illustrate the core of my work and provide concrete examples of how LS&Co.’s legacy remains relevant today.

My first experience was sharing artifacts from the oldest part of our company – our Archives – with the future of our company – the team at the Eureka Innovation Lab. Eureka opened in May 2013, creating a lab just blocks away from headquarters where LS&Co. creates prototypes of future garments. Led by Bart Sights, Eureka is a creative hotbed where products like Revel—a women’s jean with patent-pending shaping technology — get their start. Eureka is staffed by an array of talented people who are skilled in a wide variety of crafts, ranging from a chocolatier to a furniture refinisher. Why? Collaboration among groups with differing backgrounds leads to unexpected ideas and solutions. With this in mind, I decided to show the team a recent acquisition we made in the Archives, a pair of 1890s LS&Co. duck pants found in Death Valley.

The Death Valley Duck pants prompted an interesting discussion. I laid the pants out on a table lit by sunlight from a roof window as Bart invited his staff to gather around. The colors and stains of the pants suddenly became visible. I expected their gasps and “wows” as the duck pants are rare. Seeing a 100+ year old garment is inspiring. Every stain and wear mark tells the story of the owner and sheds light on our original mission at Levi Strauss — creating functional, durable garments. I passed around white gloves to those who wanted to handle the pants (a conservation measure to keep them oil free).

“I think those stains are from wax,” Bart said, looking at the black gummy oval stains with a reflective surface. “Miners burned candles in headlamps they wore to provide light in dark tunnels.”

Another staff member, a cyclist, was interested in the gusset, an extra piece of fabric, at the crotch.

“This would be great on a pair of pants for cycling,” she said, thinking of the extra room a gusset provides that gives the wearer more freedom of movement.

“That’s exactly why we look to the old vintage pieces for inspiration and ideas for our current products,” offered Bart.

My second experience around story telling with original artifacts came at a marketing meeting. I was eager to share LS&Co.’s history of producing women’s garments given that this year marks the 80th anniversary of women’s jeans. I chose three pieces to share: Freedom Alls (1918), a precursor to denim jeans and our first women’s garment; Lady Levi’s® (1934), the first jeans created especially for women, and a Levi’s® denim bustier and mini skirt designed by Jean Paul Gaultier (2010).

I presented each garment while telling its story. Our earliest women’s piece, Freedom Alls, is a one-piece tunic with balloon pant, the name is a nod to the World War I era when they were created and to the freedom of movement they provided. The Freedom Alls I displayed were worn as a wedding gown by a woman in Arizona who married — and immediately rode horseback with her husband to survey their sheep ranch. I also showed them “Harriet,” a pair of Lady Levi’s® affectionately named for the original owner, Harriet Atwood, whose name is sewn into a label on the waistband. Lady Levi’s® were created for women working on ranches in the American West who were wearing their brothers or husbands jeans. We know from our research that Harriet bought her Lady Levi’s® at a department store in New York and wore them to the Soda Springs Dude Ranch in Arizona. I topped off my presentation with a current item designed by Gaultier. The one-piece denim bustier and mini skirt were created for Europe and symbolize the fashion freedom our products offer more daring women.

Employees were eager to view and handle the garments following my presentation, eager to see how the work they do today connects to the work we did so many years ago. Two weeks later, I made a similar presentation in New York to Levi’s® buyers at our retail customers, giving them a deeper understanding and appreciation of our products.

Our commitment to responsibility and transparency helps drive us too. In 1854 Levi Strauss donated some of his first profits to a local orphanage – an organization which we still have a relationship with today. Our dedication to giving back and doing the right thing hasn’t wavered since our beginnings. Whether that’s by being the first multinational apparel company to establish a comprehensive workplace code of conduct in 1991 — and making those standards public, introducing the Levi’s® Water<Less™ collection which significantly reduces the amount of water in the finishing process or even leading awareness campaigns like the Field of Jeans at Levi’s Stadium, we have always chosen the hard right thing over the easier wrong because when we lead, others follow.

There is a synergy that arises when history and current initiatives intersect. Creating inspiring experiences with authentic company artifacts layered with deep storytelling provides context for new work. It makes the past come to life, and motivates today’s work.

At Levi Strauss & Co., our heritage informs, inspires, and engages employees. Every item in the LS&Co. Archives could be a springboard to innovation. Every story builds the foundation for a promising future.

Tracey Panek is a Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. She manages the day-to-day workings of the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives as a key corporate asset, answering historical questions, assisting designers, brand managers, executives and other employees whose work requires historical materials in the Archives.
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