Vintage Denim Looks Back to the Future

Brand building and heritage lines earn consumer respect that goes beyond celebrity endorsements and clever advertising. Now more than ever, denim brands like Levi Strauss & Co, Lee and Wrangler are shifting their focus to vintage patterns, advertisements and ideals that highlight each brand’s unique denim tradition.

Jeans are now seemingly sold in every form, shape, size and color. If you were to request a pair of skinny, black, jeans that look like they’ve been slashed by the teeth of a baby white shark, chances are pretty good that you could probably find them. Scandinavian, Japanese, Australian and Dutch labels all have their respected brands—including Cheap Monday, Acne, Denham, G-Star, Evisu, Nudie, Ksubi, Sass & Bide, Blue Blood and 8th Amendment—but none of them have a history that’s steeped in the rugged dust and charisma of America’s Old West.

The Levi Strauss & Co. archives in San Francisco collects everything and anything that is related to the company since its innovative birth during the California Gold Rush of the 1840′s. The company’s climate controlled collection of photographs, films, posters and clothing forms the basis for new designs and advertising ideas to this day. Levi’s historians work over each aspect of vintage garments to determine everything from the clothing mill that the fabric came from to the original store it was sold from and how many owners the jeans may have had in since then.

A pair of 9oz Levi’s selvage denims, for instance, were recently purchased from New York vintage store What Goes Around Comes Around for $25,000. Said to be from the late 1800′s, the pair was nicknamed “Spur Bites” because they feature several patches of different colored fabric and show damage to the leg openings, which was common from cowboys’ spurs and boots. Due to this unique link with the past, the company will replicate 250 pairs of “Spur Bites” by hand and sell them later this year as part of its Levi’s Vintage range. Despite a rumored retail price close to $1000, collectors have already started placing orders on the style.

Though it’s difficult to compete with Levi’s title as the original designers of denim,” other storied brands use similar tactics to lay claim to their historical appeal. Lee, for one, has reintroduced its Buddy Lee character, a small cupie doll with an over-sized head. Buddy Lee can be found anywhere you can buy Lee Originals and was first used as the brand mascot in 1920. Lee Originals also draws attention to techniques that are uniquely their own—the “lazy S” stitching on the back pocket, zip flys and hair on the hide labeling.

More modern tactics also pervade historic denim houses, however. Wrangler’s Blue Bell line is made up of instantly collectible designs with premium quality fabrics and manufacturing techniques that hark back to the company’s late 19th century roots. But in a thoroughly modern twist, the label’s website features a well-groomed Tony Ward (last seen in a hotel room with Madonna for her “Justify My Love” video) and asks the user to drag and pull at certain parts of Ward’s clothing. In so doing, this interactive ad allows you to undress, throw and push Ward across a dusty lit room to the sounds of a twanging guitar. It’s a Web 2.0 experience that harks back to the rough and tumble world of the Wild West.

Whatever their approach, these denim empires have found a way to tap into the past in order to promote their future. And in so doing, they’ve given everyone a piece of living history along the way.

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