At the Eureka Innovation Lab in San Francisco, testing is underway, but you won’t find a white coat in this laboratory. Here, you’re more likely to find a pair of jeans – denim jeans, loaded into tumbling machines with pumice stones, or set on fire with lasers.
“Levi’s, to me, is kind of the birth of cool,” said Levi’s design director Paul O’Neill. And protecting that “cool” is his mission. He considers himself a custodian of the company’s many legendary styles, including one superior fit: the 501. This year that iconic pair is celebrating 150 years.
“We try not to touch the 501 so much,” O’Neill laughed. “From its beginnings in 1873 up until the late 1940s, all of the changes that happened were practical.”
Compared to other Levi’s jean styles, the 501, said O’Neill, “is always a straight blue jean. When we look at other fits, we’ve got, like, skinnies, flares, bell bottoms, you know, all bells and whistles. But the 501 always just remains very simple and classic.”
Finding a reliable and durable pair of pants was the goal of businessman Levi Strauss and his tailor, Jacob Davis. Levi’s historian Tracey Panek said those trusty pants weren’t possible until Davis added a rivet, creating the modern-day blue jean. “He came up with the idea of adding a little bit of metal in the pockets, where your hands are going in and out, to stop them from ripping,” Panek said.
But why the number 501? “It’s simply a lot number,” she said. “501 is the best, top of the line.”
Top of the line, but the 501 was made for everyday blue-collar workers. Panek said, “At the time, they were called overalls, ’cause you’d pull them up over your clothes to have this protective outer garment.”
Nowadays, just about everyone has worn a pair of Levi’s, from presidents to hippies to Hollywood. They were even part of Steve Jobs’ uniform, though he added buttons himself, to attach his suspenders.
As for the most efficient way to break in a new pair of 501s? Paul O’Neill has the secret: “You can sit in the bathtub in them. If you buy a pair of jeans that are the right size for you, but maybe a bit too long in the leg to allow the shrinkage, if you sit in the tub, the jeans will mold to your body shape. So, you’ll truly get a unique pair of 501s.”
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Story produced by Julie Kracov. Editor: Remington Korper.