Embroidered History: Levi's Vintage

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1960s Western Shirt, 1950s Longhorn Shirt by Levi's
1960s Western Shirt, 1950s Longhorn Shirt by Levi'sIllustration by José Romussi

We consider Levi's rich heritage and archive imagery, through José Romussi's playfully nostalgic artwork

Cindy Crawford’s racy cut-offs in her legendary 1991 Pepsi commercial; Peter Fonda’s tattered 501s in Easy Rider; Jackson Pollock's denim painting overalls throughout the 1940s. Levi's has been the byword for denim for over 160 years, ever since the first Californian wrangler vaulted onto his horse in 1853. Levi Strauss founded his legendary denim brand in San Francisco, during the American gold rush — while most Californians were hunting gold nuggets, Strauss was creating his own: the golden rivets which became the signature of his made-for-strength blue denims.

"Levi's has been the byword for denim for over 160 years, since the first Californian wrangler vaulted onto his horse in 1853"

In 1996, Levi's introduced the Levi's Vintage Collection, which pulls on traditional silhouettes from the brand's historic archives. "We were reacting to marketplace activity in the late 70s, 80s, and especially 90s, when collectors were buying vintage Levi’s pieces at crazy prices," explains Ben Starmer, Senior Global Marketing Manager for Levi's. "The craze started in Japan — 501s were being priced at $30k." Working with an archive of over 40,000 pieces, each season focusses on an iconic moment from Levi's past. The latest collection retells the story of New York's Metropolis and the development of the city skyline during the 1930s and 40s, from the workmen in denim overalls who built the Empire State Building, to the men in striped shirts who designed it.

"It takes a really interesting slant — the architect and this more buttoned-up look that is very true to the era," says Starmer. Key pieces include a reversible leather jacket, a pair of 1940s-inspired sports slacks, a floral western cowboy shirt and a triple pleat blouse which is a reproduction of the oldest denim jacket in the archive, dating back to 1880.

For AnOther's latest Object of Desire, we invited Chilean artist José Romussi to apply his signature handwoven touch to some of our favourite archival Levi's imagery from the 1930s. "When I saw the photos, it was too obvious to draw flowers on the shirt, so I put them in places like the eyes and paper," explains Romussi. "The skull was inspired by old western imagery, which is very characteristic of Levi's."

For many, a pair of Levi's is a rite of passage — there is something reassuring about robust, work-wear denim, particularly from a brand rooted in its heritage. "In the 1930s, a man was stranded on the side of the road, as his car had broken down," tells Starmer. "Another car came by to help, and they began rummaging through to look for a rope or a chain, something to tow his car out of the ditch. There was nothing to be found in the trunk except an old pair of Levi’s that the man had toiled in for ten years. They tied the 501s between the two cars. It worked and they pulled the car out of the ditch. This really shows the strength of Levi’s."

See our gallery of the new Levi's Vintage collection here.