Nearly three years ago, at Galeries Lafayette in Paris, VETEMENTS debuted a collection composed almost entirely of collaborations with other brands. For its Spring 2017 collection, the French label sent models down the runway during regular hours at the department store wearing pieces made with brands including Brioni, Alpha Industries, and Manolo Blahnik, concluding with a floral dress that Demna Gvasalia cheekily told Vogue was a “collaboration with ourselves”: in other words, one of the few exclusively in-house pieces in the 54-look show.
Despite the collection’s sheer amount of collaborations, VETEMENTS’s work with a particular American brand seemed to stand out. Speaking with Vogue, Guram Gvasalia, the chief executive of the brand, said one of the greatest triumphs of the collection was getting Levi’s to allow the inclusion of an embossed “VETEMENTS” logo on the denim brand’s iconic label. The French brand had produced its own denim prior, but as Demna Gvasalia told The Cut, its in-house pieces never looked like Levi’s – that is, “100 percent authentic.”
VETEMENTS isn’t alone in its affinity for the San Francisco-based denim brand. Since 2000, Levi’s has collaborated with brands including Comme des Garçons (2002), Jordan (2008), Stüssy (2010), Off-White™ (2016), and Supreme, who the denim company has worked with multiple times since 2012. Levi’s’ collaborative items with Japanese imprints like Junya Watanabe and Undercover are regular collector’s pieces on resale platforms like Grailed, and its 2008 collab with Engineered Garments (in celebration of the GQ/CFDA “Best New American Designer” award) was, in the words of Highsnobiety Editorial Director Jian DeLeon, “one of the best” projects GQ has been a part of.
In an era where collabs are practically industry standard, Levi’s has, in many ways, set the tone for the partnerships that mainline brands and exclusive labels alike place at a high premium. What, then, is the intrinsic quality of Levi’s that keeps luxury labels and exclusive streetwear brands at its helm? Why are oftentimes niche designers so fascinated by one of the most popular denim lines in America?
Aside from its literal provenance on the street – travel anywhere in the U.S. and you’re likely to see someone wearing a pair of Levi’s – the San Francisco denim label has an extensive history with figures in American pop culture who’ve come to define much of contemporary dress. From Bing Crosby’s tuxedo made of Levi’s denim to the regular uniforms of bands like The Ramones and Nirvana, the company’s signature “V” stitching has been associated with America’s sartorial trailblazers ever since Levi’s invented the denim dungaree in 1873. On one hand, you have the figures most commonly associated with Americana: Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Springsteen, and even former President Barack Obama wore Levi’s when he threw out the first pitch that may or may not have been a harbinger of normcore. But on the other, you have slightly more subversive figures: figures in the New York punk scene like Richard Hell and Debbie Harry, and Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of legendary LA punk band X, who was allegedly one of the first people to bleach jeans. “Punk rock to me was jeans, T-shirts, boots, and I had a length of chain for a belt so I could brandish it as a weapon,” said hardcore innovator Henry Rollins in a documentary made by Levi’s in 2016, and his sentiment that the uniform was nearly as important as the music wasn’t singular.
Lest we forget the impact of Levi’s on hip-hop music: 501s were the go-to uniform for Run DMC and The Beastie Boys, and are a typical mention in rap songs ranging throughout the past 30 years. A quick Genius search uncovers lyrics from Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, Snoop Dogg, NWA, and Jay-Z, who famously rapped “I’m something every girl gotta have like Levi’s.” Louisiana rap legend Boosie even has a song called “Levi’s,” where he raps about his favorite denim company for nearly five minutes straight.
“Levi’s has outfitted subcultures for years,” says DeLeon, “and there hasn’t been a facet of modern culture they haven’t touched.” As DeLeon points out, this consistency of brand message is something that would appeal to a Supreme or a Stüssy, whose product tends to communicate different messages to different people. “Levi’s are almost like a family member,” says James Costas-Michael, buyer at VFILES, who sees an appeal in Levi’s as an outfit “base” that balances more eccentric pieces. “They’re always there and you can always rely on them when you need them most.” In a world where brand identities sway nearly every season, Levi’s’ commitment to a steady, quality product and its consistency in delivering on it offers a near-perfect pairing to labels looking to cement their own legacy.
Maybe the easiest way of describing Levi’s’ key to street relevancy is a universal adage: it’s not cool to try to be cool. “Levi’s does an amazing job of maintaining relevance in that it doesn’t really try hard to be ‘relevant,'” says Alex Chirgadze, a men’s buyer at Opening Ceremony. The very ubiquity of Levi’s product is what gives it niche appeal: it was the go-to, accessible product for the cultural figures who cemented the global popularity of denim and the “point referential denim company of the world,” as Chirgadze reiterates.
Speaking with Vogue after his Spring 2017 show, Demna Gvasalia claimed that almost nobody in his entire staff wore designer clothing. “A lot of these,” referencing the numerous brands he worked with on the line, “are the labels they wear all the time.” In a time where designers in the highest echelons try their best to put the street on the runway, bleeding between the lines of “high” and “low” fashion, a brand like Levi’s offers a gateway to authenticity like no other. It is, as DeLeon puts it, “the Reese’s Pieces of trousers”: a standard that will always be referenced but never outdone, and one that allows emerging brands the opportunity to ally themselves with an eternal source of respect within the industry. “Levi’s is a forever brand,” DeLeon succinctly describes.
“Forever” is a particularly interesting way to put it. At a point in which the fashion industry is grappling with its status as a major contributor to global waste, Levi’s is looking to the future to find ways to lessen the impact of its production on the world. From “Water>Less” innovations that reduce the amount of water used in the production process to “Re/Done,” an initiative that repurposes vintage pairs of Levi’s, the denim company is balancing its legacy with the imperatives of the future. It is, simply, doing what Levi’s has always done: remaining steadfast in an ever-changing world and remaining the benchmark for other brands looking to make an impact in the fashion sphere. As Gvasalia put it, Levi’s will always be “100 percent authentic.”
Next, watch our latest episode of Behind the Logo that delves into the story of Levi’s famous red tab.
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