From 501 to 2019: The Levi’s story

Earlier this month, Levi’s filed the paperwork for an initial public offering at the New York Stock Exchange. If the IPO gets away, it will be the second time the 165-year-old behemoth – known the world over for its iconic blue jeans – has gone public, having first listed in 1971 before descendants of founder Levi Strauss coturned it to private ownership in 1985.

According to the SEC filing, Levi’s sees opportunities for the business to expand in emerging markets including China, Brazil and India, while the funds raised will be earmarked for general working capital, CapEx and potential future acquisitions. The move signals a bright future for legacy players like Levi’s, who reported net income at $283m against revenues of $5.6bn in 2018.

Before his name became synonymous with jeans, Levi Strauss was the owner of a wholesale dry goods business in San Francisco that sold supplies to miners during the Gold Rush. After patenting the process of riveting pants in 1873, Levi Strauss became the originator of what is perhaps the most iconic garment in Western history.

Sixteen years after his death in 1902, Levi’s company made its first garment for women. At the time, women in labour-intensive jobs found that men’s trousers, including Levi’s jeans, were a welcome part of their wardrobe. As the war came to an end, Levi’s introduced Freedom-Alls – a one-piece tunic over trousers for women to wear for housework and leisure.

Levi’s original factory and the Freedom-All one-piece tunic

It took another 16 years for Levi Strauss & Co. to create “Lady Levi’s” the company’s first blue jean for women. By that time, Levi’s had become synonymous with the stylish image of the American cowboy in the 1930s. The world was obsessed with Western movies and that rugged looks of stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper. But this was still a period when women’s pants were still largely unaccepted.

It wasn’t until after the second world war that denim clothing became more accepted. The brand took full advantage of this change in mentality. In 1948, Levi Strauss & Co. discontinued its wholesale business to concentrate entirely on manufacturing apparel.

Thanks in part to iconic denim looks of television and movie icons like James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, Levi’s jeans became a symbol of spirited youth and rebellion. Jeans themselves were the go to uniform for college students, free-loving hippies and anyone else who identified as part of the “counter-culture.” Through another shift, jeans became symbolic of independence, freedom and a move away from the traditions of the past.

With a new generation on their side, Levi’s proved too much for the establishment to ignore. In 1962, Levi Strauss & Co. received President Kennedy’s “E” award for significant contributions to the United States export program. Two years later Levi’s jeans became part of the permanent collections at the Smithsonian Institution.

All the while, the company was expanding well beyond the United States. In 1965, the same year that the mini skirt appeared on the fashion scene, Levi’s established Levi Strauss International and Levi Strauss Far East, beginning the company’s expansion into Europe and Asia.

Levi’s today, staying true to its heritage

In more recent years, the iconic brand has stayed true to its values. Reacting to a more environmentally conscious wave of consumers, Levi’s launches a more sustainable line of denim that has been recorded as saving up to 96% of the water used during the finishing process.

Last year, in a bold move, Levi Strauss & Co. announced that by 2025 the company will be powered by 100% renewable energy at its own facilities. Levi’s also wants to cut emissions by 40% along its whole supply chain, which no other company has attempted to do. Doing so, will be just another example of how legacy brands continue to pave the way.

I’ve written before about the strong emotional attachments we can form with denim and the memories we associate with it. Levi’s plans to return to the New York Stock Exchange gives gives me reason to be optimistic that it will continue to do so for generations to come.