Levi Strauss: A Life of Originality, Business Integrity, and Philanthropy

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An American success story, find out how this inventor of the quintessential American garment united everyone from all walks of life then and now.
Birthplace: Buttenheim, Bavaria
Industry: Clothing Industry
Success: Levi Strauss & Co
Legacy: Levi Strauss Foundation
Honors: Inductee Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

Read on! 📖

Brian Hadi Attarbashi
Updated on:
Aug 08, 2022
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Levi Strauss: A Life of Originality, Business Integrity, and Philanthropy

The Legend Behind an Enduring Clothing Empire

Fashion comes and goes. 

We try to follow the dictates of an era, but who among us has never owned a pair of jeans? 

Or a better question yet, who doesn't have a pair of jeans that we keep coming back to like a comfort blanket?

All thanks to a gentleman whose entrepreneurship is an early American clothing success story.

He started an enduring fashion empire, which he launched by making one of the most beloved and popular clothing of all times — the blue jeans.

Rediscover the success story of one of the most admired businessmen and beloved philanthropists of all time, Levi Strauss.

Early Life

Levi Strauss birth home

The inventor of the quintessential American garment, the blue jeans, Levi Strauss, was born on February 26, 1829, in Buttenheim, Bavaria, to Hirsch Strauss and his second wife, Rebecca.

Hirsch was a dry goods peddler and had four children with his first wife, who died in 1822. Hirsch had two children with his second wife.

Because of the difficult situation the Jews were in during that time, Hirsch wanted to bring his family to America. 

Living in Bavaria, the Strausses experienced religious discrimination because they were Jewish. There were restrictions on where they could live and special taxes were placed on them because of their faith.

However, he was sick with severe lung disease and died in 1822.

The Confederation of Germany

The Congress of Vienna formed the German Confederation in 1815 to replace the Holy Roman Empire. With no central authority or judiciary, it was a loose political alliance founded on mutual defense. 

In a federal assembly headed by Austria, delegates met. Conservative leaders, especially Klemens, and Prince Von Metternich, persuaded the confederation's princes to enact the harsh Carlsbad Decrees (1819). Metternich led the federal assembly to pass more measures to destroy liberalism and nationalism in the 1830s. 

The founding of the Zollverein (a German customs union) weakened the confederation in 1834 and the Revolutions of 1848.

With Prussia's victory over Austria in the Seven Weeks' War (1866) and the formation of the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation, it was disbanded.

During these difficult times, many Jews fled to America to avoid persecution.

Family

Soon after the death of Hirsch, his two elder sons, Jonas and Louis, journeyed to America to start a dry goods business in New York, where many American Jews settled.

Family

They had turned their backs on Buttenheim a few years previously and set up a textile business in New York at 108 Liberty Street in Manhattan, calling it the J. Strauss Brothers & Co.

Two years later, Levi (named "Loeb" at birth), with his mother and two sisters, joined Jonas and Louis in New York when he was 18. Löb—who soon Americanised his name to Levi—became an apprentice trader in his brothers' business and worked in their

shop. 

When Strauss arrived in New York, he worked as an itinerant peddler of goods from his brother's store: sewing goods, kettles, blankets, and other goods.

Then he moved to Kentucky when he was 19 to peddle his brothers' goods. He preferred frontier areas to sell his goods.

You may also like: Levi Strauss's Bio

Early Career

After the California Gold Rush in 1848, many people flocked there to make their fortunes, mining and selling goods to the miners. 

In San Francisco, the commercial center of the California Gold Rush, the family made the decision to launch a West Coast division of their dry goods company.

The 24-year-old Strauss, having become an American citizen, joined his sister Fanny Stern and her family in California in February 1853. He served as the West Coast representative of the family’s New York firm.

Levi endured a long, rough voyage with as many goods and wares as he could bring.

According to the stories, when Levi’s ship docked in San Francisco from New York, men boarded the vessel and quickly bought almost everything Levi brought with him except for a type of strong cloth used for making tents. 

California Gold Rush Timeline

Birth of Blue Jeans

You may also like: The-Origin-of-Blue-Jeans

A miner heard that what's left is the cloth for 'tenting.' He told Levi he should have bought many pants to sell because pants don't last long at the 'diggings.'

This gave Levi an idea. He brought the cloth to a tailor who sawed a pair of pants for that miner. The miner bragged about how strong his pants of Levi were. And this is how Levi began making pants bearing his name.

Design of the first Levi’s jeans

Interesting watch: History of Blue Jeans

The pants were an instant hit with the miners, but they tend to chafe. Levi Strauss then substituted a twilled cotton cloth from France called "serge de Nimes." 

Later, the fabric became denim, and the pants were nicknamed blue jeans.

History of Blue Jeans

By early March of 1853, Levi established a wholesale goods business under his name, Levi Strauss & Co. His new company imported dry goods in bulk; clothing, bolts of fabric, underwear, umbrellas, and many more, then sold them to the small stores that sprung up all over California and the West.

Levi Strauss & Co

These retail stores helped outfit the miners and the new settlements that the Gold Rush brought in.

Jacob Davis was a Latvian immigrant based in Reno, Nevada. He was a tailor who frequently purchased bolts of denim cloth from Levi Strauss & Co.'s wholesale house. 

Davis came up with the idea of utilizing copper rivets to support the stress spots, such as around the pocket corners and at the base of the button fly, after one of his clients continually buying material to repair ripped pants. Davis wrote to Strauss because he lacked the funds to buy a patent. 

In August of 1872, Jacob Davis wrote to Levi about the interesting way he made pants more durable for his miner and labor customers. He placed metal rivets at the strain points (at the base of a button fly and pocket corners.)

Davis wanted to patent the idea but needed a business partner for financial backing. He asked Levi if the two of them could take out the patent together, sharing the costs. Levi loved the idea.

Jacob Davis was a Latvian immigrant based in Reno, Nevada

Strauss and Davis got patent # 139,121 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for "Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings" on May 20, 1873.

Just nine months after Davis wrote to Levi's, Davis then came to work for Strauss in California, overseeing the firm's first West Coast manufacturing facility.

You may also like: Story Behind Levi's Jeans

The Patent: Decoding the Trademark

Relevant video: Levi Strauss History

Two Horses: The two horses trying to rip the jeans apart convey the message of the pants' toughness and durability. Strauss believed that it was an excellent way to stress the quality of the pants to customers who couldn’t speak English.

Two Horses

501: 1890 is also the year the patent expired on riveted pants. The company listed those batches of pants in its catalog as number 501. The name stuck. Now 501 means the best batch of pants.

501

XX: Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire, used XX to designate the highest quality of their denim. Strauss got his denim from this mill to create his first pair of blue jeans after he obtained his patent.

XX

Post WW II 

The Second World War had far-reaching economic and global ramifications. The conflict had profound social and cultural consequences, affecting everything from food to fashion, including Levi's clothing.

Here's how World War II influenced today's jeans and jackets, from their introduction overseas through their evolution.

Most of Levi Strauss & Co.'s retail customers were in the West before the 1940s. 

After the Depression, the corporation chose the cowboy as its symbol a decade earlier and targeted the 11 Western states to expand its consumer base.

During World War II, Levi Strauss & Co. pioneered the first foreign sales to US military exchanges in Europe and the Pacific, among other techniques. 

Official requests for dungarees may have prompted this (aka blue jeans),

With Levi's items now available in countries ranging from Japan to Germany, civilians in other countries were exposed to Levi's products, resulting in some of the first European demand and interest in Levi's.

Growth in the Jeans

The “IT” Jeans of the 1960s.

501 Originals are the work pants that are today known as blue jeans.

Tough, fashionable, resilient, yes, many people still wear them to work. However, they represent something you can't patent: style. Do-what-you-want, rule-breaking, gender-bending, Wild West style. For decades, this is the kind that has defined cool. 

Bootcut jeans and bell-bottoms first appeared in the 1960s as part of the counter-culture movement, when people wanted to express themselves completely. It was a time when everyone was challenging the status quo, even fashion.

Bootcut jeans and bell-bottoms

The 517TM Boot Cut Jean was debuted in 1969 as "full from the knee for the boot." This style was a game-changer since it was both wearable and wrinkle-resistant. And bell bottoms were the daring new favorite that undoubtedly turned heads.

The 517TM Boot Cut

Other Ventures

Levi carried on many business pursuits during his career, as well.

-He was a member and treasurer of the San Francisco Board of Trade

-A director of London, Liverpool and Globe Insurance, and Nevada Bank.

-In 1875, Levi purchased the Mission Pacific Woolen Mills, and the mill's fabric was used to make the "blanket-lined" pants and coats of the Levi Strauss and Co.

-In 1895 he and several other prominent San Francisco businessmen provided funds to build a railroad from San Francisco to San Joaquin Valley. 

The Present-day Levi’s

Despite competition from Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, and Guess jeans, Levi Strauss & Co. remains the industry standard-bearer in the denim world.

Levi’s and Gap

Levi’s
Gap

The two companies have a business relationship and a century-long "gap."

Don and Doris Fisher created "The GAP" in San Francisco in 1969. Don, a real estate developer, was a close friend of Walter Haas Jr., the CEO of Levi's.

Mr. Fisher got his inspiration from the "Tower of Shoes," a pop-up shoe shop set up in a Quonset Hut that sold every size, color, and type of shoe a woman could want.He proposed Haas give him the exclusivity to sell just Levi’s pants in a similar business.

The first GAP fashion line debuted in 1974, followed by its own denim brand four years later. Fisher's company grew by purchasing more brands (such as Banana Republic) and establishing side labels to diversify its customer base and product offerings beyond jeans.

After many store closings in 2011, GAP's global expansion imploded; ever since, the company has been riding an economic rollercoaster, but its fashion has remained steadfast and true.

The connection between these two brands and popular or "pop" culture is another area of overlap. Even while they play a significant part, this involves more than just appealing TV commercials that sway the viewer.

Levi’s and GAP bound their names with famous actors and personalities as fashion models for the people. This move involved some smart “product placements." Levi’s was notoriously tied to the Wild West, the world of cowboys. Not just men, we know how the company opened the doors to women so that even Marilyn Monroe could be seen in Levi’s 501 on screen in 1961’s “The Misfits”.

In addition, Levi's also left its mark in the music industry, particularly in the hip-hop world: jeans were worn as an identity or mentioned in rap songs by Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z.

Michael J. Fox wore GAP's distinctive Pocket-T shirt, which was introduced in 1984, at just the right time in the 1985 film "Back to the Future"!

GAP has a sizable cast of performers, including singers, models, and artists, and it promotes itself mostly through ads.

In the 1980s, Naomi Campbell and other famous models were on the cover of Vogue while Madonna, Mary J. Blige, The Aerosmith, and Sarah Jessica Parker appeared in other advertisements.

Levi’s vs Tommy Hilfiger

Levi’s
Tommy Hilfiger

Levi's brand is quite resilient and versatile. In the US, they have an incredible array of retail channels: standalone flagships (SF), low-end to high-end department stores (Macy's to Saks), and fashion-forward boutiques.

That being said, its brand reputation is very strong because it has both mass-market and niche-fashion appeal. For instance, your average suburban dad would likely know what Levi's is, own a pair, and may even call a pair of jeans "Levi's." By extreme targeted customer segmentation, Levi has enjoyed continued success to this day. Those who are abroad also recognized Levi's aright away, and associate it with quality jeans. 

Levi’s brand is quite resilient and versatile. In the US, they have an incredible array of retail channels: standalone flagships (SF), low-end to high-end department stores (Macy’s to Saks), and fashion-forward boutiques.

Levi’s’ brand reputation is solid because it has both a mass-market and a niche-fashion appeal. For instance, your average suburban dad would likely know what Levi’s is, own a pair, and may even call a pair of jeans “Levi’s.” Through targeted customer segmentation, Levi’s has enjoyed continued success to this day. Those living abroad also recognize Levi’s immediately and associate it with quality jeans.

On the other hand, Tommy Hilfiger is an American luxury brand founded by its namesake in 1985. In 2010, it became a subsidiary of PVH and now has its headquarters in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Almost ninety countries offer easy access to the products of this high-profile brand through over fourteen hundred retail outlets and online portals.

As a premium brand associated with fashion, Tommy Hilfiger manufactures jeans and other apparel and accessories. The attention to detail, rich colors, updated cuts, quality materials, and precision fits make it one of the world’s most accepted premium jeans brands. 

However, unlike Levi’s, which keeps its reputation for excellent quality, Tommy Hilfiger is often commented on as quite good quality but overrated.

Levi's vs. Guess

Levi's
Guess

The Guess jeans certainly stand out in their stores, despite the fact that Guess is an upscale American apparel company that is well-known globally for a wide variety of things, from watches and jewelry to garments and perfumes.

Guess, though, is often in legal conflict with Levi’s. In 2002, the 148-year-old maker of blue jeans accused Guess Inc. of stealing its trademarked stitching design, again.

Levi’s already sued Gap in 1996 for using a design akin to Levi’s stitching.

As a result, Guess shares fell 21 cents to $5.80 on the New York Stock Exchange. The company had $779.2 million in revenue the year before.

In contrast, Levi Strauss, which also makes Dockers pants, reported sales of $4.65 billion the previous year.

FAQS

FAQS

1. Why are Levi jeans so popular?

The Levi's brand is iconic because it is trusted by consumers - trusted for innovation, quality, performance, durability, style and fit. Levi's listens to its customers and gives them the opportunity to help guide the company.

2. Where is Levi Strauss headquarters?

Address: 1155 Battery St, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA 

Phone #  +1 415-501-7208

3. Why are pants blue/why is denim blue?

Its chemical properties made blue dye an ideal dye for denim. When the temperature is high, most dyes penetrate the fabric, making the color stick. Original denim was dyed with natural indigo, and the dye would only color the outside of the threads.

4. Are Levi jeans made in America?

There are currently no Levi's apparel goods manufactured in the United States. 

The need for low-cost, mass-produced apparel forced Levi's to outsource outside the US.

5. Why do jeans have rivets?

Rivets were initially intended to reinforce jeans in vulnerable spots, but contemporary sewing has rendered rivets simply cosmetic.

6. Who are Levi Strauss's siblings?

Levi’s father married twice. With his first wife, he sired four children, Jacob, Jonas, Lipmann, and Maila. With his second wife, Hirsch sired Rebecca and Loeb.

7. When was Levi born?

Loeb, the youngest of Hirsch’s children, was born on February 16, 1829, in the Bavarian village of Buttenheim.

8. What is a Levi Strauss’s carpenter jeans?

Carpenter Jeans are made of excellent, durable denim and have a relaxed fit through the seat and thigh with a straight cut from knee to ankle.

The Levi’s logo evolution:

The Levi’s logo evolution

1. How do the 1873 blue jeans look?

How do the 1873 blue jeans look?

2. How do the Levi’s jeans from 1800s evolved?

How do the Levi’s jeans from 1800s evolved?

Personal Life

Levi Strauss and sister Fanny’s Family

Levi Strauss never married, which was uncommon for the era, but not unheard of. In 1866, when he was 37 years old, he moved in with his sister Fanny, her husband David, and their growing family after living on his own since his arrival in San Francisco.

When David Stern, Levi's brother-in-law, died in 1874, his four sons all went to work for Levi. In 1890, Strauss incorporated Levi Strauss and Co. and kept 55 percent of the shares. The rest he divided among the seven Stern children. 

Although his nephews were running the business by 1890, Strauss continued to go to his office daily, attend meetings, and remain the company's head. 

Philanthropy

Not only does the business world admire Levi as a person. His employees respected him too, as he was a benevolent leader.

In an 1895 interview quoted in Everyone Wears His Name, Strauss said that riches "do not cause happiness to their owners." Spreading the wealth, he deeply believed, brought greater happiness.

Levi was a heavy contributor to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the Eureka Benevolent Society, and the Hebrew Board of Relief. 

Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home

In 1897, Levi provided funds for twenty-eight scholarships at the University of California, Berkeley.

University of California, Berkeley

Death

By 1902, illness slowed Strauss down, and he took a vacation to Monterey to ‌restore his health. By fall, however, he suffered lightly from his heart.

He complained he was still feeling far from well, and the family called in his medical doctors, who pronounced him suffering from slight liver congestion.

On the night of September 26, 1902, Mr. Strauss arose, declaring that he was better, and went to dinner with his family in the evening, over which he was as lighthearted as he had ever been.

After seeing him and giving him a straightforward liver treatment, Dr. Kerr left the residence. Then Mr. Strauss went to bed for the evening.

The nurse who was on duty that night overheard a faint whimper. He hurried to Mr. Strauss' bedside and inquired about his feelings.

With the peacefulness of someone falling asleep, Mr. Strauss turned his head on his pillow and exhaled his last breath.

They laid Levi Strauss to rest in a dome-roofed mausoleum in the Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma, California.

Tomb of Levi Strauss

Legacy

1. The quintessential American garment, the blue jeans.

Levi’s jeans have had a lot of competitors over the years. But Levi’s brand never goes out of style. Innovation and creativity are embedded in every clothing and pair of pants. Ripped or new pair of jeans,  people wear it in comfort and style, and most of all with pride.

2. Levi Strauss and Co.’s apparel are sold in 110 countries.

In business, Strauss had a reputation for being honest, fair, and unpretentious.

At 40, Strauss was already a millionaire and earned a considerable reputation as a noteworthy businessman and a philanthropist in San Francisco. Even with his prestige and status, Strauss insisted that his employees call him Levi and not Mr. Strauss.

3. Levi Strauss's net worth as of June 16, 2022 is $6.84B.

Influence

Impact on society

Levi Strauss & Co. sent sales representatives worldwide to pitch its clothing to workers. The pants were popular amongst anyone who needed durable pants.

Impact on fashion

Levi Strauss started an enduring fashion empire, which he launched by making one of the world's most durable and popular clothing items—blue jeans.

America's Most Iconic Fashion Items of All Time

Honors

Active in business and cultural life, Levi was already a well-known figure in San Francisco when he was in his mid-thirties.

At 40, Strauss was already a millionaire and earned a considerable reputation as a noteworthy businessman and a philanthropist in San Francisco. Even with his prestige and status, Strauss insisted that his employees call him Levi and not Mr. Strauss.

In 1994, Levi Strauss was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

National Cowboy’s Museum

The Levi Strauss Museum was built in his honor. It is located in the 1687 house where Strauss was born in Buttenheim, Germany.

Levi Strauss Museum

Foundation

The Levi Strauss Foundation's charitable efforts are guided by its founder, Levi Strauss', core principles of creativity, integrity, empathy, and courage.

Its goal is to improve the human rights and well-being of underserved individuals in areas where the company operates.

The foundation has been embracing the spirit and events for over 65 years in order to drive pioneering social change in the fields of HIV/AIDS, worker rights, worker well-being, and social justice.

The Levi Strauss Foundation was started in 1952 with a budget of $10M. Since its inception, it has given over $340M and has partnerships in over 40 countries.

Key Takeaway

Levi Strauss’s life is a story of commitment, innovation, creativity, and devotion to quality.

He was the Marco Polo of the 19th century, traveling from Europe to America to ply goods. He was committed to his profession, and he never let hardship stands in the way. 

He was willing to get down and dirty and work hard. As a result, he achieved respect, prestige, and success.

Today’s business arena has many challenges, but if we take our lessons from Levi Strauss, we should stay committed to our goals no matter what.

Competitions abound, but if we stay innovative, creative, and devoted to quality, one can have more than a fair chance of succeeding as an entrepreneur.

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Brian Hadi Attarbashi

Brian is the CEO of AI bees. When he is not running the company with German precision, Brian writes expert articles about marketing and manufacturing. When not doing these, you will find him rescuing dogs or mowing competition down at a jiu jitsu studio.

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