Lee or Levis?
A brief history of the two denim icons.
Levis (the brand, as we know it) was founded in May, 1853 by German immigrant Levi Strauss. Strauss “borrowed” denim work wear from France and capitalized on the booming US/California work trade by offering durable and affordable chore wear for the working classes. (Denim was originally – like ORIGINALLY originally, worn by Italian sailors and later adopted by the French who attempted to imitate the strong fabric and failed. The hybrid they invented was adopted by Strauss. The concept of “Blue Jeans” was invented by Jacob Davis while working with Levi’s in 1871.)
Lee was founded in 1889 in Salina, Kansas, by Henry David Lee as a mercantile company producing work jackets and dungaree style pants. Lee became known for their all-union workplaces and for the introduction of the modern “overall” as we know it today. (Davis also invented overalls at Levis in the 1870s)
A series of earthquake related fires destroyed Levis headquarters in 1906. (Levis experienced multiple fire related devastations – as San Francisco was known for its urban fire problems)
In the 1940s a major flood wiped out the entire Lee Kansas City Distribution center (except for Buddy Lee Dolls).
Both brands pushed denim in all forms – jeans, jackets, skirts, overalls, you name it through the blue jean era (60’s – 80’s). Lee was purchased by Vanity Fair and became a real Brand. (Levis had been a brand for almost 100 years by that point)
And then came the off brands. Imitators flooded the market with off brand denim forcing Lee and Levis to focus on new products (Dockers, the Ms. Lee Women’s fit collection, kids lines etc). Levis was forced to close 60 factories in the 1980s due to market competition.
Lee had to deal with a huge factory strike in 1981 when 240 workers staged a protest against moving a factory from Scotland to Ireland. What was planned as a single event turned into a 7 month protest.
During the 1990s, Levi’s experienced some trouble over “made in USA” tags and foreign working conditions. They began suing every blue jean maker they could find for infringement in the early 2000s – Levis filed stitching trademarks in 1978 and successfully battled over 100 companies for the rights to their patterns.
Lee introduced National Denim Day as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and has since raised over $75 million to fund cancer research. In 2013 Levis purchased the naming rights to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
Both brands experienced a decline in sales during the early 2000s and have since revived the brands with new campaigns and collaborations. Levis reported revenues of 4.6 Billion in 2016 and Lee was relaunched in Paris in 2014.
So next time you think your jeans are just a pair of pants, think again. There is a long and storied history behind those garments you put one foot into every day.