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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

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Levi Strauss sparked sartorial revolution

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On May 20, 1873, two visionary Jewish immigrants in San Francisco, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, received patent 139,121  from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

It would revolutionize the clothing industry, add a new dimension to the casual wear industry and herald the arrival of denim blue jeans in America, and later, the world.

The story actually began when Davis, a Latvian tailor who lived in western Canada until he immigrated to the United States, came up with the bright idea of using copper rivets to strengthen work pants at the two points of stress, the pocket corner and the base of the fly.

But since he did not have the funds to apply for a patent, he turned to his German-born supplier, the proprietor of Levi Strauss & Company, a wholesale house dealing in textiles and work clothes, and suggested they go into business together.

The patent made them both rich beyond their dreams. Strauss opened a jeans factory and Davis supervised the operation.

Their legacy, the stuff of entrepreneurial vision and grit, is recounted in the Levi Strauss Museum in Buttenheim, a small town in southern Germany  where he was born and raised.

Buttenheim, with a population of about 3,000, is situated in the Regnitz Valley between the towns of Bamberg and Nuremberg. Set amid the pastoral countryside of Upper Franconia, which is part of Bavaria, it’s a quiet, nondescript place with a castle and two breweries, a 15-minute drive from Bamberg, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The museum honouring Buttenheim’s most famous son is housed in a two-storey renovated half-timbered building at 33 Marktstrasse. It was opened 13 years ago.

The audio tour starts on the ground level, where the Strauss family lived. Exhibits trace the arc of his life from Buttenheim to San Francisco, and a gift shop on the bottom floor dispenses jeans, shirts, jerseys, belts and mugs.

The tour continues on the upper floor,  with a display of jeans and a rather loud musical video clip celebrating the connection between modern American culture and jeans.

Strauss, whose original first name was Loeb, was born on Feb. 26, 1829, the youngest child of Hirsch and Rebecca. Hirsch was a cattle dealer, a trade that attracted a disproportionate number of Jews, and then an itinerant hawker of drapery.

There was a small Jewish community in Buttenheim whose origins date back to the mid-15th century.

With Hirsch’s death in 1846, the family was thrown into the slough of poverty, prompting Rebecca to travel to Bamberg to apply for immigration papers.

Having received the required documents on June 4, 1847, the family – Strauss, his mother and two sisters – travelled 600 kilometres to the port of Bremenhaven to board a ship for the voyage to America, to which Rebecca’s sons, Jonas and Louis, had already immigrated.

The crossing to New York City took six weeks. Sanitary conditions aboard the vessel were appalling. There was neither heating nor ventilation. Passengers slept on mattresses made of straw and dried seaweed. Some died before reaching the Promised Land.

In New York City, they were met by Jonas and Louis, who had set up a dry goods business in Little Germany, which was later known as the Lower East Side.

Blessed with an adventurous spirit, Levi Strauss went to St. Louis to sell his brothers’ supplies.

In 1853, he became an American citizen.

At this point, Strauss was appointed by his brothers to open a West Coast branch of the family business in California, which was booming thanks to the Gold Rush.

He sold apparel, bedding, combs and purses as well as canvas for tents used by prospectors.

And he grew prosperous.

Meanwhile, the tailor from Latvia, Jacob Davis, had begun making work trousers reinforced by metal points. He decided to patent the new process, but needed a partner who was flush with cash. Strauss, from whom he had bought fabric, was the man.

The chronology of these developments are explored at length by the museum through interesting exhibits.

Strauss, a bachelor, died on Sept. 26, 1902 in San Francisco at the age of 73. He left his empire to his four nephews, Abraham, Jacob, Louis and Sigmund Stern, the sons of his sister, Fanny, and her husband, David Stern.

The 1906 earthquake destroyed the headquarters of Strauss’ company, but it was rebuilt and continued to grow as jeans, widely regarded as a symbol of freedom and independence, became increasingly popular in North America.

Originally, jeans were purchased mainly by miners, railroad workers, cowboys and lumberjacks, but after World War II, they were bought by young people, too.

By all accounts, James Dean, in the film Rebel Without a Cause, greatly popularized jeans, which, in the 1950s, came to represent youth rebellion.

In the stultified Soviet Union, and in eastern European satellite states allied with Moscow, jeans would epitomize freedom of expression.

These days, jeans are worn by, among others, stylish men and women around the globe.

For the past 20 years, the iconic Levi Strauss brand – which employs about 20,000 workers in the United States and abroad – has faced competition from cheaper brands.

Yet jeans, whether manufactured by Levi Strauss & Company or Ralph Lauren, remain remarkably popular in the international marketplace.

Who could have known that a poor Jewish boy from an obscure speck of a town in Germany would spark such a sartorial revolution?

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