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Lynn Downey cradles the pair of jeans as gingerly, and about as proudly, as if it were a newborn baby she has just helped deliver. She first pulls on a pair of spotless white gloves. Then, she picks it up from the table on which it has been laid, and holds it out to be photographed. It does deserve a bit of special treatment. After all, it's the oldest known pair of jeans in the world - the 'XX', circa 1879. Downey, the historian and custodian of the Levi's brand history, has travelled with it all over the globe and she doesn't let anyone else touch it.
In the middle of the photo shoot, the lights go off inexplicably in the Bangalore hotel room where Downey's precious cargo has been put on display and someone jokes "Maybe it's a heist!" No one laughs. At $1, 50, 000, the XX is also the most expensive pair of jeans in the world. "Levi Strauss was still alive when this pair was made, " says Downey, on tour of India and China with samples from her archive. She bought the XX from a vintage clothes dealer about a decade ago for a sum she refuses to divulge, and it's the biggest find of her 23-year career with Levis, tracking the company's history, which coincides, till pretty recently at least, with the history of denim.
Levi Strauss & Co (LS&CO) was, after all, the original makers of jeans. It might be a midlevel, mass-market player today - even in India, where jeans that cost Rs 40, 000 a pair are already in stores - but it cannot be denied that its history is in extricably tied up with that of denim. Much of that history was lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, where the company continues to be headquartered. Downey has been rebuilding the archives that were created in 1989 because Bob Haas, the company's former chairman and great-greatgrandnephew of Levi Strauss, wanted it done. Part of her job - and one of the most thrilling, she feels - is tracking old pairs of jeans and buying them for the archives. In most instances, owners contact her with their wares and she sifts through them with a detective's eye, not just to date the pair realistically, but also to learn its story - who owned the jeans, how they were used, and whether attempts have been made to 'restore' them. Since becoming the company's historian, Downey has traced a timeline for design changes that have marked 501s, Levi's patented jeans, and this helps her put a date on a vintage pair. The XX, for instance, is said to be from 1879 - but that is as close as anyone can get.
Certain design features helped put a date on it - it was definitely made after 1873, when Levi Strauss and the jeans' designer Jacob Davis patented the first blue jeans, and before 1886, when the twohorse logo that symbolises the brand today was introduced. The pattern of wrinkles on the denim and the way it has faded also tells its own story. The XX was probably used by a cowboy, which Downey has deduced from some of its personal features. For instance, the way the material has faded at the back of the knees is consistent with how jeans would wrinkle if someone spent a lot of time riding a horse. Plus, it has a 'leg tear' - a rip near the hem that usually happens when one wears jeans a bit long and the material catches on one's shoe heel - and that supports the cowboy theory.
The vintage clothes dealer from whom Downey got it tried to do some restoration work on the jeans, and she disapproves deeply of such behaviour. "He tried to darn some of the tears in the material and put in patches in other places. That's really a terrible thing to do, " she says. "There's restoration and there's conservation. What we do is the latter - we don't try to make old jeans 'as good as new'. We just alter them slightly to stabilise them so they are not damaged further. "
From workman's clothes to high fashion - tracing denim's fashion history is also an interesting aspect of the job for Downey. Not until the 1960s were jeans used in any fashionable sense, she says, and as recently as the early 1990s, bars and restaurants in cities like San Francisco didn't allow patrons wearing jeans to enter the premises. "In fact, jeans became fashionable in the US only after they had been established as a fashion item in other parts of the world. It was a trickle-back effect. When Americans saw that young people in other countries were wearing jeans as a style statement, it gained popularity in the US, " says Downey.
Curiously, the craze for vintage jeans came from a country right across the Pacific: Japan. In the 1980s, says Downey, Japanese collectors started scouring vintage clothing stores in the US and buying old, discarded denims, many of which were found in derelict mines (because jeans, or 'waist overalls' as they were then known, were usually worn as protective clothing over one's normal clothes, and miners would often take them off before going home). The collectors drove up prices and created a market for vintage denims. Suddenly, people were searching their attics and basements for old jeans left behind by parents and grandparents. "But there's only so much old denim out there. It's gone down to a trickle, " says Downey. Today, genuine vintage denims sometimes appear on sites like eBay. But the only big-ticket item Downey has bought on the internet auction site is what she calls the 'Nevada' jeans from the 1880s, for which she paid $46, 532.
What use, besides indulging company pride, does an archive of this sort serve? "Our designers are the biggest users of the archives. Often, they look at vintage styles and pick out details that are then used in current styles, " says Downey, a published author who has in the past researched ancient ceramics and written several books on Levi Strauss & Co.
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