December 6, 2016

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Levi Strauss

levi-jeans

It’s important to listen to your customers. Here’s how one woman’s complaint led to a fortune. It’s the riveting story of copper rivets in blue jeans.

One day in 1870, Reno, Nevada tailor Jacob Davis heard a complaint from a woodworker’s wife.  Her oversized husband’s work pants were constantly bursting at the seams. As he pondered the problem, Davis found himself staring at some copper rivets sitting on a table – rivets he used to attach straps to horse blankets.

“The thought struck me to fasten the pockets with rivets,” Davis said later “I never thought of it before.”

Davis eventually riveted all the stress points of the pants – pockets, seams and fly. The trousers were a hit. But after making 200 pair for railroad workers and miners, he noticed a problem. Other tailors in Reno were copying his idea.

After trying to patent the concept once – and being rejected – Davis wrote the company he bought his material from, asking if it would pay half the patent fee in exchange for rights to make and sell the pants. He sent along two samples of the riveted trousers he was producing – in heavy brown duck cloth, and blue denim.  “I can’t make them fast enough” he reported.

The letter and samples landed on the desk of Levi Strauss, who headed the San Francisco wholesale dry goods company.

Fortunately Strauss was a smart businessman — and an honest one.  Instead of ignoring Davis’s letter, or stealing his idea, Strauss not only paid half the patent fee – he brought Davis into his business. The two received a US patent for an “improvement in Fastening Pocket Openings” on May 20, 1873. A patent the two had to defend in a court case – where the story of the rivets was recorded, and unearthed 100 years later.

Davis supervised manufacturing of Levi Strauss trousers – first by seamstresses working in their homes – then in a factory of 450 employees – for the next 30 years. From the start, the pants were considered indestructible. Since 1880 they’ve carried a label showing two horses trying to pull a pair apart. You know them as Levis 501 jeans.

Surprisingly, it took nearly 80 years for jeans to become every day wear. Prior to that, “waist overalls” were for work only. Hollywood changed all that, when cowboy movies of the 1940s and teen films of the ‘50s popularized “blue jeans.”

Suddenly Levi Strauss had a national product to sell. And sell, it did. Eventually blue jeans conquered the world, and in the late 20th century “Levis” became prized possessions – symbols of freedom – for teenagers in the Communist Europe. Which is ironic, because the two men responsible for blue jeans were both immigrants from that part of the world. Levi Strauss emigrated to the US from Bavaria as Löb Straus in 1847, while Jacob Youphes came to America from Latvia, changing his name to Davis in 1854.

Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss exemplify two axioms featured on our siteThink Unique — and — Open Your Eyes to New Trends.

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