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Denim Insiders Ruminate on the Enduring Appeal of the Levi’s 501

Dubbed the “first modern jean,” the Levi’s 501 turned 150 years old on May 20, 2023. 

The jeans giant is celebrating the 501’s timeless design and enduring appeal through a year-long campaign of collaborations, reissued archival designs and limited-edition pairs. 

However, one of its most unique qualities is how the 501 provides a sense of comfort that comes from familiarity. Though society has changed, the 501 has chugged along by conforming to the needs and tastes of each generation while maintaining its universally beloved aesthetic. 

“The 501 is a true example of ‘form follows function’ and it has endured 150 years because it was originally created to withstand the harsh treatment of its hard-working users,” said Beth Esponnette, Unspun cofounder. 

A sartorial chameleon, the 501 has been claimed by miners, cowboys, hippies, rock stars and influencers.

“The 501 is a part of us and is changing in the times to what our style life was and what it is today. It’s an incredible story, how Levi’s has been able to keep the 501 like the sacred grail of denim,” said Adriano Goldschmied, a denim industry legend and founder of the new brand Daily Blue.  

“Levi’s has a very wise approach to the 501,” said Tilmann Wröbel, creative director and CEO of the French design constancy Monsieur-T. “Rather than keeping the 501 style and fit exactly like it was back in the day, the 501 has always evolved with time. Slightly higher rise, slightly lower rise, selvedge, no selvedge, ring, open-end… the 501 evolves with humanity. The 501 is a perception of a moment in contemporary denim perfection.”

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Carl Chiara, AGI Denim’s creative director and former Levi’s global concept director, has worn 501s for as long as he can remember. He said the jeans were a “constant obsession” growing up in the ’80 during the punk/new wave scene in Northern California. 

“I started thrifting selvedge 501s in 1984 and would wear them to death and patch and repair them to keep them going,” he said.

Spike Lee “Button Your Fly” T-shirt from 1991 / Levi’s Archive Image

The jeans became part of Chiara’s identity. “In the mid 1980s, when Calvin Klein started making designer jeans, my mom bought me a pair and insisted that I wear them. I protested for weeks and finally one day she forced me to wear them to school. I had never felt so awkward and uncomfortable and out of my skin in designer jeans,” he said. 

Like movie stars James Dean and Marlon Brando before him, the 501 brought out the rebellion in Chiara. 

“[That] was the first day that I cut class and didn’t get on the bus for school. It was also the worst fight I ever had with my mom. I threw the [Calvin Klein] jeans away while she was at work and I never had to wear them again,” he recalled.

Growing up, Christine Rucci, founder of Godmother NYC Inc., was envious of the public school kids wearing jeans because she had to wear a Catholic school uniform. “I begged my parents for a pair [of 501s] and instead they bought me a Levi’s book bag. I carried it with pride to school just to piss off the nuns. For me, Levi’s 501 was my form of rebellion,” she said.  

The jean was part of Over the Rainbow founder Joel Carman’s teenage uniform as well. “I traveled in Europe as a teen with a pair of 501s which I wore to death, patching them,” he said. “They lasted me for two years of travel. I wish I would have saved them.”

501 owned by Patti Smith in the 1970s / Levi’s Archive Image

For many, the 501 was their introduction to jeans. “I grew up in the ’60s and the 501 was ‘the’ jean,” Carman said. “We all wore them, bought them as shrink-to-fit and sat in a bathtub full of water to get the jeans to mold to our bodies.” 

Ana Paula Alves, founder of the denim consultancy Be Disobedient, remembers nabbing her first pair of 501s—a style she describes as “a classic that ages well.” 

“I come from a very large Brazilian family and on holidays and Christmas we used to circulate used clothes among ourselves,” she said. “My mother’s side used to live in a rodeo town and once what finally came to me a very worn 501 jeans with age marks, sectorized rips, beautifully faded.”  

The pre-loved jeans went on to symbolize Alves’ adolescence and become a “kind of icon that belonged to my grandmother, godmother, cousin and me,” she said. 

The jean was also the style that kickstarted careers devoted to denim. 

Mohsin Sajid, owner and creative director of Endrime, recalls watching Levi’s 501 commercials on “the telly” in ’80s and nabbing pairs during summer vacation in the U.S. at a Levi’s outlet store. “I was so excited as a kid. Even if it was blazing hot, I was in jeans. Some things don’t change,” the U.K.-based designer said.

“I was born in Trieste, Italy. When I was a child, just after the war, the city was still under the British and American government. During their off time, the American soldiers were wearing 501s. They liberated Italy and they were my heroes,” Goldschmied said. “It took one second for me to associate the 501 with freedom and they became the star in my life.”

Though Goldschmied earned the moniker “the Godfather of Denim” during decades of work with Diesel, Replay, Gap 1969, Agolde, AG and players across the supply chain, it all started with his admiration for the 501.

“A deep study of the history of the 501 gave me inspiration for fits, construction, fabrics and washes,” he said. “My goal was to bring all the culture of it to the fashion world by elevating denim into what it is today. However, the seed that generated everything was the 501.” 

Goldschmied’s passion for vintage continues to be “all about the 501,” he added.

No matter the era, the 501 has remained the blueprint for modern jeans. “As fashion changed and evolved, the 501 was a consistent presence in the denim industry and all blue jeans were held up to its standards,” Carman said. 

Wröbel recalls how in the ’90s “it seemed that there was only one jean around the world, and that was the 501.” 

“All brand owners in the ’90s dreamed about having their very own 501,” he said. “As designers, we always had the mission to re-create the fit and magic, but with a different brand name. We would spend hundreds of hours fitting prototypes, comparing ours to the original. It was a time of international icons. Luckily times have changed, but the 501 remains undoubtedly the global icon.”

The 501 is unique in that even non-Levi’s designers are unabashedly influenced by it and recognize it as denim’s north star. 

“It is the most important reference for our industry, bringing all over the world the rules and principles of a great denim jean,” Goldschmied said.

With the 501 representing a standard for denim jeans, Esponnette said she imagines that most denim is designed as a variant or adaptation of it, whether explicitly or implicitly. 

Details on a pair of jeans owned by Apple creator Steve Jobs / Levi’s Archive Image

“Like so many designers, at Unspun we have taken inspiration from Levi’s 501 implicitly,” she said. “Its design, aesthetic, and even function is so ingrained in the denim industry that it is impossible to not be influenced by the 501, but as a classic it is so easily taken for granted.”

It was the 501 that helped Alves grasp the relevance of functionality in fashion. “And it was with this model that I [started to] innovate in different creative aspects, including obsessing over measurements of pockets, lining, fly…,” she said. 

Wröbel doesn’t recall a time when the 501 wasn’t the staple denim product. “Whatever the latest version of the 501 is, it is the benchmark for what pleases the masses,” he said. “As a denim designer or creative director—whether you like the 501 or not, whether you think its fit is relevant for your ideas or not—you always have to check out what’s going on with the 501.”

“It’s a bit like the sun in the sky; the 501 rises every morning,” he added.