These 149-year-old jeans are improving with age

At this year’s Met Gala, reality star Kim Kardashian shocked fashion conservators by wearing the dress Marilyn Monroe was stitched into to sing Happy Birthday to her alleged lover President Kennedy in 1962. Kardashian can seemingly get her hands on anything but the shopping spree stops at Tracey Panek’s office door.

“Absolutely not,” says Panek, Levi’s historian and head of archives, when asked whether Kardashian would be allowed to add the denim brand’s historical pieces to her red carpet checklist. “All of our most important pieces are kept in a blue safe, and I am only one of two people who know the combination.”

Hailey Bieber, Marilyn Monroe and Barbie Ferreira in their Levi’s. Supermodel Bieber and actor Ferreira are ambassadors for the US denim label’s 501 styles, while Monroe wore Lady Levi’s in her movies.

Inside the denim blue safe at Levi’s San Francisco head office are jeans from the 1890s and early iterations of the 501, which will turn 150 next year. Should Kardashian want a pair of these jeans, like her idol Monroe in the 1954 film River of No Return and The Misfits in 1964, all she has to do is break out her credit card and buy the latest style.

“One of the things that has made the 501 endure is its ability to adapt and evolve over time,” Panek says. “Because of its longevity people keep coming back to it. As a company we’ve gone through the seventies, disco, spandex and other looks. People return to the symbolism and the sense of wearing a garment that gives you the look of effortless cool.”

Entering their 150th birthday year, Levi’s 501 ones are enjoying a fresh wave of popularity, having survived competition from chinos in the eighties, cargo pants in the noughties and most recently activewear.

Online resale marketplace Depop has reported a 13 per cent increase in searches for Levi’s since April. The popularity is a combination of the jeans being worn by models Hailey Bieber, Kendall Jenner and Nathan Westling, influencer Emma Chamberlain and performers Kid Cudi and Staz Lindes, along with collaborations with designer labels such as Vetements, Valentino and Miu Miu.

Historian Tracey Panek, giving Levi’s the white glove treatment; an early pair of Levi’s 501 jeans without the rear left pocket that was introduced in 1901.

Historian Tracey Panek, giving Levi’s the white glove treatment; an early pair of Levi’s 501 jeans without the rear left pocket that was introduced in 1901.Credit:Levi Strauss & Co. Archives’

Wholesale distribution via upmarket e-tailers SSense and Shopbop has pushed the jeans into shopping baskets alongside four figure Golden Goose sneakers and five figure leather jackets from The Row.

Tapping into the luxury market is part of Levi’s plan to grow annual sales from the most recent financial year figure of $US5.8 billion ($8.4 billion) to $US10 billion by 2027 but Panek points out the history of 501 is different to its high-end collaborators.

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