In 1853 a Bavarian emigre called Levis Strauss arrived in San Francisco and started the firm that dresses the world. Today dedicated collectors will pay up to $45,000 for a pair of his jeans. Why? asks Madeleine Marsh
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The Independent Culture
Targeted at a youthful audience, advertisements for jeans usually feature luscious bodies, often captured in the process of removing their trousers. The latest Levi's campaign, launched this August, stars a group of more mature men and women, ranging from 79-year-old Josephine, with legs almost as long as her life span, to Alonzo, the oldest surviving black cowboy in Colorado, still riding rodeo and leader of the pack of pensioners at 86.

The models were chosen because they had all (apparently) worn Levi's in their youth and symbolise the long tradition of the company. Had they preserved their original jeans, they could, quite literally, have been sitting on a fortune. Vintage denim is today highly collectable. A pair of 1950s Levi's can be worth pounds 300 to pounds 500 and a pair of original buckled- back 501s from the 1930s can fetch pounds 4,000 to pounds 5,000, or even more. "No one can afford them here," says Peter Rogers of vintage clothing store American Classics. "They tend to sell either in Japan or places like Los Angeles or Paris, places that get a lot of Japanese tourists and rich collectors."

Japanese lust for this American product is legendary. Popular stories repeated by collectors include the tale of a former Levi's employee from the 1930s, tracked down in the 1980s by a denim specialist in search of early stock. After much coaxing, the old boy confessed that maybe he had "borrowed" a couple of samples, and dug up two pairs of 1930s Levi's, unworn and still factory fresh after more than half a century. The expert paid him $22,000 dollars apiece and within weeks had sold them to a Japanese dealer for $45,000 a pair. When their original owner heard about this, he contacted the Japanese dealer and admitted that, in fact, he had another eight pairs, thus securing himself a comfortable pension.

Why should anyone want to spend hundreds or even thousands of pounds on a pair of old jeans? "Rarity," explains Patricia Penrose, denim collector and proprietor of vintage clothing store Rokit. "Until comparatively recently, jeans were just work clothes - people didn't save them, or put them up in the attic, they wore them until they fell apart and then slung them out. Good, original examples can be as hard to find as the most precious antiques."

To the layman, the tiny details that distinguish early denims (lemon instead of orange stitching, a capital E on a Levi's red tab, the placing of a rivet) are virtually imperceptible. Enthusiasts, however, catalogue these textile minutiae with an exactitude normally reserved for oriental carpets. "It does make us sound like trainspotters, but it's not just the small points," admits Penrose, lovingly stroking the arm of a Levi's Number One jacket, designed in 1905, worth about pounds 2000, and rare as a Ming vase. "Old denim was heavier, and indigo dyed. To me, it has a beautiful character to it. Just like old wood, the material develops an individual patina, you can spot it a mile away."

Mass-produced and conceived as the ultimate in unglamorous practicality, today these garments have a romantic appeal. "Denim looks extremely sexy and is full of associations," explains Peter Rogers. "With a vintage jacket or jeans you're not just getting classic style but you're buying into the American dream."

The history of denim is almost as old as that of America itself: according to legend, when Christopher Columbus set off in 1492, the sails of the Santa Maria were made from serge de Nimes, or denim. The hard-wearing cotton material was also used for trousers by Genoese sailors, hence the term jeans. With typical irony, though Europe might have been responsible for introducing the US to denim, it was the Americans who turned it in to a fashion and marketing phenomenon, selling it back to the Old World a millionfold.

The single individual most responsible for this blue revolution was Levi Strauss. A Jewish emigre from Bavaria, Strauss arrived in San Francisco in 1853, at the height of the gold rush. His aim was not to find gold, but to make it selling canvas tents to the miners. A rough and ready lot, unwilling to spend money on the luxury of a dry night's sleep, they were not enthusiastic. "Should have brought pants," said one, "Pants don't wear worth a hoot up in the diggins." Strauss set about producing hard- wearing work trousers, importing serge de Nimes from France, the heavy, indigo dyed fabric given the lot number "501" in Levi's warehouse.

To the initial basic button-flied overalls, Strauss gradually added the details that were to turn his product into an American symbol: first, buttons embossed with the company name; next, copper rivets, used to reinforce stress points, particularly pockets, which tended to rip when stuffed with tools or (occasionally) nuggets; that same year (1873) Strauss added to the back pocket a double line of orange stitching, known as the "arcuate" and modelled, according to "denimythology", on the American eagle.

As rival manufacturers leapt onto the covered wagon, Levi's stepped up its promotion. In 1886, a famous publicity stunt in which two horses tried to pull apart a pair of jeans was celebrated on a leather patch, applied to the waistband. The famous red tab (Levi's other easily definable feature) was not introduced until 1936.

Levi Strauss died in 1902, 46 years after opening his first shop inAmerica. He left a fortune of $6m, and a market for denim that was ripe for expansion. One of denim's most important clients was the American army. It was Lee (initially established as a grocers in 1889) who gained the commission to produce US army fatigues during World War I. The famous "Lee Union All" (a boiler suit-like combination of shirt and trousers stitched together) was apparently inspired by the car-cleaning outfit worn by H D Lee's chauffeur.

But denim is more commonly associated with the image of the cowboy. Lee introduced its first "cowboy pants" in 1924 - "Famous U-shaped Saddle Crotch for Comfort!" boasted the ads. Levi's moved its celebrated rivets from outside to inside the back pockets of trousers so that they would not scratch saddles and, after a number of "burning" complaints from those who crouched round camp fires, it abandoned the use of the metal crotch rivet.

During the Depression in the 1930s, Americans from the east coast began holidaying on Western ranches rather than abroad and "Western Chic" became fashionable. "Your uniform for a dude ranch is simple," advised American Vogue in 1935, "severe blue jeans or Levi's ... cut straight and tight fitting, worn low on the hips in the manner of your favourite dude wrangler ... high-heeled Western boots; a Stetson hat; and a great free air of bravado."

During World War II, Levi's were declared an essential commodity and sales were restricted to those doing war work. Women took over men's jobs and wore denim overalls for the first time, stimulating the post war development of unisex fashions. The famously overpaid and oversexed GIs gave Europe its first glimpse of blue denim and, like nylons and chewing gum, a pair of jeans from an army surplus store was a glamorous and exciting status symbol, and correspondingly hard to obtain in ration-bound England. Painter Peter Blake, who has amassed a notable denim collection over the years, remembers seeing his first denims in 1946. "My sculpture teacher had a pair from America. They were so unusual I wanted a pair straight away and I made my own by chopping the top off a navy drill boiler suit. I bought my first denim jacket from a little shop in Nice in 1956. With that and my Spanish army boots, I thought I was Jack Kerouac."

The 1950s saw the advent of the teenager, and the beginnings of denim as the uniform of youth. Teenagers were a new market, with the money and power to demand their own music, their own heroes and different clothes from their parents. Jeans were worn by everyone from James Dean to Elvis Presley.

From the Sixties onwards, jeans became a symbol of rebellion the world over, flared to ridiculous proportions, patched, embroidered, painted, studded, stonewashed, and customised by each new cult from hippies to skinheads. Ahead of changing fashions, Peter Blake commissioned the fashionable London tailor, Tommy Nutter, to make him a three-piece, flared denim suit: "They were everywhere afterwards, but I think mine was one of the first."

By the early Seventies, jeans were a staple of every young person's wardrobe; their flapping bell-bottoms, which only platform boots rescued from muddy puddles, contrasting with the body-bisecting crotch, the required fit achieved by throwing shame to the winds, choosing a pair a size to small and lying down on the floor of the changing cubicle, whilst friends and shop assistants struggled with the zip. Not surprisingly, given such indignities and some of the frankly hideous designs of the period, sales of new jeans plummeted in the late Seventies.

The development of the second-hand jean market began at the same time, coinciding with the joint rises to prominence of Margaret Thatcher and punk. The fashionable young, who were piercing their noses with safety pins and ripping up their clothes, also found their way to Flip in Covent Garden to buy pre-worn American Levi's, straight-legged and already fashionably faded. In the early Eighties, The Face and other style magazines espoused "Hard Times" chic, and old jeans became the new trend, the ultimate in cool down-dressing.

And then came Bros, the boy band fronted by blond twins, Matt and Luke Goss, that shot to pop stardom in 1987. Peter Rogers of American Classics recalls the day Bros's stylist came into their Covent Garden branch. "She only had pounds 300 to spend, and most of that went on their haircuts. Bros left the shop with white T-shirts, red bandannas, Doc Marten's and second-hand jeans. The boys became the idols of a generation of teeny-boppers, many of whom descended on American Classics.

As the girlies moved in, the trendies moved out. Levi's relaunched their original 501s in Britain on Boxing Day 1985 with sexy period ads and soundtracks by Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. Its sales went up by 800 per cent. The second- hand jeans boom was over.

However, the demand for "vintage" jeans was only just beginning; in the mid-Nineties, it has never been stronger. "Everybody wants vintage now," claims Patricia Penrose. "They appreciate its rarity, they're prepared to pay for it, and they know what they're looking for." But what should the rest of us be looking at? What distinguishes vintage collectable classics from a grotty old pair of second-hand jeans? Distinctions are many, and often tiny, but the following points offer a basic beginners' guide.

As far as Levi's are concerned, jeans start becoming vintage before 1971, the year that the company began to spell its name on the red pocket tab with a lower case, rather than a capital, E. Another important element is "selvage", a white edge with a faint red line, visible on the inner seams. Enthusiasts wear their jeans turned up to show this off to other cognoscenti. "Levi's stopped making these when they sold their original looms," says dealer, Mark Allan, shaking his head at this terrible folly. "It was the Japanese who bought them and they started making `Evis' at pounds 150 a pair."

Lemon stitching and the weight and colour of the denim are all important, and fading, de rigueur in the 1980s, is no longer so desirable, true collectors wanting dark and, ideally, unworn stock. Condition affects value, and size is crucial. "They must have the right measurements," explains Patricia Penrose. "It's astonishing how many old trousers come in with 38in waist and 29in leg. People that shape tend not to be denim collectors." As early Levi's have grown increasingly difficult to find and more expensive, early examples of other brands have started to become more collectable: Lee, Wrangler, and also some of the less familiar makes. Unwilling to miss out on yet another market, and with a complete disregard for oxymorons, Levi's is now making what it descibes as "new vintage" jeans: a limited- edition re-issue of its Capital E jeans which are currently only being sold through stores in the US. "We've dusted off the original narrow 28in looms for the sole purpose of making our vintage blue jeans," boasts the packaging - "dusted off" perhaps being a textile euphemism for "bought back from the Japanese"?

Although the biggest market for vintage denim is the Far East - particularly Japan, where rare examples can fetch thousands of dollars and there is a magazine devoted to the subject of jeans - demand is also strong in the US and Europe, notable enthusiasts including musicians and rockabillies. But, as Peter Rogers concludes, collectors can come from every walk of life. "Denim is the ultimate democratic garment. Anyone can wear it and understand it, and even people who can't really afford the prices will save up for a vintage pair of jeans. The biggest problem is finding them."

As we were talking, a group of fearsome looking skinheads came in to American Classics. One of them pointed a finger tattooed with spiders at a Levi's jacket on the wall. "Oi, that Number Two Levi's jacket from the Fifties, what are you asking for it, then?"

"pounds 800 - are you interested?"

"Naah thanks," replied the skinhead with a proud smile. "I've got one of those. I'm looking out for a Number One."


AMERICAN CLASSICS 404 Kings Road, Chelsea, London SW10, 0171 351 5229.

ROKIT 225 Camden High Street, London NW1, 0171 267 3046; 23 Kensington Gardens, Brighton, East Sussex, 01273 67253.