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The old ones are the best

Levi's is celebrating its 50th birthday by launching reworkings of vintage styles taken from its 150-year-old archive. Lynn Downey, the keeper of the iconic denim brand's history, shares her experiences among the thousands of garments, photos and documents that make up the Levi's archive

How did you get this job?

When the company decided it needed an archivist/historian, it contacted the local branch of the US national archives. The woman they spoke to was a friend of mine, I came in for a few interviews and, ta-da, I got the job. I'd been an archivist and historian and, as the third generation of my family to wear Levi's, the job was (pardon the pun) a perfect fit.

What is a typical day for you?

It involves answering a lot of emails about our history. My colleague, Stacia Fink, is responsible for cataloguing and day-to-day management, but I do all the media work and writing, and usually meet the designers and other staff who come to the archives. My job is a surprise every day. You never know what the next phone call or email will bring.

What was the most satisfying moment of your career?

When I tracked down the grave of someone whose jeans we have in the archive. Homer Campbell, a miner in Arizona in 1917, bought a pair of Levi's jeans, wore them for three years, then sent them back because he said they hadn't held up like the others he'd bought. It turned out he had covered his jeans with denim padding and it was this that had worn out. He sent us the jeans in 1920, and in 2003 I found out where he was buried.

It's so rare for us to know the history of garments or the original owner, so I went to Wickenburg, Arizona, to find Homer's grave. It was July 2003, during one of Arizona's worst heatwaves, but after about an hour lost in the mountains I found his grave - and I took photos of Homer's jeans beside his grave.

What limits are placed on your acquisitions?

I have a budget, but if there's something rare that exceeds it I'll make a special case to buy it. The most we ever paid for a pair of jeans was US$46,532 (£23,450) in 2001. It was in an eBay auction for a pair of our riveted denim pants that were the oldest we had seen at the time.

How valuable is the archive to Levi's design team?

They are the biggest users of the archives - at least one designer comes in every day. The collection inspires them in everything from vintage clothing to new pocket styles on premium jeans. When designers join Levi's they tour the archive, and designers from our offices abroad come over whenever they can. Everyone from senior management to marketing also comes to the archives.

Do the archives highlight any wrong turns in Levi's history?

There have been a few. My favourite were Spikes - polished cotton pants for men and boys in the exact colours of orange, lemon and lime Jell-O. We made them in 1958, but they were about a decade ahead of their time.

What pieces would you most like to track down?

We made a couple of denim coats in the late 19th century that I would love to find. There might also be products I don't know about. We lost our records following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, so we don't have a sense of how varied the lines were.

Are you ever haunted by dreams of ancient denim?

We bought some Nevada jeans on eBay, but we didn't know who'd bid against us. Later that year I was on vacation in Honolulu, went into a vintage denim store and introduced myself to the owner - who said he'd been trying to outbid me for the Nevada jeans.


- What is your biggest fashion weakness?

Vintage clothes that don't really fit my life. But my theory is: "If you buy it, the event will come".

- What was your best fashion moment?

Wearing period costume last year at a commemoration party for the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

- And your worst?

In 1970, I wore what I thought was a hippy granny dress to school. It turned out to be a nightgown.

- Who is your industry icon and why?

Caroline Calvin, the global director of Levi Strauss & Co. She has a fearless, fun personal style that is inspiring, and she loves the archive as much as I do.

- What would you be doing if not fashion?

I'd be doing history of any kind, not just fashion history. The past is my passion.

- Where do you shop?

I buy most of my clothes on eBay, online or in Levi's stores. I also like little boutiques that sell unusual clothing to complement my personal vintage collection.

- What are you reading?

Buffalo Bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show by Louis S Warren

- Who is your style icon?

1930s actress Norma Shearer in my favourite movie, The Women.

- Who is your pop idol?

Levi Strauss

- Who is on your mobile's speed dial?

My oldest friend Kay McDonough, who is a documentary filmmaker, professor, and editor of all my books and essays.

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