'The greatest story ever worn' - The Levi's brand turns 150 years old

03.07.2023 | Prof. Martina Weiß

Interview with Prof. Martina Weiß on Pro 7 - 'Deconstructed Levi's' on 03.07.2023

150 years ago, on May 20, 1873, fabric merchant Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis filed a patent in the U.S. for riveted work pants made of coarse fabric - this date is now considered the birth of jeans, and also marks the beginning of the success story of the Levi's brand, which today generates US$6.2 billion in sales per year and sells its jeans in more than 110 countries.

This company anniversary is celebrated with the large-scale campaign 'The greatest Story ever Worn', which, in addition to short films, also plays out its message via social media, print media, events and digital platforms. Levi's is thus omnipresent - and not just because, according to its own annual report, the 'young and the young at heart' - in other words, everyone - is the brand's target group. In Germany, too, Levi's is the most popular jeans brand, across all age groups. Reason enough for the channel Pro 7 to want to look behind the secret of the success of the Levi's brand, and to conduct an interview with Prof. Martina Weiß as part of the feature 'Deconstructed Levi's', which will be broadcast on Monday, July 3, 2023.

Levi's Spot mit Brad Pitt (1990)

Levi's Spot mit Brad Pitt (1990)


Levi's continues to live - and serve - the myth that has surrounded the brand since its birth. The 501 - said to be unchanged since 1873 - is the authentic original jeans. Through them, the history of the brand is directly linked to the American dream - the adventurers, the gold miners who headed west to find fame and fortune in the mines through hard work. So the jeans that Levi Strauss developed are the pants of the daring and the rebellious - he himself was just as much an adventurer when he set out from the Franconian town of Buttenheim for the great, wide America to seek his fortune there.

After the gold diggers, the Western heroes in the movies of the 1930s to 1950s wore denim - they too were outlaws in jeans. And the American GI's, who brought the jeans to Europe after World War 2, once again made the 'studded pants' a symbol for freedom and the American way of life. The rebellious youth idols of the post-war period, Marlon Brando, James Dean, all wore jeans, and thus became the fashionable role model of the 'half-growns', who thus rebelled not only politically, but also outwardly against the older (war) generations. The triumph of the jeans was completed by the hippie movement, which also originated in the USA at the end of the 60s. Through them, jeans were finally able to establish themselves as a leisure look, and a little later also as casual business trousers, in the middle class. All generations living today have worn jeans at least once. The brand awareness of Levi's in Germany is 98%. At the same time, the original 501 jeans are sublime in the face of any fashion changes - and thus become a true classic like few other items of clothing or accessories (e.g. the white T-shirt or the Birkin bag).


The slogan of the brand is "Quality never goes out of style" - rivet-reinforced and made of sturdy demin, the first jeans were actually much more stable than any other pants.  Even today, the leather badge on the back waistband of the jeans shows two horses pulling on a pair of pants, but they can't tear them apart, as a kind of proof of the pants' indestructibility.

150 years later, jeans hardly have to withstand such demands. That's why the actual quality of the products is no longer the deciding factor in purchasing - much more important is the perceived quality, i.e. what the customer expects and attributes to the brand and its products. And because jeans were the work trousers par excellence in their early days, there is no doubt about the stability and superior quality associated with jeans.


The Levi's brand combines the aspects of tradition and history, authenticity, individuality, unconventionality and timelessness. The campaigns for the brand's 150th birthday in particular have the task of conveying these brand attributes in a very emotional way - because sympathy for a brand, and thus also purchasing decisions, are very emotionally driven.

At the heart of the stories told as part of the 'Greatest Story Ever Worn' are thirteen stories: for example, the deceased who wants to be buried in his 501 and demands that the entire mourners also wear the 501. Or the man from Georgia who trades the family cow for a 501 in the 80s - a fair trade, the clip comments. Ostensibly, the stories are based on true events from around the world - 'Inspired by true stories' - but it's fair to assume that Levi's, in order to fuel its own legend, has added a big dash of drama and humor to the original facts.

Levis Strauss The greatest story ever worn.jpeg

The message to be conveyed in this way is: the 501 is living history - the pants have accompanied and connected people for decades, in the most diverse regions and cultural circles. They are a symbol of the American dream of freedom and independence - and no price, no hurdle is too high to be able to participate in it, at least by wearing the 501. The wearers of the 501 are unique and non-conformist - and above all, not one thing: boring. The pants arouse - at least that is the credo of the spots - such a desire that no hurdle is too high to get one. And everyone can tell and continue to write their own story with and through the 501.

With the new spots for the 'Greatest Story Ever Worn', Levi's also continues its own tradition of iconic, humorous commercials that have showcased the 501 in the past. Legendary in the mid-90s were the protagonists from the spot 'Mr. Boombastic' - a muscular plasticine man rips off his jeans in front of the horrified gaze of a plasticine blonde, in order to then rescue the former in a gentlemanly manner from a burning hotel on a rope with the help of the (naturally) untearable pants, like Tarzan. The spot plays with clichés and stereotypes and would probably be considered sexist rather than funny today. Long before MeToo, in the 90s, the spot ran as a movie theater ad, and, regardless of the main show, was a good reason to afford a movie ticket. And the message got across - even an adventurer can only deliver the best performance with the right jeans.

Levis Strauss

Levis Strauss

Levis Strauss Double Stiched

Levis Strauss Double Stiched

Brad Pitt manifested his reputation as a sex symbol in a Levi's commercial in 1990, even before his success on the big screen. He, too, played the role of an outlaw who had just been released from a no-man's land prison - only to be picked up outside, in front of the jail, by his girlfriend in a convertible and first put on the symbol of freedom, the 501. A few last snapshots of the girlfriend, pants and convertible - then the two of them speed off, casually tossing the camera and the photos they've just taken to the stunned prison guard. The spot plays with a change of perspective - who is locked up, who is free? Who can enjoy the wild life, who can only dream about it? Circumstances can change quickly, but only the right jeans are the ticket to fun and freedom.

A lot has changed since the 90s - the market for jeans has gotten bigger competition from above and below - there are designer jeans, premium denim and the fast fashion industry. And with traditional role models, albeit presented with a wink, the Levi's company can no longer score points with consumers today. Sustainability and diversity are the new buzzwords, and of course the global Levi's brand must also address these issues if it does not want to lose touch with its customers.


Although Levi's was able to position itself among the top 3 in last year's Circular Fashion Index of the management consultancy Kearney (the index evaluates the climate friendliness of clothing manufacturers - environmental pollution in production and distribution accounted for around 94% of emissions along the entire value chain), the brand is subject to criticism with regard to other ecological as well as social aspects of sustainability.

The environmental impact of jeans production is immense. Starting with the cultivation of cotton, through to the finishing, dyeing and washing of the finished product - large amounts of water and numerous chemicals (some of which have long been banned in the EU or the USA) are used. Calculations by Greenpeace suggest that about 8,000 liters of water are used to produce a single pair of jeans. Production takes place in the global south, partly because of the virtually non-existent environmental protection laws there. At the same time, production (i.e. cutting and sewing) of the jeans has also been relocated to developing and emerging countries - in the case of Levi's to low-wage countries in Asia and South America - for cost reasons. Levis sources about 99% of all its products from independent contract manufacturers that buy fabrics, provide design and development services, and ultimately manufacture the products Levis sells, according to its annual report. Even though Levi's has a so-called 'Code of Conduct', which is supposed to guarantee environmental and social standards also at suppliers, the actual control over almost the entire value chain that has been outsourced to subcontractors is hardly possible in practice.

It is clear from Levi's annual report that the company is very aware of the risk of negative public reporting that focuses on these sometimes exploitative production conditions. Among other things, Levi's lists damage to its brand image or lost sales as possible consequences.

Against this backdrop, Levi's plans to bring part of its production back to the U.S. and have it manufactured there through the use of sewing robots seem like social washing. In its external communication, Levi's justifies the return to the 'Country of Origin' as a patriotic act. However, the economic advantages of automated production are obvious: labor cost savings with a simultaneous increase in productivity - without having to take into account occupational health and safety measures for the seamstresses and sewers, and without the risk of collecting a public shitstorm for abuses in production. Levi's is leaving the labor market in low-wage countries, leaving workers there in unemployment, but not creating new jobs through automation in the home country either.

Wage cost savings were also the reason for a wave of layoffs a good year ago. Here, too, the company had already come under public criticism. Levi's laid off around 700 employees, or 15 percent of its workforce. According to 'USA Today', this will save Levi's US$100 million a year - even though the company's profits (despite a slump during the pandemic) have doubled to nearly US$570 million from 2019 to 2022.

The issue of diversity, coupled with the use of virtual models, is also being used by Levi's in terms of marketing: in the future, hyper-realistic avatars - virtually generated models - in different body shapes, skin colors, sizes and ages will enable a more personal and individual shopping experience for all customers in its own online store. Until now, the online store has only shown garments on a model. The virtual models are intended to give customers the opportunity to see garments on avatars that resemble their own physical appearance.

Here, Levi's is using a technology that has already been used and promoted for several years by major clothing manufacturers such as Boss and H&M for collection development and B2B sales for reasons of cost and time efficiency. Patterns are created digitally, fittings are done with a virtual prototype on a virtual model, and finally the collection is presented and ordered on a screen or tablet in the showroom.

For Levi's, too, it can be assumed that the use of virtual models does not serve exclusively to demonstrate diversity to the outside world - which would be just as feasible with 'real' models with different clothing sizes and skin colors. However, photo shoots with photographers, models, stylists, assistants for hair and make-up, lighting and set are time-consuming and cost-intensive. Images have to be digitally post-processed and retouched in post-production. From a business perspective, it therefore makes more than sense to completely outsource these processes to dig


Levi's is focusing - at least in its marketing - on topics of the future in order to remain relevant to a younger target group. And in doing so, it is constantly optimizing its own value chain - by outsourcing sourcing, development and production. The company's focus is essentially on the brand and its further development. Increasing market transparency, consumer awareness of sustainability, and digital networking mean that global companies are increasingly under scrutiny and in the public eye. Therefore, the following also applies to Levi's: success in the 21st century obligates the company to assume corporate responsibility for sustainable business and the protection of people and nature. 

Sources: Annual Report Levi Strauss & Co (2022), Greenpeace, www.levis.com, Statista, Textilwirtschaft.