Tuesday, June 2

10E2457: Levi's "New Nevada" w/ historian Tracey Panek

Photos via Levi Strauss & Co.

Recently Levi Strauss & Co acquired an 1880 pair of jeans found in Nevada. This may be one of the oldest pairs in existence. The Levi's archive have now dubbed the here-to-forgotten style "New Nevada". Read the complete backstory at the Levi's Archive blog Unzipped.

I wanted to hear a bit more about the collection at Levi's generally, and the academic principals that guided some of their decisions. Current Levi's historian Tracey Panek was good enough to talk about the "New Nevada" acquisition and more - thanks!
10E: Can you talk about the collection policy a little at Levis - are you involved in the search for items for the archive at all? Do you look for holes in the collection and make suggestions? Is enough ever "enough"?

TP: Our goal is to have the best collection of Levi’s® vintage clothing in the world. We review the Archives and sometimes look for specific items that are missing in the collection. Occasionally, I even seek out unique items, like the well-worn trucker jacket owned by a rodeo bull rider that I tracked down in New Mexico [see below - ed.]. We also continue to add current LS&Co. pieces to the Archives like our women’s 501®CT jeans.

10E: What are a few of your other favorite items from the archive?

TP: I love all the vintage waist overalls and am ecstatic about the New Nevada! Stacia Fink, our conservator, and I have spent hours studying the new pants with a magnifying glass, comparing them to other jeans in the collection.

I have recently been enamored with two pairs of waist overalls found in the Commodore Mine in southwest Colorado. One pair from the late 1930s is covered with burn holes, has a well-preserved leather patch, a worn-out back cinch, and signs of cuffing at the leg openings. The second pair was made during World War II. The back cinch is gone along with the rivets on the crotch and watch pocket—a wartime conservation effort. One amazing feature of the pants is the clear outline of chaps that were worn over them—an interesting detail revealing how these 501s® were worn

10E: Could you talk about your career path to Levi's historian? You worked with Lynn Downey (former archivist at Levi Strauss & Co) Bit of a legend... how was that?

I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in history. Before joining LS&Co., I was the Historian and Archivist for AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah, managing a corporate history program for the 100+ year old company.  
As two historians based in San Francisco, Lynn Downey and I have worked with each other in the past. Both Lynn and I served on the board of our professional organization. Lynn is definitely a legend and has been a de facto spokesperson for our profession. I’m thrilled to be following in her footsteps!  
10E: Some companies, notably Levi's and LLBean have really grasped the significance of a corporate archive for materials. I believe it goes beyond the recent "heritage trend" of the last 10 years - but good timing for sure. Carhartt only recently is getting organized this way. Can you talk about some archival / business victories you have seen in your time there so far? [sidenote - the 1906 fire in San Fran destroyed the Levi's offices, factory; they have been rebuilding the archive ever since]

TP: I have been working in corporate history for 20 years. I think that farsighted companies understand the importance of their heritage.

I celebrate everyday triumphs as well as major long-term initiatives. I respond to requests almost daily from designers or employees. It’s incredibly satisfying to dig up a forgotten or unknown detail about the company or to uncover a unique design feature that I know will inspire a new creation. I uncovered a 1930s label recently for one designer. It’s so beautiful it’s definitely worth recreating.

10E: I assume you scan/photograph a lot for external researchers / print etc. Could you touch on the archival the principle of 're-use'? Does the business side of the operation see those economies? Archives (such as Levi's) are almost content marketing machines in their own right - rather than money sinks that 'non-believers' might politicize them as. Good stuff.
TP: We recently launched a digital initiative in the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives that began with a four-week photo shoot of our garment collection. Going forward, our heritage materials will be accessible at our fingertips via computer. We can take a newspaper advertisement published in 1903 and use it today to illustrate a magazine article or to bring a smile to our fans following us on social media.

Another case in point—the New Nevada acquisition. Sharing digital images of these 1880s waist overalls in their remarkable “nearly new” condition, helps us authenticate our position as the originator of the world’s first blue jeans with an ongoing commitment to top quality, durable products.

10E: Do you know if they plan to reproduce this pant?
TP: Our designers are still reviewing the pants. We have no current plans to reproduce them.

10E: Finally, this always puzzled me - why did Levi's pick a New Hampshire company to make their denim when based out of San Francisco?  
TP: There were no denim mills in San Francisco when Levi Strauss & Co. began manufacturing blue jeans in 1873. We selected the Amoskeag Mill to purchase top-of-the-line denim for our waist overalls. [The New Nevada jeans are made of 9 oz. denim. This denim was purchased by Levi Strauss & Co. from the Amoskeag Mill, which was located in the town of Manchester in the state of New Hampshire.  The denim is dyed with vegetable (plant) indigo. These were made before synthetic indigo was discovered and put into use. The denim is not the “red selvage” denim we associate with our products. Red selvage denim was created for us by Cone Mills (Greensboro, North Carolina) in the 1920s.] North Carolina’s White Oak Mills didn’t get started until about 20 years later (1891). You can view a complete timeline here: http://levistrauss.com/our-story/heritage-timeline/heritage-timeline-2/
Thanks to Tracey for taking time out to correspond. I for one would love to see repros of the New Nevada. Fascinating insight to this hard working archive.