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The Self-Made Man: Levi Strauss

When you hear the term “fashion entrepreneur,” you probably think of someone artsy, either in an uber-chic or cartoonishly outrageous sort of way, who lives in Paris or New York and spends his afternoons swatting models on the calves with a riding crop as they pass down the runway. That’s not totally inaccurate, but one of the most important guys in the history of fashion was a humble Bavarian dry goods merchant who looked like an aspiring Kentucky colonel. But while he might have been lacking in style, he had the keen eye for opportunity that we here at TSB look for in entrepreneurs, and that’s ultimately more important.

The great Levi Strauss

Strauss was born in 1829, and emigrated to America when he was 18 to work in his brothers’ dry goods business (his brothers, in what was a typical pattern for that era, came to America first, got jobs, and sent money home so the rest of the family could eventually join them). Fittingly enough, he also spent some time in Kentucky as a salesman for the company, which would go a long way towards explaining his future appearance.

When the 1849 Gold Rush hit, Levi was chosen to represent the family business as their west coast agent, so he caught a steamboat to San Francisco in 1853 and promptly began selling goods to gold miners and their families. He eventually opened his own wholesale dry goods company in locations throughout the city, selling clothing, fabric, and other items to local shops, and built his company’s reputation on not treating his employees like dirt (he was on a first-name basis with most of them) or screwing over the customer.

Strauss was already a successful businessman and philanthropist in San Francisco when, in 1872, a Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis asked him to go in on a patent for his method of securing the seams in canvas work pants (which were called “waist overalls” at the time) with copper rivets. Levi agreed, and his intuition that they would sell paid off; the riveted work pants gained a reputation for durability and quality, even after Levi made the switch to more suitable denim fabric (dyed blue to hide stains). What started with a few seamstresses making jeans in their homes became a huge factory operation that made Strauss a millionaire. Davis, who was hired to oversee one of the company’s manufacturing plants, worked for Strauss for the rest of his life, and presumably made a good living as well.

Even as his wealth and status increased, Strauss insisted that his employees call him by his first name, and by all accounts he wasn’t the avaricious vulture that guys like Carnegie and JP Morgan were. And while other people would take what began as workmen’s clothes and make them fashionable (James Dean and Elvis in the 1950s, hippies and activists in the 1960s and 70s, fashion designers in the 80s and beyond), they would’ve had to make do with khakis if it wasn’t for Levi Strauss and his razor sharp business instincts. And that isn’t a world any of us would want to live in.

So, the next time you’re watching  a video like this, spare a thought for Levi Strauss and tell him thank you. But don’t linger on him, because it’ll ruin the moment.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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