The End of the American 501

Levi’s 501 blue denim jeans is perhaps the most influential and recognized garment in modern history, and a true icon of the glory days of American culture during the 20th century.

Recent industry leaks have indicated that there will be no more 501 model jeans made in the USA – that is, the Levi’s Vintage Clothing (LVC) line will be completely outsourced (again) to be sewn in Bulgaria & Turkey.

Sad news, yes… but a surprise this is not.

The 501 model jeans have experienced a gradual decline over, almost, 70 years. The pinnacle of Levi’s jeans was reached in the 1950’s. The 1960’s saw the gradual introduction of wide-loomed, sanforised fabrics. The 1970’s saw the fading out of ring-spun cotton. By the 1990’s, Levi’s was losing market share at home in North America, and the late 90’s saw a series of factory closures. The last major Levi’s factory closed in 2003 – the first time that Levi’s was no longer made in the USA.

The Japanese began reproducing American denim in the 1980’s, having noticed the Levi’s jeans at that time were not the same quality as the post-war vintage they had collected. Levi’s Japan began remaking mid-century Levi’s in the late 80’s, and by the late 90’s, the idea of Levi’s Vintage Clothing was transplanted back in the USA.

The early LVC jeans, being made in Japan, or at Levi’s legendary Valencia St factory (which closed in 2002), where much sought after, rivaling – in some ways – the efforts by the niche Japanese denim makers.

After total factory closure in 2003, it seems all was lost for American blue jeans.

LVC was a cool idea, for a while anyway.

Yet, in the early 2010’s, Levi’s brought back some manufacturing to the USA for their premium labels, which include LVC, Made & Crafted, etc. Alas, this was not to last – the experiment finally failed in 2019.

The closure of American manufacturing occured not too long after the shut-down of Cone Mills’ last American plant – White Oak – in 2017. A mere two years after the centennial celebration of ‘the golden handshake’, the most important collaboration in denim history, the American part of the story was no more.

As of 2019, Levi’s has reverted to using Kaihara denim again for its LVC jeans.

One of the last rolls of White Oak denim at Lieutenant & Co.

And so it is, that in 2019, denim hobbyists witness a new era in denim jeans – an era in which Levi’s 501 is no longer American. Neither the denim or the sewing are American, that is, and what is left is perhaps a reminder of the golden age of Americana, a nostalgia of mid-century blue jeans.

From a more cynical perspective, the modern 501 model jeans is, in many ways, a sad reminder of the consequences of rampant capitalism.

Even as the LVC label continues on, it is without doubt to the enthusiast that most Japanese jeans will eat the LVC ones for breakfast. LVC, often plagued by reproduction inaccuracies in the past, now ventures into the territory of faster fashion – judging by the seasonal collections in the past couple of years, this label now has little to offer reproduction jeans enthusiasts.

Every year the LVC label has a little less to do with blue jeans.

All is not lost, however.

Even as the reproduction denim market has failed to grow as some would have hoped in the last 20 years outside of Japan, small makers have popped up to serve this niche. Without a doubt, the best 501 jeans are being made in Japan right now.

Many enthusiasts would nominate Connors Sewing Factory as the king of repop. Old stewards such as Fullcount & Warehouse continue to produce quality reproductions too, though they are facing issues of their own.

In the modern age, the best Levi’s are not Levi’s.

What does all of this mean for American denim?

To me, it seems like the age of the Big Three has truly ended with the final chapter of the genuine 501.

American blue jeans lives on in the small craft brands and a couple of hobby mills, yet with the death of the American 501, America’s claim to the blue jeans now only lives on in our memories. Certainly, Levi’s and Cone Mills continue their own innovations, yet what they now offer is looking very unfamiliar to the denim hobbyist. The best jeans are now undoubtedly Japanese, and the very small world of our denim hobby has just gotten that much smaller.

3 thoughts on “The End of the American 501

  1. Levi’s problem is and was they refuse to innovate, better yet loosen up on their quality control. They do not do slubby, neppy, heavyweight denim or anything that is adventurous. In today’s economy it is cheaper to import than export. With everyone throwing big tariffs around a lot of factories are moving abroad or shuttering. This is why a basic pair of Japanese denim cost 30 to 40 percent more in the USA. Today’s kid or adult for that matter in America, the 501 doesn’t matter anymore. Today’s kid doesnt care about Levi’s period. Levis is basically moving towards the market where they have to most sales, just like Wrangler and Lee did.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      Yes, I read a news piece from 1999 that teenage interest in Levi’s dropped dramatically around 1996/1997. Very interesting to consider how it played out over the next 20 years.

      1. When i was young, we looked forward to our moms buying us 501 denim. I loved my Levi’s twills as well but when i got my first pair i was hyped. When i got my first selvedge pair i was hyped. When i got the neppy selvedge pair, i was super hyped. The good ole days.

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