Levi's is commemorating 150 years of the 501® Jean and planning a special celebration with the PROJECT community. At PROJECT Las Vegas, Levi’s will be diving into the rich history of the 501® Jean with Tracey Panek, Levi Strauss & Co. Historian & Director of Archives. We chatted with Panek for an exclusive Q&A giving you a glimpse into how this iconic brand built a wardrobe staple. Join us for some can’t miss moments and more at the upcoming edition of PROJECT Las Vegas this August 7-9.

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Tracey Panek, Levi Strauss & Co. Historian & Director of Archives


PROJECT: Levi’s is such an iconic brand and the 501® has become a staple style. What’s next for Levi’s and the 501®? What innovations are you most excited? How does the brand’s history support its continued and future success?  

TRACEY PANEK: The 501® is our icon and first garment. The 501® will not deviate from its original design features, like five pockets, rivets, and the button fly, but you can look forward to interesting finishes, unique options for customization and more exciting collaborations. This 150th year of the 501®, I’m especially excited about our selvedge 501® with innovative 150th selvedge print detail. I have one in my own closet. The Levi’s® brand aesthetic is rooted in our history. Designers visit the Archives to see vintage Levi’s® garments from the 1890s to the 1990s that will inspire the latest Levi’s® looks. It’s one of the ways we stay authentic and timeless since our designs are never created in a vacuum. They begin from an earlier Levi’s® reference point.



PROJECT: Why was it important for Levi’s to tell the story Levi’s 150 year history and the iconic 501® at PROJECT?

TRACEY PANEK: Levi’s® 501® jeans, the original modern blue jean or riveted denim pant, is one of the most enduring garments ever created and is even more relevant today. Now 150 years old, the 501® is the blueprint for all blue jeans—a product that is arguably the world’s default garment. Some speculate that in most places on earth, at least half of the population is wearing blue jeans.* 

The Levi’s® brand also has historic ties to both New York and Las Vegas. Levi Strauss & Co. was founded in San Francisco in 1853 and served retail customers throughout the Western states like Nevada, Las Vegas’ home state, as well as having offices in New York from its founding on.  


PROJECT: What can the audience expect to learn, experience, discover at the presentation during PROJECT New York? What about during the panel discussion in Las Vegas? 

TRACEY PANEK: This is a rare opportunity to see some of the most unusual vintage Levi’s® that will be hand-carried from San Francisco to PROJECT New York and PROJECT Las Vegas. 

Audiences can expect to view one-of-a-kind Levi’s® from the Levi’s® Archives up close, and discover the riveting back stories of these garments like the tale of a 501® that towed a car in the 1930s or a 501® that was discovered in a chicken coop in Arkansas with connections to World War II. 

Learn how pieces in the Levi’s® Archives are found, uncover lost details of early Levi’s®, and discover how marks and wear patterns on historic Levi’s® give clues to who wore them. 


Images Courtesy of Levi’s®


PROJECT: How does Levi’s work with key retailers to tell help tell the story of Levi’s 501® in their stores? Are there any notable special events or experiences you’ve collaborated with retailers on that have been successful? 

TRACEY PANEK: The Levi’s® team has worked with key retailers to envision dynamic displays from historic imagery in our Archives to the latest photos from our seasonal shoots and has created special events and celebrates important milestones. 

Several notable examples include collaborating a on custom 501® based on pair of rodeo clown Levi’s® in our Archives to mark the 40th Anniversary of a Tokyo retailer to creating a pop-up tailor shop event or celebrating Black History Month with rising local artists giving *in-store workshops.



PROJECT: In your opinion, what led the 501® to become such a staple and classic style? What should the next generation of retailers know about the 501®? 

TRACEY PANEK: In my opinion, the simple style and democratic roots of the 501® are the secret to its success. The 501®, the world’s first modern blue jean, began as an innovative idea to fill a practical need. In the early 1870s, Nevada Tailor Jacob Davis was stitching up a pair of work pants for a customer when he hit on the idea of adding tiny metal pieces to the pockets. His “riveted” denim trousers soon became a hit and he could not keep up with the demand. Writing to his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss & Co., Davis proposed that they partner on a patent. On “501 Day”—May 20, 1873, U.S. Patent No. 139,121 was granted, and blue jeans were born. The 501® began as a humble work pant and transformed over the years to become a style staple that is worn everywhere from the boardwalk to the catwalk. The 501® is unpretentious with timeless appeal, a canvas for self-expression and the uniform of musicians, models, entrepreneurs, activists and everyone in between. 

Levi’s 501® jeans have been worn by celebrities, past and present. Marlon Brando rebelled in them in The Wild One while Bruce Springsteen rocked them on the cover of Born in the USA. Steve Jobs wore them to introduce the iPod and Madonna and Beyoncé cut them off, owning them for their onstage shows. Today, the 501® remains just as popular with celebrities from Hailey Bieber and Justin Timberlake to Jaden Smith. I hope the next generation of retailers understand how revolutionary the unassuming 501® has been. The 501® jean was named by Time Magazine as the fashion item of the 20th Century and the New York’s MoMA as one of the most important items in fashion history. 

*See the book, Global Denim by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward.


Images Courtesy of Levi’s®


Don't miss the live session with Tracey Panek at PROJECT Las Vegas: 

Creating an Icon: the History of the 501®

Monday, August 7, 2023 at 3:00PM 

PROJECT, North Hall, Booth# 83235