A Timeless Fit on the Birthday of the Blue Jean

A Timeless Fit on the Birthday of the Blue Jean

On the 147th birthday of the 501 Jean, Sanjeev Mohanty of Levi Strauss & Co on fitting plans and processes to the need of the hour

Just hours before this story was published, Levi Strauss & Co. announced the newest addition to its blue jean archive. “Meet Clem a faded and patched vintage Levi’s® 501® that was owned by a true reuse, repurpose and recycle do-it-yourselfer,” wrote Tracey Panek, a LS&Co. historian on the brand’s website. Panek recycles the story back to Clement Johnston, or Clem, from Oklahoma who served in the US army. Given limited resources, he had learnt to repurpose everything he had. The addition of a “faded and patched repurposed jean” to Levi’s 501 archives marks May 20, 2020, the 147th birthday of “riveted denim pants”. Or blue jeans that were labelled Lot 501 after LS&Co. and Jacob Davis received a US patent for an “improvement in pocket openings on trousers”.


The Oldest 501 Jean from 1879.

In the spirit of this moment and narrative fibre, Clem fits–like a good old pair of jeans—the present scenario of the COVID-19 pandemic. When means have become limited but we are forced to reflect on the true meaning of things.

By the time you read this interview with Sanjeev Mohanty, the Levi’s managing director for South Asia, Middle East and North Africa, the brand will have kicked off a “global virtual festival”. To celebrate the birthday of a garment that will likely survive quarantines, lockdowns, an ailing economy, even a much needed wardrobe rethink.

The Levi’s® 5:01® LIVE series launched on March 23, and took place every weekday at 5:01 PST (12 hours and 30 minutes behind India) with special live performances by some of the world’s most renowned music artistes. Today, besides live performances, it has conversations, DIY denim personalisation sessions with in-house tailors, and a dive into the Levi’s® history, that detail the chronicles of the 501® blue jean alongside new 501® collaborations and styles. The brand calls it “a global virtual festival”.


Musician Rajakumari will do a special live stream show on May 20, to celebrate Levi’s #501Day.

However, a new gig on 5:01 Live was not why we reached out to Levi’s. Instead it was to understand the brand’s response to COVID-19, whether it had stood by its commitment to its supply chain workers and vendors. What about business sustainability, digital interventions, waterless technology, relief and restoration efforts.

Levi Strauss & Co. is among the 18 brands interviewed as part of The India Sustainability Report, published by The Voice of Fashion this February. Following up with these brands during the pandemic was imperative, both as responsibility to our readers and to continue tracking the story of sustainability through thoughtful change. Here is what Mohanty has to say on questions as varied as worker welfare to the new complexity of physical trial rooms in the age of sanitisation .

Excerpts from an email conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Were any innovations beyond FLX and Future Finish introduced during the COVID-19 period or if any new ideas from Levi’s are in gestation right now?

You see an organisation’s character in times of crisis, and we are seeing this now. When the pandemic happened, we took our Global Final Line Assortment meeting (FLA) to a virtual one in only two days. Through technology, we are able to engage in more global and regional conversations. We knew we needed to find ingenious ways to engage with consumers even when stores were shut. In March, we launched the “5:01 Live” music programme through the @Levis Instagram handle. As a brand synonymous with music, it was apt to use the Levi’s® brand to support those social distancing at home with live entertainment featuring performances recorded from artists’ homes, and simultaneously aiding key charities during the COVID-19 crisis. The programme has been a success for us as we found that many people turn to music to feel a sense of community, regardless of borders.

Would it be correct to say that denims, considered “essentials” in fashion, are insulated from big disaster? Since Levi’s has been working with waterless technology, do you have an advantage in terms of sustainability guidelines for the post pandemic world? 

As we start to emerge from coronavirus restrictions around the world, we are applying every lesson learned in recent months to reopen stores and refashion our business. Many of our colleagues in China and South Korea have been going through this process first, tracking what is working and what is not, and learning how consumer habits and sentiments are shifting. One of the things we are learning is that consumers are returning to brands they trust and shopping with a purpose. There is an increase in the desire to move away from frivolous fashion to trusted essentials by brands that lead with their values and create products that represent durability, quality and sustainability. Levi’s® stands for that. With climate concerns at the nexus of so many critical challenges — including public health — we know that now is not the time to waver in our commitment to building a more sustainable future.


Sanjeev Mohanty.

Does Levi’s intend to reduce operations and stores across the world, specifically in India? 

While our Q1 financial results were strong overall, the effects of the global outbreak will continue to reverberate throughout our business for the foreseeable future. As we navigate this crisis by leveraging our strengths that will help us thrive over the long-term, there could be choices we make. It is too early for us to assess if the total number of stores will be reduced. We always review our store fleet to ensure we are in the right locations catering to the right consumers. In this current environment, it is even more critical.

Among the biggest seductions of jeans is its fit. However, fitting implies trial rooms. Now with social distancing, and sanitisation restrictions in place across the globe, how will Levi’s negotiate this situation? 

The health and safety of our employees and consumers will always take priority. Today, all of our stores in China are open, including franchise doors. In Europe, nearly 250 stores are open now, and we expect more to open soon across Europe and Asia, including those in India. Canada and Latin America have each opened doors, and in the US, we plan to open a handful of doors later this week, with more to follow. Our experience in these diverse markets around the world is allowing us to develop playbooks for reopening stores, tailored to specific regions in line with local guidelines. In addition to the safety precautions, we are accelerating efforts to become a leading, world-class Omnichannel retailer. We have introduced “order online” with pickup outside the store (whether curbside in the US or in-line in Europe). We are shipping from store–in fact, approximately one-third of our US e-commerce orders last week were fulfilled from a store. We have set up store managers as virtual stylists in all three regions. In addition, we are enhancing social commerce, offering contactless payment, developing options for shopping by appointment and same-day delivery in markets where applicable.


Photo: Shutterstock

A: Levi Strauss and Co. flagship store in Times Square. Image used for representational purpose.

How has the company handled the humanitarian situation with employees, suppliers or vendors dependent on Levi’s for a living during the COVID-19 phase?

Our response will evolve as the impact of the crisis continues to play out but to start with, in April, we committed $3 million to relief efforts, with a focus on employees, community partners and supply chain workers. This is being done through various channels:

The Red Tab Foundation (RTF) which was created for times like these and is playing a critical role with our employees, fielding a sharp increase in requests for assistance from around the world in just the last week. It is go-to resource for other companies in the industry looking for advice on how to set up employee assistance funds.

The Levi Strauss Foundation, which is focused on supporting vanguard organizations championing marginalised people including:

–Chinese for Affirmative Action, fighting against coronavirus-related racism directed toward Asian Americans.

VisionSpring, that helps factories produce protective gear for community health workers in communities where apparel workers live.

The Bay Area’s Tipping Point, Swasti in India, Doctors Without Borders and the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Rights—are addressing the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable communities. In fact, LSF donated $100k to support Swasti’s relief work in India.

In addition to a first round of more than 15 grants, LSF will continue to support its current grantees to ensure that they are well-positioned to meet the needs of the communities they serve, and is gearing up to lend additional support to the people in the global supply chain who make our products.

LSF is working with partner organisations in a number of sourcing countries to help address the immediate impact of the coronavirus in the apparel supply chain. This will include a series of grants focused on public health support and food security for factory workers, particularly for women who are most vulnerable to economic shocks. We are also working with industry stakeholders to explore options for a collective response to support workers during this crisis. Besides, we have donated medical-grade masks that had been stored for employee safety to hospitals around the globe (nearly 10,000 to date) and are connecting employees to resources to donate any extra N95 masks and other PPE they might have to their local hospitals.