Let me tell you a story: One magical day, a bored pedestrian was aimlessly strolling through New York City's SoHo neighborhood when she happened upon a vintage store. Here, she proceeded to spend hours sifting through piles of vintage Levi's jeans like someone possessed before, finally, unearthing the one: it hugged in all the right places, flattened her tummy and lifted her butt. Since then, she's been hooked.
If you didn't already guess, the story is about me — but it could have been anyone, because I'm not the only who's felt the adrenaline rush from finding that elusive pair on the verge of giving up and has, as a result, begun to develop a very expensive hobby of collecting vintage Levi's every chance she gets. But no one I know has quite amassed a collection like Jeff Fuller, who owned more than 50,000 pairs — until one day, he didn't, because in a rather ingenious move, he sold them back to Levi's.
But let's back up a bit. There's only so much we know about the guy (slash unofficial King of Vintage Levi's), since he's determined to keep a low profile. All we know is that he was a tech worker in the '80s before he opened his first vintage store in Santa Monica, where we assume his love for all things Levi's was born. Even though he closed shop in the mid-'90s, he continued to collect authentic, made-in-America Levi's from the '70s, '80s and '90s.
Fifty-thousand-plus pairs later, it was August 2016 on the last day of the MAGIC tradeshow in Las Vegas when Fuller approached Dan Dahl, vice president of Levi's, insisting he talk to the "right people," recalls James "JC" Curleigh, president of Levi's.
"At the time, Dan didn't know if this was a waste of time, but he told me about it and we sent a team down to Jeff's storage space outside of Los Angeles, and that's when we knew the guy was the real deal," Curleigh says. "I felt like we were in some sort of a Harrison Ford movie, like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' and we found the treasure from the ancient times. It was really cool."
Everything was impeccably stored — temperature was regulated, moisture was controlled; every detail taken into consideration in order to maintain the quality of denim — and the team spent a few weeks combing through each piece to check the condition, verify that it's authentic and American-made, take inventory and sort out the special pieces. Negotiations took a few months before Levi's wound up purchasing the entire stock for an undisclosed sum of money. We may never know how much Fuller ended up walking away with, but since it's one of the largest vintage stocks in existence, we'd venture to guess that the figure is a lot.
"If anyone came up to Jeff and offered to buy the stock, I think he'd say no, because it's not about the price, but more about the fact it belongs with Levi's, because we'd know what to do with it, how to manage it — in a weird way, it's the ultimate deal for this guy, because he's selling us back what we made in the first place," Curleigh says. "I've never seen Ford buy back 10,000 Mustangs or a winery buy back their vintage wine. It's amazing how a pair of Levi's can hold — and appreciate— in value. What's normally the end of a life cycle for a pair of jeans, this is now the beginning for 50,000 jeans and Trucker jackets, and we're all interested to see the journey it goes on. We're going to do things that he could never have done and he gets that."
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And just like that, with this 50,000-plus stock of vintage denim, Levi's not only regained control of its own product that would've normally been sold through a third-party vendor, but it's also become the biggest player in the vintage denim market. Outside of the brand's special collection of vintage kept safe behind a vault (made up of iconic pieces, including the oldest Levi's, every pair ever worn by a celebrity, Steve Jobs's 501s he wore when he launched the iPod, etc.), Levi's simply didn't have enough to offer access to its consumers on a global scale. There were a few collaborations here and there, like a partnership with Re/Done and one-offs with Virgil Abloh of Off-White and Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, but if, say, Fred Segal wanted to launch an Authorized Vintage pop-up, Levi's would have only been able to supply "about five pairs," Curleigh posits.
After years of tracking the vintage denim movement, this purchase came at the right moment in time. It makes sense now, but it wouldn't have even five years ago.
"Just think about five years ago — not even 50 years ago, but five — brands, like Abercrombie, Hollister and American Apparel were targeting millennials, and it was working, and then it didn't. Now, these millennials are looking for purpose and authenticity, and Levi's is the perfect solution," Curleigh says, calling out Levi's role in pop culture through the decades as an indicator of its lasting power, from the gold miners in the 1870s to the cowboys in the West, to Hollywood rebels (i.e. Marlon Brando and James Dean), Woodstock, and rock 'n' roll. He also reasons that this fan-fueled push for vintage Levi's is a direct response — or backlash, rather — against fast fashion.
"There's a move toward self-experience and self-expression, and Levi's, the number-one brand in vintage and denim, is literally in the center of that authenticity. You can wear other clothes, but you live in your Levi's," he continues. "In fast fashion, the first time you wear the piece, it's the best you're going to look in it, whereas Levi's gets better over time. And because of that, we can command a retail price to reflect that."
The vintage denim stock was divided between New York's SoHo, Meatpacking and Williamsburg stores, San Francisco's Market Street location and Japan — and as such, it allowed for Levi's to launch its Authorized Vintage platform, giving consumers both access and a seamless experience to try on vintage Levi's for the first time ever, thus ensuring a higher chance of finding the perfect curve-hugging, butt-lifting fit. (Because of the demand, vintage Levi's start at $198, a markup compared with Levi's regular jeans, which are priced at $98). From the business side, it's a move that's working for Levi's.
"This year will be the strongest year we've had by far this century, both for the brand, from an authentic, story-telling perspective, and for business, from raising the price point and providing access," Curleigh says. "These jeans were just sitting there for many, many years, and now, the world gets to see them. What's amazing, it's opened us up for vintage business because I now get daily e-mails from people who want to sell their Levi's. We want to be the first stop for people to sell them, because we'll take them back — we'll bring them home."
Homepage image: Levi's 501 blue jeans. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images