Last week would’ve been the 184th birthday of Levi Strauss, who in 1853, along with his partner Jacob Davis, founded Levi Strauss & Co. Like Coca-Cola and Ford automobiles, there is something so undeniably American about a pair of Levi’s jeans, and that has a good deal to do with the fact that the company has spent the better part of the last 60 years branding itself as the quintessential American brand in a masterful way: from the company’s use of old American rock and soul music in their commercials, to Walt Whitman’s poetry in the “Go Forth” campaign that was “rooted in America's raw, pioneering spirit.” From the rugged West and the industrial Rust Belt, to James Dean and Marlon Brando, denim marries America’s rugged spirit with its rebellious one, and the company that Strauss and Davis founded started it all.
But the company has had to try and protect its image as an all-American brand, simply because much of the product Levi Strauss sells is not made in the U.S.A., a detail that has been a point of contention for decades. In 1991 it was reported that the company was making jeans with a “Made in the USA” tag ... in China, using workers in “slave-like” conditions. It also didn’t help the company’s case that they closed 58 U.S. manufacturing plants between 1980 and 1990. Levi’s jeans are no longer made in the USA; they’re made in places like Mexico, Cambodia, and Turkmenistan. The company has worked with the White Oak denim mill in Greensboro, North Carolina, for a single “Made in the USA” line, but all other jeans are stitched outside of the country.
No doubt you’ve at least heard some of the screaming from the debate over outsourcing. Whether it’s American companies using customer-service phone lines in India or Mitt Romney being unable to escape the fact that he took away American jobs, and shipped them to China, it’s seemingly been a necessary evil for countries wanting to exist on a global scale.
Yet, Americans are becoming more conscious about where their products come from (see: the “locally sourced” movement), and, in the case of blue jeans, it has aligned two very different sorts of people: Glenn Beck and menswear bloggers.
While the site Buy 'Merican might not carry the radio host's jeans, and while you probably won’t see Beck's American denim getting mention on the Fuck Yeah Made in the USA Tumblr, there is something interesting about Beck telling his 27-year-old son-in-law, Tim DiDonato, who Beck hired to design for his 1791 Supply & Co., that “you have to find selvage.”
That was his one specification for the company he supposedly started after seeing a Levi Strauss & Co. commercial using “global revolutions and progressivism to sell their products." Beck proudly announced that the jeans would be made in the USA, going on to say, “We make them from the same company that Levi's gave up on,” which isn’t totally correct. Beck’s jeans are made by the same White Oak denim mill Levi’s still does business with, but the man wanted his selvage denim, just like almost every forward-thinking American menswear enthusiast.
Just Google “selvage denim” and you’re bombarded with dozens of results telling you it’s trendy, that hipsters like it, that menswear enthusiasts like it, and etc. While you’re unlikely to see Beck’s jeans worn by models on Milan runways, the timing of Beck’s launch came almost exactly a month after Alex Williams of the New York Times called the “Made in the USA” tag, “a signifier of old-school craftsmanship, even luxury.” The piece even went on to mention the plant used by both Levi Strauss & Co. and Beck, saying “the embrace of domestic goods has also moved beyond scruffy D.J. types in Brooklyn who plunk down $275 for a pair of hand-sewn Dungarees sewn from Cone denim from the company’s White Oak plant in North Carolina.”
With what seems to somehow still be a daily increase in polarization of the Left and Right, it’s interesting that a conservative demagogue and the more forward-thinking world of fashion can find common ground on an appreciation for things made by American hands. While Beck tries to embed politics into the reason behind his brand, there is a larger discussion as to why we should support American-made products.
Looking past American Apparel’s provocative photos and the legal troubles of CEO Dov Charney, the company is built around the fact that their garments are made in Los Angeles. From their website’s “About Us” section:
"An experienced American Apparel garment worker can earn $30,000+ and receive beneﬁts such as comprehensive health care. American Apparel garments are created by motivated and fairly-paid employees who don't just have jobs—they have careers. Our culture recognizes outstanding performance and promotes from within. Most importantly, our workers have a voice and inﬂuence the direction of the company. At American Apparel we call it Sweatshop Free, a term we coined in 2002."
Where Beck is apparently trying to make some sort of political statement in his own uber-hyperbolic fashion by launching his line, this bit from American Apparel and their general mission—outside of their advertising—is basically the thing, or at least part of the thing, Beck is getting at with his jean company. And while most fashion bloggers would scoff at the very idea of sharing any inch of common ground with a person like Beck on any subject—and vice versa—jeans, those pants Strauss helped make so quintessentially American, seem to be one of the few things that both sides (kind of) agree on.
Jason Diamond lives in New York. He has a wife, a dog, two cats, and a Twitter account that can be found at @ImJasonDiamond.