Levi’s: the jeans that still define us

For a generation there was no other jean (who can forget THAT commercial), but in the 90s they were usurped by the bling. Now, they're back, and in many ways, better. By Maggie Alderson

Our generation owns Levi’s. In the decade of our collective youth, our 501s – vintage and belted in like Bananarama in the early Eighties, new and worn with Chanel jackets later on, when I’m talking about the girls – defined us.

That 1985 Nick Kamen commercial with the Levi’s 501s in the laundrette (or more pertinently – without them) has always stood out as one the great cultural landmarks of the decade.

The specific brand and style, the 1950s setting, his particular kind of good looks, the close-up on the button fly: whenever I saw it I felt like our team, with our specific values, aesthetics and shared fetishes, was now calling the shots. It was the moment we took over.

But the fixation started earlier, didn’t it? Via Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in all those black and white films we used to watch on Sunday afternoons, Levi’s were in our collective consciousness from childhood. (And even though James Dean actually wore Lee jeans, we saw them as Levi’s.)

Jeans in the bath

I had my first pair of genuine American, darkest indigo, red tag (double sided, big E), shrink-to-fit Levi 501s, from the specialist workwear stall in Stafford market, when I was 13. They were my Christmas present.

Long before that other iconic Levi’s commercial (the sitting-in-the-bath one) – I sat in the bath in mine. I’ve no idea how I knew you that’s what you were supposed to do, but the ritual was a big part of what made me love the idea of them – and better still, it worked.

Those jeans fitted me like a second skin and I wore them until I grew out of them. Then I bought the next size up and did it all again.

So from 13 to 30 – when they had to be white, remember? – it was all about Levi’s for me. I had no other brand of jeans until suddenly in the late 1990s, the designer jean started to happen.

Levi’s loses it

Of course, Calvin Klein had started that way back in the late 1970s, but it had no traction for the Levi’s-obsessed at that point. Nothing came between me and my Levi’s – until Levi’s did. In the 1990s, their commercials may have still made the grade – remember the homage to Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer? – but the company lost the plot.

I can vividly remember my deep disappointment at going into the Levi’s flagship store on Regent Street and not being able to find a proper pair of 501s. The denim was thin and nasty, the stitching wrong, the cut weird, the whole ambience of the shop cringey. There was nothing for me in there.

The jeans brand that felt like a part of my identity had lost its mojo. I ran to the nearest swanky department store and invested in my first pair of Calvin Klein bootlegs.

The designer jeans of the 90s

It was designer jeans all the way from then, into a whole new world of denim brand-obsession where it was normal to spend £200 on a pair and to wear them with your highest heels to a cocktail party. Chanel started doing them…

And jeans have remained everyone’s go-to garment – from birth to the retirement home – but somewhere along the way I decided I didn’t want to pay silly money for them any more. So when jeans from Topshop seemed as good as any, that’s where I started buying them.

Then came the terrible ubiquity of the Max Wall skinny jean and the even more ghastly ultra-skinny jean, which have come to dominate denim to the point where it’s currently practically impossible to find a pair of classic, dark denim, straight-leg jeans that hug the upper thigh, but not the lower calf.

Which is how I found myself – having trawled the market from Dorothy Perkins up to Selfridges, via Uniqlo and M&S – in the Levi’s store in Carnaby Street. And guess what? Eureka!

And Levi’s finds it again…

Not only has my beloved denim brand regained its mojo, it has improved on it. After a big research project, Levi’s has come up with a system called Curve ID, which very cleverly identifies that women with different waist/hip ratios need very differently cut jeans; and that there has to be an easier way of finding a pair which suit your shape than trying on every bloody pair in Oxford Street.

So now at the Levi’s store (with the help of lovely, interested, well-informed sales staff) you first choose your curve: Slight, Demi, Bold or Supreme, depending where you sit on the Lauren Hutton to Jennifer Lopez lady-shape spectrum.

Then you have three shades of indigo wash, five different styles (skinny, bootleg, flare, straight and slim) and three choices of rise to select from. That’s before you even start thinking about the waist (which helpfully goes up in one-inch increments) and three leg lengths.

Putting aside the size – which is private, as there are no classic back patches on women’s styles – I chose: Slight Curve, slim leg, classic rise in, and I relish these words, richest indigo.

This is my dream jean, in good strong denim (11.5oz), with the modern addition of a little stretch (two per cent) and, at £80, not cheap, but value for money. I’ll wear these a long time.

So Levi’s, I thank you. But there is one thing you could improve on: please give me a button fly…