2023 marks the 150th anniversary of the Levi's 501, an item of denim clothing that has endured every evolution of fashion during its lifetime. It has been and still is worn on every corner of the globe, and was lusted after heavily by this very writer until he unwrapped a pristine pair of black moleskin strides on his 11th birthday.
To mark this momentous anniversary, Levi's partnered with a new creative agency, Droga5 New York, to launch 'The Greatest Story Ever Worn'. The campaign is an expansive, year-long celebration of the unbelievable exploits of real 501 wearers from the last 150 years. It is set to do this via 13 stories inspired by true events from around the globe that are/will be told across film, social, OOH, print, events, activations and digital.
To launch the campaign, Levi's and Droga5 recently released three short films directed by Melina Matsoukas and Martin De Thurah, directors worthy of telling 'The Greatest Story Ever Worn'.
'Precious Cargo', directed by Melina via de la revolucion, shares the story of how 501 jeans made their way to Kingston, Jamaica in the 1970s and how the country turned and made them uniquely their own.
Martin, who is repped by Epoch, directed 'Fair Exchange' and 'Legends Never Die'. 'Fair Exchange' tells the story of a beloved family bell cow and the son who swapped the beast for a pair of 501 Jeans, much to his family's dismay, while 'Legends Never Die' documents how one devoted Levi’s wearer who requested to be buried in his 501 Jeans – a final wish that Levi's say many people have relayed to the brand over the years.
More stories will be shared throughout 2023 along with milestone celebrations around the world.
To find out more about digging into the historic archives of one of the planet's truly iconic brands, LBB's Addison Capper chatted to directors Melina and Martin, and folk from both Levi's and Droga5. From there he spoke to Chris Jackman, VP, global brand marketing at Levi's, and George McQueen, group creative director, Tom McQueen, group creative director, Sean Buckhorn, senior copywriter, and Gonzalo Navarro, senior art director at Droga5.
LBB> You’ve worked with Droga5 on the campaign. Why did you select them and what did the process of working with them on the idea look like?
Chris, Levi’s> We were looking for a fresh take, something different. They are strategically grounded and the way they think about the creative is next level. It was a good marriage that we were excited to get into.
LBB> This is Droga5's first work for Levi's - how did 'The Greatest Story Ever Worn' evolve from those first meetings with the brand?
George, Droga5> This was truly a global celebration we were tasked with delivering: an expansive, year-long event that required an incredibly close partnership between Droga5 and Levi’s. To mark this incredible 150-year milestone, we needed an idea big enough to deliver on the cultural impact, ambition and scale of this moment. An insight that would resonate and could be localised across 36 markets and 19 languages. And a rollout strategy to pack the right punch as we delivered this idea to the world. It took an immense amount of trust and collaboration from both parties to realise this vision.
LBB> Tell me a bit more about the tagline and overall strategy - what were its main inspirations, and what overall message are you striving to get across?
Tom, Droga5> If there’s one thing that defines 150 years of 501 jeans, it’s that they truly have been worn the world over. For decades, they have transcended borders, cultures, languages and generations.
The 501 has adorned the legs of millions from Jay-Z to Jobs. Marilyn Monroe to Kurt Cobain. Stretched from the Wild West to the Far East. From Haight-Ashbury hippies to high schoolers, from Japan to Jamaica, from Seoul to São Paulo. And the jeans still found time to show up on the covers of everything from Vogue to Thrasher. Rare are those who have made it this far without skipping a beat, but that’s the magic of the 501.
Once we began to dig into this brilliant history, going way beyond the icons and into the exploits of everyday wearers, too, we realised that if a new generation even got a glimpse into the unbelievable stories, characters and events these jeans have been present for, they’d see them in an entirely new light — and maybe be inspired to add their own story to the legacy as well.
That’s where the tagline was born from. The idea of the 501 jean as an ever-expanding story, written and rewritten by everyone who fastens up the fifth button. A living, breathing saga that could emphatically deliver on the claim of the Levi’s 501 jean as ‘The Greatest Story Ever Worn’.
We simply uncovered an irrefutable 150-year-old truth. No other piece of clothing has been present for so many human experiences, for so long, and that longevity has led to a lifetime of incredible stories woven into the 501’s legacy.
Chris, Levi’s> The eureka moment came after talking to the product designers and our historian Tracey. As they spoke about the jean the stories came in parallel. Fact was more unbelievable than fiction. And our creative partners leaned in and developed a strategic, compelling campaign that does justice to the 501, Levi’s and our fans.
LBB> What kind of research was involved? How did you collect and collate these wonderful stories, and what were some of the most surprising tales that you discovered along the way?
Sean, Droga5> So much of this process came down to doing our own desk research and immersing ourselves in the history of the 501s. With the help of the Levi’s historians, we dug through the Levi’s archives, Reddit threads, newspaper clippings, the dark depths of the internet and even subscribed to a county newspaper’s obituaries section. What we uncovered was, when you’ve been around for 150 years, fact can be stranger than fiction, as we unearthed stories almost too unbelievable to believe.
Stories of bartering a bell cow for a pair of 501s in the USSR. Stories of the leather 501 back patch literally saving a man from a snake bite. Stories of a blue-jean ban in Southern California high schools. A move that led to the kids bleaching their jeans white and that inspired Levi’s to put the very first white denim 501 into production.
Gonzalo, Droga5> There were just so many strange and surprising stories we found. Stories of a man with a badly broken leg who flat out refused to have his 501 jeans cut by the hospital staff. Stories of a religious institution denouncing Levi's 501 jeans as ‘fornication pantaloons’. Stories of discarded denim stuffed down abandoned mine shafts in the 1870s, and the YouTubers who now go hunting for this ‘blue gold’ today.
There was even an incredible story of Andy Warhol attending a White House state dinner. Only the pop-art icon broke the black-tie dress code by wearing his beloved 501 blue jeans beneath his tuxedo. Why? Because the tuxedo pants were itchy and he felt more comfortable with his denim on. If that’s not artistic integrity, we don’t know what is.
Chris, Levi’s> We looked over our archives, spoke with Levi’s teams and searched the internet. We reviewed everything from the mundane to the momentous. Things you couldn’t believe to people just loving the product. We started organising the stories and tried to make the best judgement call on the best ones to put out to the world.
LBB> The cornerstone of the campaign is a series of true, but wild stories. You have touched upon this, but please tell us why that was the correct approach?
Gonzalo, Droga5> Fiction just didn’t feel right when the truth behind the legacy of the 501 was just so captivating. The unwavering devotion of fans and their experiences in 501 jeans is unlike anything else, and we’ve all bore witness to this great story unfolding in some way. And after 150 years, there was no shortage of source material for us to draw from.
Every piece of the campaign is inspired by a true story. A tribute to history, and to the future. This 150-year story is one still evolving, with millions of protagonists, infinite settings, no concrete middle and certainly no end. And the beauty is: we know there are still thousands more stories out there waiting to be told.
That’s why we gravitated toward this direction — it has the ability to encapsulate the past, present and future of the 501 and its wearers.
LBB> Why were Martin de Thurah and Melina Matsoukas the perfect directors to bring these stories to life?
George, Droga5> It just seemed like ‘The Greatest Story Ever Worn’ deserved the greatest storytellers. Martin and Melina are both incredibly gifted at what they do, and we were extremely fortunate to be able to partner with both of them to bring these stories to life.
Authenticity was a crucial part of each film's production, taking every step possible to be true to the time, place and era. Our production design team and stylists worked very closely with the internal Levi's styling team led by Kaede Matsumoto to meticulously source and curate period specific wardrobe and key pieces from the Levi’s archive and beyond.
Tom, Droga5> Serendipitously, Melina Matsoukas was actually in Jamaica working on one of her own projects when we first approached her. Not only was she our ideal choice as a partner to bring this film to life, but she brought with her a wealth of knowledge and insight from being on the ground and immersed in research from that time period. With ‘Precious Cargo’, we were telling a story that’s largely unknown to people. How American and Jamaican sensibilities became intertwined. Jamaicans were coming to the United States and submerging themselves in Americana. They were in the clubs listening to American soul music and R&B. Jamaicans were in the thrift stores, record stores and vintage shops digging through crates and cleaning up on American style. Jamaicans filled barrels with denim and shipped them back to their families in Kingston. And the locals would be waiting there, ready to crack those barrels open and make the jeans move. These Jamaican pioneers didn’t just take these jeans home and wear them. They gave the jeans a new attitude. One that ushered in new styles that still influence the way we dress to this day.
Melina wanted to tell this story responsibly, and it all starts with her own understanding of the barrel. A symbol of connection and shared ideas — a tradition still kept alive in Jamaica today. Her unique lens on the film was one of innovation and the Caribbean spirit, spotlighting a small portion of the recipe that explains how Jamaican culture in the ’70s blossomed and came to be. When the essence of an island began to spread and influence the world.
Sean, Droga5> From the get-go, Martin talked about the 501 jean as a witness to history. From the political to the personal, the 501 has been a companion, a statement, a workhorse and above all, an icon for years, touching radically different lives across eras, cultures and generations.
Both of his films illustrate the stranger-than-fiction nature of reality, but at the same time, they express something deeper about people’s relationship to the jean and its imprint on people throughout time. Martin always has this incredible ability to identify and bring out that deeper meaning.
So for him, ‘Fair Exchange’ was a film about a dream. In the ’80s in the USSR, items like Levi’s carried with them not just dreams about looking cool or having an exclusive item but of rebellion and escape. By obtaining the 501 jean, our hero becomes more than who he is. More than the small Georgian farming village he lives in and even more than the Soviet system itself. He latched onto this idea of exploring the 501 jean as a beacon for something bigger. On the surface, the trade of a cow for a pair of jeans is a hilarious true story, but it also speaks to something profound: what these jeans have meant to people over time. The cow is not incidental. It was something of great value, worth a whole month’s salary at the time. So for Martin, giving away the jeans says something about you and your priorities, which makes you a bit of a rebel. Maybe even a cowboy in spirit.
LBB> Martin and Melina, the stories are true – how did you immerse yourself in the narratives, and what did you have to keep in mind when it came to directing the spot?
Martin, director> The struggle is to tell these stories in very few frames. The whole story had to mainly fit a 30-second slot, so we worked hard on having different iterations of how to tell the story in the shortest amount of time. We pre-shot and did an edit of the scenes to get a sense of where to linger most.
Melina, director> I love to dive into the history and truth behind any stories. From that research I always find inspiration, especially when it’s as vibrant as this one. I remembered stories from friends telling me the feeling of receiving barrels, and how that allowed for familial as well as cultural connections. I love scouting the locations where this history occurred and talking to people who lived the moment we are trying to capture. I knew that if I kept true to the people, time, and place, all the elements would align, and the spot would be a success because of its authenticity.
LBB> Melina, why was 'Precious Cargo' specifically a story that you wanted to bring to life?
Melina, director> Jamaica and its history have been such a massive influence on my life, my work, and my art. It is one of my favourite places in the world. The impact it has had culturally is so inspiring to me and very much a testament to the ingenuity of its people. I have cultural roots there as well, so when I was sent 'Precious Cargo' I knew it was a story I HAD to tell, and that I could bring so much of my own experience and research to the spot.
LBB> In terms of the look, feel and aesthetics of the campaign, what were your main aims and how did you work to bring this to life?
Melina, director> Again, my aim was to stay true to the place, time and its people. To have history influence the storytelling, and that reaches over into the cinematography, the wardrobe, the music, and the production design. I wanted every frame to speak to an actual Jamaican historical moment and place our audience within the experience of '70s Kingston. It’s one of my favourite times in visual history, so it was so inspiring to be able to recreate. Jamaicans have so much pride in their contribution to culture and I wanted to make sure they felt that respect and admiration from me as well as the brand.
The campaign spotlights dozens of stories inspired by true events from around the globe. Aesthetically, we wanted each story to live in its own clear world. Geographically, culturally and historically — being true to the look and feel of the time period, place and era of the original inspiration. We wanted to make the campaign feel bigger than what you were seeing on screen, in print, in social media or out in the world.
That required an incredible level of craft in the styling of each photographic shoot: the locations, the casting, the set design. Photographers Jason Nocito and Andre D. Wagner did an incredible job in capturing the essence of each era. Each of these photographic essays were then paired with long copy to create a saga of storytelling across social, OOH, print and digital.
The storytelling nature of the idea informed the very visual aesthetic of the campaign itself. Every year in this 150-year legacy was a chapter, every exploit a new page. So we launched with a simple twist on the iconic Levi’s logo, turning the red batwing into a book that flips its pages: a simple statement on the expansive nature of the campaign to come. Then we introduced a visual framework to tell any story, in any medium, as the Levi’s brand became the custodians, editors and publishers of people’s personal histories with the 501. Leaning into the nature of a work-in-progress novel, red markups were introduced from the ‘editors’ across every story we put out into the world. It was nice to be able to write and publish all this long copy again.
LBB> What is your own personal relationship with Levi's 501s, and what did working on this campaign mean to you personally?
Melina, director> I’ve been wearing 501s since I can remember. I tend to like fashion that is classic, and I always gravitate toward denim. The 501 is such a staple, not only in my wardrobe, but in culture, period. It was incredible to be part of this history and celebration of a piece of clothing that represents so much evolution, connectivity, diversity, and style wrapped up within each thread.
Sean, Droga5> I’m a massive fan of Levi’s jeans. And a massive fan of Levi’s advertising. Everyone you talk to has a different favourite Levi’s film, which I think speaks to what an amazing body of work and legacy Levi’s has. As a creative, it’s incredibly inspiring… and slightly intimidating. Living up to that legacy was constantly on our minds. A lot of products will casually throw around the word ‘iconic’. But I truly believe that the 501 is iconic. No item of clothing has been worn by so many legends but also by everyday people who are legends in their own right. So with this campaign, I hope we gave the iconic 501 its proper due.
Gonzalo, Droga5> When I was a kid in Nicaragua, I went shopping for jeans in downtown Managua. With the money I had on me, I could have bought three pairs of knockoff Levi's…or one pair of authentic 501 jeans. I chose the real 501s. So with this campaign, it was cool to come full circle and tell stories about people who were just as devoted to Levi’s as my 11-year-old self was.
Tom, Droga5> I grew up with Levi’s. My dad wore Levi’s. Not surprisingly, George’s dad wore Levi’s, too. He had two looks. Overalls on the farm. Levi’s 501 jeans, a Levi’s trucker jacket and a big white Stetson for any time he was forced to venture off the farm to the city. To me, he was the king of cool. So naturally, I started wearing only Levi’s 501s, too. To this day, I still do. Having the opportunity to collaborate with this brand, exploring inside the vaults and archives and putting a very small fingerprint on one incredible legacy were humbling experiences. The term ‘dream brief’ gets thrown around a lot in advertising, but this brief was it for me.
Chris, Levi’s> Confidence. When I see the jean and think of its history (that it has not changed much over the years), I know people are confident in them as a piece of clothing. When I see people in them, I instantly feel as if they’re presenting themselves in a confident way.