Meet Tracey Panek, The Historian At The Helm Of Levi's Major Fashion Archive

Fashion archives preserve knowledge, inspire new ideas, and encourage an enduring approach to clothing — but what’s it like to run one?

Tracey Panek: always looking for the history. Photo / Supplied

Nostalgia is intoxicating, and it’s permeating every industry and cultural touchpoint right now — fashion especially. Vintage and resale are more popular than ever.

Buoyed by the merits of exclusivity and sustainability, brands are re-releasing old designs, and archives are proving increasingly valuable for established businesses.

Luxury labels regularly mine their vaults of intellectual property (Gucci reissued its 1961 Jackie bag this year) and contemporary brands are employing the power of the past to reinvent themselves, appeal to long-standing fans, and reach new audiences — a tactic being explored by Calvin Klein, Gap and even Burger King.

Everyone’s looking back, but Levi’s has been doing it for a long time already. A brand deeply embedded in history, heritage styles like the 501 and 505 jeans are a consistent part of its range, while other, earlier iterations continue to be sought-after second-hand. Collectors hunt for pairs from specific years online, flip over red tabs in thrift stores and debate washes and selvedges on internet message forums.

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A dream for many is to peek inside the brand’s famous archives — something that Tracey Panek gets to do every day. She holds the enviable title of Levi’s historical archives director, and she’s well-suited for such a role, holding a graduate degree in history and a deep-rooted love of denim.

A life-long Levi’s fan, Tracey grew up in the western United States “in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains” (following early years in Aotearoa) and wore the brand’s beloved 501 jeans throughout high school.

Instantly recognisable by number and design, 501s are the brand’s most famous garment and one of its earliest products. A company that dates back to 1853, its archives are integral to its operation, helping it document its history, retain knowledge, and shape its future strategy.

Photo / Supplied

The archive was founded in 1989 by former CEO Bob Haas, great-great-grandnephew of Levi Strauss. Archiving is a time-consuming, painstaking process. Tracey and her team comb the world for the best vintage pieces, which are then cleaned in a special conservation area, stored in muslin in acid-free boxes, ready for the designers they work closely with. Everything is handled wearing gloves.

“Our designers are the major users of the archives and research the features of our oldest pieces to inspire the latest Levi’s looks,” explains Tracey. “Our collection becomes inspiration for a new fit, the design on a label or even packaging.”

As well as Levi’s in-house design team, the archive also hosts designers who collaborate with them. “They begin in the archives by seeing and touching Levi’s products through the decades and understanding their classic features,” she says. This keeps designs authentic and timeless.

The effect can be seen currently in its 70s-inspired micro-mini, the red tab vintage T-shirt, short-sleeved organic cotton shirts — as well as in the recent collaboration with Valentino, which reproduced the orange tab 517 bootcut jeans from 1969.

For Levi’s reissue and reproduction pieces, Tracey works closely with Paul O’Neill, the company’s vintage clothing designer. “We do a lot of research on the original pieces, measuring the size of the buttons or matching the colours and stitching to create authentic reproductions.”

Much of her work includes tracking down vintage Levi’s to add to the archives. The best collection of Levi’s in the world, it contains everything from the oldest pair of blue jeans (kept in a fireproof safe) that date back to the 1870s and are speckled with wax, to the brand’s latest designs.

“I’m always looking for new pieces that help us tell our story,” says Tracey, and they seek out Levi’s that fill the gaps in their collection, or have an interesting backstory.

A recent acquisition was the “Leadville Levi’s”, a pair from the 1890s in near-new condition, found in the Colorado mining town of Leadville. “My favourite finds have come from mines, like our ‘Klondike’ 201 preserved in frozen mud near the same spot mammoth tusks were found.”

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Another special pair is called “Calico”, found by teenager Barbara Hunter in an abandoned mine in the 1940s, patched and worn to school. “She wrote a letter to the company and offered to donate them,” Tracey says. It’s this human element of the archives that Tracey loves, and the stories that go with them.

Like Homer Campbell, an Arizona miner who bought a pair of 501s in 1917 and wore them every day (except Sunday) for three years. “Homer mailed his Levi’s back to the company in 1920. We’ve had them ever since,” says Tracey. “They are proof of Levi’s legacy of endurance.” Learning about the brand’s history and about people and their connection to it, is “pretty remarkable”, says Tracey.

With time and wear, what starts as a blank canvas becomes a deeply personal garment that improves with age. It’s this, Tracey thinks, that has led to so much nostalgia for vintage Levi’s.

“Once they are worn, they can tell a story — like the 501 jeans Steve Jobs wore when he introduced an early compact Apple computer. Or the Levi’s worn by a cowboy in the 1890s that have patching on the right thigh, indicating that he was right-handed and held his reins there. Even the sun-bleached and faded Levi’s worn by a surfer in the 1970s have patches indicating his favourite places to surf like South Carolina or Hawaii.”

Photo / Supplied

Albert Einstein’s 1930s Levi’s leather jacket, worn on his Time magazine cover in 1938, was acquired in 2016 from an auction at Christie’s. “It’s an amazing coat that still smells of the smoke from the pipe Einstein smoked,” says Tracey. The brand released a reproduction of the famous piece in 2018.

Though much of her work is looking back in the past, the team is conscious of the future. “We’re mindful about creating pieces inspired by our heritage garments that are manufactured sustainably,” she explains. “Our oldest riveted denim garments were made of 100 per cent cotton denim and today we might use a cotton-hemp blend that saves water.”

Innovative textiles like this, and Levi’s waterless denim, are the latest in the brand’s environmental strategy, which also encourages rewearing, and repairing to reduce waste and minimise a garment’s carbon footprint.

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“I call the oldest Levi’s the original sustainable garment,” says Tracey. “They were worn by blue-collar workers and were tough enough to withstand hard physical labour and then be patched up and passed on — repeatedly.” One pair of overalls from 1879 reveals knee marks from three different men.

“Preserving these in our archives inspires us to continue creating tough, sustainable garments that endure the test of time.”

Taking an archival approach to your own wardrobe is a good strategy — treating your denim with care, maintaining it, and appreciating the way the fabric ages and wears. All things that add value to a garment. What has the brand learned from its archives? Everything old is new again.

“A pair of Spring Bottom overalls from 1890, Levi Strauss & Co’s first flares, sold over 100 years before they became popular to young people in the 60s on,” says Tracey. “Blue jeans are timeless.”

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