A pair of Levi Strauss jeans from the 1880s, naturally worn with dirt and candle wax in a way that modern distressing can only try to mimic, just sold for arguably the highest price ever for vintage denim at auction.
Kyle Haupert, a 23-year-old vintage clothing dealer from San Diego, bought the pants for $76,000 at an auction on Oct. 1, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. Haupert put up 90% of the winning bid, while the remaining 10% came from Zip Stevenson — that’s right — who’s been behind the Los Angeles shop Denim Doctors since 1994.
The Levi’s will find new life, or a preserved spot in a collection, after they were recovered a few years ago from an old mine in New Mexico by a seasoned amateur “denim” archeologist named Michael Harris who has a track record of finding coveted vintage worker’s clothes for today’s discerning buyers. The sale was part of the Durango Vintage Festivus, a four-day clothing market that has grown with increased interest for thrifting and resale from Generation Z. Demand is perennially strong for classic pairs and newer reissues from the San Francisco-based clothier
long a private concern that returned to public trading in 2019.
No doubt, this pair’s sale has unearthed much about the hunt for vintage clothing that expands far beyond tag and estate sales into the precious and not-so-precious mineral mines of the American west. These jeans are naturally worn not only with dirt and sweat, but with the candle wax that lit the miners’ way when deep underground.
And they exposed, in one tiny label, the painful history of immigrant workers in the U.S.
On the interior, the pants bear the phrase “The only kind made by white labor” printed on a pocket. According to a Levi’s spokesperson, speaking to the Journal, the company used the slogan following 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. during a time of rampant anti-Chinese discrimination.
Their $76,000 auction bid makes these 1880s vintage jeans one of the priciest pairs ever sold.
Zip Stevenson/The Wall Street Journal
Levi’s today is “wholly committed to using our platform and our voice to advocate for real equality and to fight against racism in all its forms,” a representative told the paper.
Critically, the just-auctioned jeans are almost entirely intact after all these years, which means they could be worn to Starbucks, Zip Stevenson told the Journal.
But should they? Haupert told the Journal that his purchase isn’t likely for his own resale, or even his own wardrobe.
Rather, he’s betting on Zip’s robust rolodex of potential buyers.