The H.D. Lee Mercantile Company was founded in 1889 in Salina, Kansas by Henry David Lee, a native Vermonter who moved West due to tubercular lungs after finding success in the oil business in Ohio. The shop carried foodstuffs and other supplies, including the products that would bear his legacy: denim work jumpsuits, overalls, and jeans.
Etymology break! Denim is a cotton twill fabric originally made in Nimes, France which was referred to at the time as serge de Nimes. The term “jeans” is believed to derive from Gênes, the French word for Genoa, Italy, where early denim-like trousers were made for use by sailors in that Mediterranean seaport. Bonus factoid: “Blue” in this context does not mean “sad” or “pornographic.” It comes from indigo dye.
Okay, back to the story. Henry David died in 1928, not long after helping to pioneer the zipper fly on his jeans, but the company didn’t miss a beat. By their reckoning, they were the number one manufacturer of work clothes in the U.S. through the 30s and 40s and have continued to expand nationally and internationally ever since.
Now that’s a pretty good all-American corporate backstory, but Levi’s is just as impressive and, not insignificantly, you have likely heard some of it. Their origins date to the 1870s in San Francisco when merchant and moneyman Levi Strauss teamed up with tailor and fashion-innovator Jacob Davis to produce a blue jean with riveted reinforcements. The rivets were Davis’s idea. Strauss bankrolled the production operation and owned a distribution channel, the west coast branch of his family’s dry goods business.
In the spirit of equal time, since we let the Lee guys trumpet their sterling Depression Era sales stats, we’ll note the claims of many that the 501 jeans are the “the world’s bestselling item of clothing.” Not sure how you measure that, exactly, but whatever.
What Happened Next?
From a corporate also-ran standpoint, this story takes a big turn in 1986. That’s when the VF Corporation, which had acquired Lee in 1969, doubled down in the jeans market by acquiring erstwhile competitor Wrangler as well. A little mumbling about anti-trust ensued, soon quieted. Levi’s felt secure. Only the even littler guys would really be hurt and no one cares about them. The combined sales for Lee and Wrangler immediately matched Levi’s and but for a few percentage points here and there that big-picture parity has persisted. This is a case, then, where the also-ran would be the winner if the race were a relay and the performances of all the teammate’s performances were strung together serially.
The blue jean market as a whole seems to ebb and flow according to consumer preference for the casual and the workmanlike over the stylish. More fashionable styles like Jordache back in the day and Diesel today surely have their place. (I mean, not on my butt, but someone’s.) But sales are driven up or down by the broader public taste for all that the blue jean signifies – rugged physicality, problem-solving, individuality, lack of pretension.
And loyalty. It’s just part and parcel of the whole ethos of the blue jean. Why would you switch from Levi’s to Lee or Lee to Wrangler if there weren’t a compelling reason? Keep in mind, this is a product that has not greatly evolved in over a century. Levi’s nostalgia campaigns around the 501 play to that very fact. There’s not a lot out there to compel a switch, which means the market shares that evolved over the early part of the twentieth century are pretty much locked in.
Lee’s only legit chance to challenge the incumbent was through brand aggregation, and that’s what they did. The fact that it took a frighteningly generic-sounding corporate borg to do it is momentarily depressing until you realize it was really the only way. For what it’s worth, VF Corporation also owns The North Face, Timberland, Nautica and many other apparel brands, so it’s not like they moonlight in something ridiculously off-topic like financial services or armaments. I mean, that we know of.
See Also: Wrangler Jeans