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Levi’s and The Trouble With The C

Full Disclosure: I love Levi’s, and I’m not just talking about LVC Levi’s, but “get them at the Levi’s store in the mall” Levi’s. If we’re roughly the same age (next year I’ll turn 30 for the 19th time), you likely love Levi’s too, because growing up, that’s pretty much all there was.

501‘s, 505‘s, it didn’t matter the number or fit because my mom bought them and all I knew was that I needed to change into a pair before I went out played (this was obviously before my realization that “playing”/sports wasn’t for me, and I was better served with a Creem magazine watching cable TV (30 channels!)).

levi's vintage clothing 501

As a grown up with a bit more sense and money, I found my way to the vintage inspired LVC ‘47s and, of course, loved them, but also formed strong relationships with Levi’s selvedge York model, and their selvedge 522s.

levi's 501CT

Yes, Levi’s is now a global behemoth with questionable overseas manufacturing processes, but they can and have done denim right. Now, all this being said, their recent foray into “C” design territory has been a dark and confounding journey…a funhouse mirror, Stranger Things’ Upside Downfication of two signature models, the 501 CT and the just-released 505 C.

Having given both pairs a try-on, I’m left feeling that the C is less for Custom and more for Confused (with Contrived, Convoluted and plain old Con as close runners-up).

The Levi’s 501CT, unveiled in February 2015.

The Levi’s 501 CT, unveiled in February 2015.

The period of time between high school mom bought-Levi’s and big boy-own money-LVCs was spent in college, wearing all manner of costumes, many constructed/modified/customized by my own hand. I Frankensteined many a pair of thrift store Levi’s on my way to finding my own style. A good friend was known for his meticulously pegged black jeans (this was the 80’s after all) that he had altered at a tailor (fancy!).

Lots of friends, men and women, did this, and it appears that was the impetus behind Levi’s releasing the first in their C Family, the 501 CT…a 501 with a lowered rise, roomier seat and thighs, and legs tapering from the knee south to a 13.75” leg opening. This always struck me as odd…that a brand with the messaging lifeblood of freedom and individuality would essentially say, “Stop expressing yourself—let us do that for you!”

With today’s modern nipped and tucked silhouettes, the 501 can be a tough look to pull off, but I find the 501 CT much harder. By playing with three dimensions simultaneously, Levi’s has created the platypus of denim, a combination of features that just don’t seem like they belong together. Considering that Levi’s, at launch, suggested this…

Levi’s recommends wearing the 501 CT one of three ways: down-sized (1 to 2 sizes smaller) for a slim and modern fit, true-to-size for a classic look, or up-sized (1 to 2 sizes larger) for a more relaxed fit.

…even they weren’t sure what to make of this cut. Suggesting three correct fits is two too many. When I tried on the 501 CTs, the roomier seat and tapered legs created a jodhpur effect, and no one has ever used the word jodhpur to suggest they looked good.

Levi's Slim Fit 505 C

The new 505 C is perhaps a less bizarre cut but more corrupt an intention. Levi’s has gone way out of their way to make sure no earthling be unaware that the inspiration for this style was the picture of the Ramones on the cover of their 1976 debut album. The Levi’s store I went into in Santa Monica had what was easily an 8’x8’ blow up of the pic as a store display.

The Ramones donning Levi's on the cover of their 1976 debut album.levis-the-problems-with-the-c-image-7

In a conversation with Esquire magazine, Levi’s head of design, Jonathan Cheung, explained the 505 C’s origins as this:

The conception of the 505 C came about just over a year ago. I’d managed to see a pair of Johnny Ramone’s 505s and noticed he’d customized them by making the legs a bit slimmer. That planted the seed. Like many other people here, I’m a big fan of the 505—specifically the vintage version—and with such a resurgence of vintage Levi’s happening, we wanted to remaster the punk rock classic. Like Johnny Ramone, we customized them by making the legs a little slimmer, and we dropped the waistline just a bit. What we got to is just a really good looking fit. It sits in the sweet spot between slim and skinny.

The RamonesThe Ramones

Where do you start? OK, could there be anything less punk rock than a multi-national corporate giant making a jean in the image of a Johnny Ramone original, presumably a pair customized by his own hand (or more likely his mom’s)? By co-opting punk’s DIY aesthetic, Levi’s flaunts their lack of respect for those luminaries who have used the 505 as a jumping off point, cutting and stitching their way to self-made fashion icon status.

Levi’s has made it clear that, no matter what cool things you do to your jeans or how you wear them, they’ll eventually adopt your look as their own and sell it back to your kids. And let’s be honest—the Ramones didn’t look good in their 505s because of some brilliant fashion sense, they looked good because they were the freaking Ramones.

I tried on two versions of the 505 C, the regular and stretch versions. First, the stretch. They were denim in color only…I felt as though I was wearing something from my girlfriend’s side of the closet. They were absolutely comfy, as most ultra-stretchy clothing tends to be, but a 36/34 fit me like a sausage casing, and were cut low enough to show the world more of my ass than anyone wants or needs to see. As for the standard denim, Jonathan Cheung described it like this:

My design team, who are total denim Jedi, found a label in the deadstock ’76s with a fabric code printed on it. Of course, being hardcore denim nerds, they didn’t settle for a denim that looked like the ’76 505—they had to go track down the original mill and reproduce the actual denim! Painstaking doesn’t cover it. But what you’re left with is a straight-line DNA descendent of what you see on The Ramones.

Really, is anyone clamoring for the mass market denim of the late 70’s? To me, it had the look, feel and smell (yes, in the fluorescent light of a Southern California dressing room, I smelled them), of unspectacular, flimsy, chemically “denim.”

Debbie Harry wearing Levi's 505s in 1976 (photo source: Richard Young)

Debbie Harry wearing Levi’s 505s in 1976 (photo source: Richard Young)

The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album coverDebbie Harry performing at the Levi's 505 C launch party.

Without the benefit of stretch, the “straight-line DNA descendant” 505 C was unyieldingly tight, and I suspect an unfit fit for anyone over 18 and/or who occasionally enjoys a Chipotle burrito. Mick Jagger and Debbie Harry are also heralded as pioneers of the 505 style, and they both, in their heyday, weighed 90 pounds.

Levi's 505 Orange Tablevis-the-problems-with-the-c-image-14levis-the-problems-with-the-c-image-15

And yet, I still love Levi’s, for what they were, what they are (LVC 1969 606 Orange Tab, I’m looking at you), and what I hope they will be in the future. I can’t fault them for marketing to the Hot Topic crowd, and the more people in this world aware of The Ramones, the better.

But if you really want to cop the Ramones look, skip the mall and head to your local Goodwill or Salvation Army and grab a pair of 505s off the rack, and have a tailor (or that lady at the dry cleaner) taper the legs for you. All in, you’ll have spent less than $20, and I promise — Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy will be smiling down on you.

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