The oldest known pair of Levi’s jeans, dated back to at least 1873, sold at auction on Saturday evening for $100,000 to an anonymous bidder.
The jeans headlined the 2023 Durango Vintage Festivus, an annual vintage fashion festival held this year at Tico Time River Resort in Aztec, N.M. Started by vintage fashion collector Brit Eaton last year, the four-day-long Festivus features pop-up food vendors, live music and a live auction of vintage clothing that can also be accessed online.
The idea for the event came to fruition in August 2022, as Eaton was finishing construction of a warehouse to use for his work in the vintage clothing business. Due to increased material costs at the time, the overall cost of the project had gone up about three times the initial estimate, and he was looking for ways to finance it.
“I decided to have a huge warehouse party and sale in order to afford my new million-dollar warehouse, and some friends of mine were like, ‘Hey, you’re having a sale, we’d like to do that, too,’ and pretty soon it blossomed,” Eaton said in a phone call Tuesday.
Although it was just the first event of its kind, 2022’s Festivus was, by Eaton’s account, an outstanding success. So much so that he decided to make it an annual event with him footing most of the $25,000 bill, though he does expect to make a profit through the standard 15% house fee for all auctioned items.
“It’s unbelievable,” Eaton said about last year’s inaugural event. “We sold a pair [of Levi’s] from 1890, and they went for $87,000.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a $100,000 bid on the pair last year, Eaton said, but due to a lightning storm the clerk didn’t see the bid and it sold to somebody at the live auction. This year, he said, the Festivus used a Starlink connection to avoid wireless issues and had major buyers such as the Smithsonian Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art interested in the auction items.
That pair of Levi’s sold last year came from Eaton’s personal collection, and after the auction, he felt the need to bring back a marquee piece for his collection. About 10 years prior, Eaton had been involved in brokering the sale of the oldest known pair of Levi’s to a familiar customer in Japan, and with the money gained from his recent sale, he flew overseas and bought them for himself.
For millennials and younger adult demographics, there has been a philosophical shift toward buying ethically made clothing. This shift is what has ballooned the vintage fashion business from a niche hobby to a more mainstream trend.
For Maurizio Donadi, a vintage fashion collector who was selling multiple items in the auction, the term “vintage” applies to clothes made before 1979.
“In the late ’70s, early ’80s, brands became bigger, and so the manufacturing of things started to change,” Donadi said. “Cutting corners, cheaper fabrics, volume. When you are in the volume business and you see that your brand is growing exponentially, then you say, ‘I need to produce faster and while producing faster I need to make it cheaper.’”
The pair of pants auctioned Saturday, originally made and advertised by tailor Jacob Davis with help from business partner Levi Strauss, are an example of the first pair of denim work pants to ever include metal rivets in them to prevent wear, per the Levi-Strauss & Co. website. Upon completion of the product, the two obtained a U.S. patent for this specific type of pants, and thus the clothing item we now know as “jeans” was born.
For both the vintage fashion connoisseurs and new adherents to that ethos, Saturday’s event was the latest display in what is becoming an increasingly popular new trend, and showed how even in a business dominated by international players, the U.S. still has a significant impact on the world’s fashion sense.