Denim historians Graham Marsh and Paul Trynka in their seminal book Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks note that “Levi Strauss was a pioneer of what today we’d call ‘brand identity’”.  And they aren’t wrong. Over 130 years ago Levi Strauss pulled out all the stops to ensure that his product stood out against a sea of competitors. Following 1873 patent for riveting pockets, there followed a number of landmark moments for the Levi’s® brand. While we’ve talked in detail about the Levi’s Red Tab through the ages, the ‘Tab Device’ – as its formerly known – didn’t come into effect until 1936. But forty years prior, Levi’s® created an iconic piece of branding that would remain relevant and recognisable more than a century later.

Levi’s x KITH, Winter 2018

The ‘Two Horse’ logo was one of the brand’s earliest forms of trademark images and one which significantly helped the company distinguish itself in a very crowded marketplace. So much so, that the famous iconography became a point of both imitation and plagiarism. We’re going to delve a little deeper in order to understand it’s lineage, impact and adaptation up to today. We’ve also enrolled a few friends to provide us with some further food for thought as we consider the impact of this small yet significant piece of branding; Tracey Panek, Levi’s® very own in-house historian, Jeff Carvalho, Co-founder of High Snobriety and Levi’s® Collaborations & Customization Global Director Masahiro Uchida .

As denim branding expert and historian Nick Williams recognizes; “denim has such a rich history, and every branding element on a piece of denim has a story behind it”. In the run up to 1890, Levi Strauss knew that the patent for the rivet would expire and from then on any competitor companies could adopt the same method of strengthening waist overalls (jeans). Levi’s® could lose its USP and if the brand was to continue thriving, something needed to be done, and fast.

The Levi's two horse patch

“LS&Co. needed to devise a way to cleverly convey to their customers the strength and high quality of their jeans before the market became flooded with competitors versions” 

- Nick Williams

According to Michael Harris (author of Jeans of the Old West), in 1873 Levi’s pants had a leather label in the centre of the back of the waistband with the following words;

“LEVI STRAUSS & CO. SOLE PROPRIETORS AND MANUFACTURERS OF THE PATENTED RIVETED DUCK AND DENIM PANTS”

Levi’s Vintage Clothing 1878 replica triple pleat blouse

By the 1880s further information was added, making the patch read more like a patent application than a piece of advertising. Probably not the best approach given that many people who wore blue jeans at the time weren’t literate or English was their second language. But, around the same time, Levi’s® were using a graphic image on printed paperwork which would later become inseparable from the brand for decades to come: the Two Horse logo.

Looking back on the (back) patch, we spoke to Levi’s Strauss & Co. Archives Historian Tracey Panek to gain an even deeper insight into how those two horses came to be;

Denim Dudes (DD): What can you tell us about the development of the famous ‘two horse’ patch? We know the design came into being around 1890 and legend has it that Levi had previously arranged for two horses to pull the jeans apart (as depicted in the illustration) as a clever marketing stunt and point of difference for the brand?  

Tracey Panek (TP): Your interest in the Two Horse is timely. Levi Strauss & Co. first used the Two Horse Trademark in 1886 and this year we’ll celebrate the Two Horse’s 135th Anniversary. It is one of the oldest continuously used trademarks in the world.

There are stories and myths surrounding the creation of the mark—most of them are romantic but fictional. The illustration was probably a pre-emptive branding measure before our riveting patent expired. Under U.S. trademark law in the 1880s, a trademark could not include words describing the product. The company devised a creative solution—a symbol that signifies power and strength. The image depicts two horses hitched to a pair of riveted overalls that are vainly attempting to pull them apart. In today’s marketing lingo the Two Horse Trademark offers a product features-benefit appeal. The feature? A patented rivet design. The benefit? Strength and quality. 

The Two Horse included agricultural and laborer references that Levi Strauss customers would also recognize—an outdoor setting, horses, farmers and in one of the earliest printing from our archives the phrase, “It’s no use they can’t be ripped.”

DD: The patch was used on both denim pants / jeans and jackets fairly consistently since its inception right? (Albeit utilizing different materials over the years)

TP: The Two Horse Trademark was first used on printed material, and later, on our riveted jeans and jackets. In the beginning, it wasn’t placed on the back patch. It was printed on the inside pocket bag of our 1890s jeans but wasn’t visible to anyone but the wearer. Around 1900, it was added to the back patch.

DD: At what point did Levi’s® first start playing with the design for collaborations or special projects?

TP:  The Two Horse Trademark has been remarkably consistent over our history. That’s because it’s a legal mark and to preserve our use of it requires consistency. Early competitors copied the Two Horse with variations ranging from using two elephants to two bulls.

Levi's Hello Kitty Summer 2020
Levi's Peanuts
Levi's Damien Hirst, curtesy of the archives

DD: How many variants of the patch exist within the Levi’s® archive? In comparison to the Tab Device, there seems to be many more versions of the two horse patch?  

TP: Over the years, Levi’s® patches have come in a range of colors; red for Hello Kitty, yellow for Peanuts’ Snoopy, silver for a Warhol Factory collaboration in 2008 and multicolored for a Damien Hirst collection the same year. Our patches have been a blend of branding, like the recent 517® bootcut with “Valentino” in vertical on the patch, to playful and creative takes such as a patch with illustrations of a cowboy and lasso from the 1970s. Levi’s® woven patches have also been popular and have featured everything from an image of Levi himself for a 1990s SilverTab jean to depictions of miners and farmers.

DD: Having seen more than most, what’s your favourite incarnation of the two horse patch? 

TP: It might be a toss-up between our Star Wars collaboration dark patch scattered with star-like speckles and our Jordan “Flight” trucker jacket patch from 2018 with a mini Two Horse alongside the Jumpman.

Levi’s x Star Wars, Winter 2019

So now we know the origin story of the Two Horse logo, but what came next? Well, during the early Twentieth Century the logo changed very little. Sure, there were subtle amendments to wording here and there but similarly to the Tab Device, the Two Horse patch went largely untouched – a testament to its branding power and advertising punch. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s and early 00’s that the Two Horse logo entered a whole new conversation and was re-interpreted by brands from BAPE to Beams and Jordan to Junya Watanbe. Like a good pair of jeans, bold branding just gets better with age. 

With the turn of the 90’s, Levi’s® was already an iconic brand. It was recognizable, it was authentic and it was known the world over; more so than Levi himself could have ever imagined over a hundred years previous. But with the 90’s came a seismic shift in youth culture and the rise of what we know now as streetwear. With it, signalled real change.

Levi’s® introduced its Silver Tab range in 1988 to respond to this explosion of youth culture and with it came a refreshed Two Horse logo, retaining all the hallmarks of the original but with a bold ‘Silver Tab’ emblazoned over the recognizable graphic. Silver Tab didn’t stop there as Levi’s introduced a new back patch which depicted Levi himself alongside the slogan ‘Masters in Authentic Wear’ and the founding date of the company. While this was presumably an attempt to retain relevance for a younger audience, this new patch set the stage for what was to come and the relationship Levi’s® would build with street culture.

Levi Strauss Silvertabs

With the increasing popularity of graffiti and skateboarding as well as musical genres including Grunge and Hip Hop, many of today’s streetwear DNA is firmly rooted in the 90’s. And whether you were skateboarding in Santa Monica or dropping beats in the Bronx, denim was the uniform and logos were the currency. The iconic branding of Levi’s® had faired well for over a century, but the brand needed to respond to the changing social structure of the decade in order to stay relevant, stay fashionable and stay on trend. The Two Horse patch was about to enter the Twentieth Century and its message needed to be amplified for this new generation. 

We spoke to the co-founder of Highsnobiety Jeff Carvalho to get the rundown on the impact of branding in street culture and how the age-old design was re-interpreted to stay relevant.

Denim Dudes (DD): Alongside the Tab Device (red tab) the two horse patch has remained a key symbol of Levi’s® iconic branding for over a hundred years…What does it take for a brand to have this level of impact over such a long period of time, crossing so many generations and fashion genres?

Jeff Carvalho (JC): Utility and maintenance. Levis jeans, especially older pairs, require none. Do you really need to wash them? No, but if you do, you add to the character. Jeans are an elegantly organic material that molds and forms with a person. Very few commercial products do, hence why Levis jeans (and all well built jeans) have such lasting power. It’s tough to argue with the icon.

DD: What does brand visibility mean today compared to back then? Is it still important to have a recognizable graphic logo? Is it important for established brands to keep constantly using their iconography, or is this becoming less important to today’s consumer?

JC: Margiela has their stitch points on the top back of their shirts on the neck. Levi’s® has theirs on the back butt/waist. People are drawn to these areas to ‘check’ on what someone’s wearing. So position is more important to me: the eyes like to know where to go easily. Keeping that position is key, but opening the patch up to re-interpretation respects the original and helps the conversation move forward.

Like many things, there are foundational items and denim jeans are just one of them. Denim, like utilitarian military wear, is constantly borrowed and dissected by culture and fashion houses and will continue to do so.

-Jeff Carvalho

DD: The patch was originally designed at the height of American workwear, to exhibit the superiority of Levi’s® product and differentiate the brand amongst other denim outfitters of the time. But, we now see it being re-interpreted by the likes of Futura, KITH, Nike and Verdy… What is your takeaway from this connection and merging of – perhaps unlikely – cultures 130 years apart?

JC: For a brand to allow for partners to touch the iconic patch is a big deal, but allows for a breath of creativity to use the small rectangular space. For those that prefer for subtle changes on icons, the patch is about as good as it gets for collaboration.

DD: We’ve seen some incredibly creative takes on the two horse patch over the years (even an ‘upside down’ patch to coincide with Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’). Do any favorites spring to mind for you?

JC: Double tabs always get me and I like seeing the white ALIFE tab behind the red tab from their early 2000 collaboration. But you asked for a patch! LEGO LEGO LEGO.

Levi’s x Lego, Fall 2020

DD: Who would you like to see Levi’s® collaborate with in the future? (Both from a branding alignment but also just for fun chats!)

JC: Much of the heritage revival Levi’s® receives also comes from the hard work smaller denim brands have made, especially in Japan. What would it look like to see them work a capacity with the smaller players, as they did with Berberjin on the Denim jacket book and reissue of the large size trucker. While these projects are niche and small in number, it pays homage to the hard work the community has done to uplift the very best Levi’s has to offer.

DD: With collaborations so commonplace and the previously defined lines of fashion genres becoming more blurred, what does the future hold for denim and street culture?

JC: Like many things, there are foundational items and denim jeans are just one of them. Denim, like utilitarian military wear, is constantly borrowed and dissected by culture and fashion houses and will continue to do so.

In 1999, a decade after the launch of Silver Tab, Levi’s® continued to respond to the changes in street culture and fashion  trends by pushing the company’s stylistic boundaries with a collection known simply as ‘RED’. Not to be confused with the Red Tab / Tab Device, Levi’s® RED was a directional and subversive collection of denim which featured oversized branding, avant-garde silhouettes and twisted seams. Still considered an iconic, seminal and collectible line today, RED consisted of initially seven collections before the plug was pulled in 2007. Since then the RED concept has been re-visited on occasion, in partnership with LN-CC in 2013 and most recently via Levi’s® Japan for SS21. While the silhouettes from RED arguably stole the show, the unashamedly oversized patch with large lettering denoting ‘LEVI’S RED’ or a more historic rendition of the early pre-Two Horse patch which stated ‘Levis’s RED Positively Superior’ were just as iconic.

Levi's Red from the archives, early 2000's
Levi's RED January 2021 Japan release

Not long after the initial release of RED, Levi’s® began to turn its hand to collaboration, which would set the stage for the next two decades and see Levi’s® work alongside artists, brands, designers, movie studios and even Hello Kitty. In 2001 Japanese designer Junya Watanabe released his debut menswear collection ‘Poems’ at Comme Des Garçons and central to this was, you’ve guessed, a pair of Levi’s. Known as the ‘Poem Jeans’, the jeans were a straight cut in a mid shade and featured a poem printed across the legs. The Poem Jeans reflected Watanbe’s reinvention of basics and capitalized on his experiences working under Rei Kawakubo at CdG. Interestingly, the back patch on the Poem Jeans – and subsequent collaborations between the two – remained largely untouched. Keeping the Two Horse logo true to the original was no doubt Watanabe’s way of both honoring and upholding the iconic brand.

Junya Watanabe Poem jeans
Vintage Levi's Junya Watanabe jean

While some collaborators have been much more overt than Watanabe- such as Verdy or White Mountaineering – many have been just as minimal. Take Karla, Stussy or Virgil for example. A commonality between all these collaborations has been the subtlety of the back patch and Two Horse logo, only adapted by the addition of a signature, printed name or logo, paying homage to the original and tipping their hat to an icon. 

With collaborations-a-plenty in the current market, it can be hard to truly distinguish a product in a world of limited releases, secret drops and line-ups. What makes a partnership truly meaningful? And how is that reflected in the end product? You could argue that the purpose of collaboration is to bring together two parties who can achieve something by working in partnership, that couldn’t otherwise be realized. Taking that definition at face value, it’s no wonder that the Levi’s x Jordan 4s commanded high re-sell and were an instant hit with sneakerheads. Clad in a washed denim, the duo re-worked the iconic basketball shoe in a way that only the two could. But the beauty of this release was that the Two Horse patch was taken out of its original context and framed in another, alongside an icon whose name is as memorable as Levi Strauss’. With the silhouette of Michael reaching for the rim emblazoned across the tongue, the Levi’s® x Air Jordan 4 feels like a fitting tribute to two legends from two different eras.

Levi's Virgil Abloh trucker jacket
Levi's Stussy
Levi's Jumpman, Spring 2018

Other variants of the Two Horse logo have taken more of a surreal approach. From collaborations with Beams which resulted in an ‘inside out’ 501, to the Levi’s Vintage Clothing left hand twill ‘Mirror Jean’ and the Levi’s® x Stranger Things ‘Upside Down’ collection, those two horses have seen it all. Although the back patch went largely untouched for most of the Twentieth Century, it would seem like Levi’s® are making up for lost time as they continue to remain relevant in today’s market. From Damien Hirst to Star Wars and Lego to Miu Miu, no stone is being left unturned. It’s refreshing to see so many renditions of the Two Horse logo, be it a simple co-sign or a complete branding package (we see you, KITH x Levi’s Badge Collection). And one man who has been there for most of it  is Levi’s® Collaborations & Customization Global Director Masahiro Uchida. We spoke with Uchi to gain an insight into the collaboration process and to understand how the Two Horse patch comes into play during the design process.

Levi's Mirror Jean, 2017
Levi's x Stranger Things, Summer 2019
Levi's Miu Miu, Spring 2021
Levi's KITH

Levi's® has been fortunate to have various collaboration partners. Every project was unique but the idea is always grounded in Levi's® history, authenticity and combining our icons with our partner’s essence

- Masahiro Uchida

Denim Dudes (DD): How has the landscape for collaborations changed during the last twenty years, in the context of Levi’s®?

Masahiro Uchida (MU): Speaking of Levi’s® collaboration history over the last 20 years, I’m always reminded of the “Poem Jeans” released in 2001 – the first collaboration with Junya Watanabe, our longest running collaboration partner. It was the very early stages of ‘collaboration’ working and it wasn’t a common concept in the fashion industry at the time. Since then, Levi’s has been fortunate to have various collaboration partners. Every project was unique but the idea is always grounded in Levi’s® history, authenticity and combining our icons with our partner’s essence. So the foundation of collaboration is essentially the same, but I will say we have adopted a clearer strategic approach during the last 5 years.

DD: Over the years we’ve seen the two horse patch customized or reinterpreted by many brands, corporations and designers, from Denim Tears to Star Wars. What is the protocol for adapting this age-old piece of iconic branding during the collaboration process?

MU: The back patch is one of Levi’s® trademarks but it is also the device that we can play with a unique idea for each collaboration partner. We’re always enjoying the design process with partners to express their insight via material, color, shape and a co-branding element (within the trademark guidelines).

DD: We’ve seen far less versions of the Tab Device / red tab than we have the two horse patch. Is this due to the trademark on the Tab Device, or is there more freedom applied to the patch during the design process? 

MU: The Levi’s® tab device (Red Tab) is one of most iconic and important elements of our branding, hence why we have strict trademark guidelines. However, many of our collaborative partners just love to use the Red Tab and actually don’t want to change the eternal design.

DD: Do you have any favourite iterations of the patch from your time working on collaborations and customization at Levi’s®?

MU: i) Levi’s® x Jordan 4 shoe tongue patch – a perfect example of how we could translate the DNA of both brands onto the patch ii) Levi’s® x Verdy – Merged back patches together while retaining a sense of authenticity iii) Levi’s x Ganni – First back patch built using NFC technology where the consumer can tape the back patch with their smartphone to unlock exclusive Levi’s® x Ganni content.

Levi's Verdy, Spring 2020
Levi's White Mountaineering, Summer 2020

While we can’t come to a conclusion as to which version of the Two Horse Patch is our favourite, what we can agree on is that no piece of denim branding has had such an illustrated history than the Two Horse logo. With its beginnings firmly rooted in workwear, this workhorse has run the gamut from an ingenious marketing stunt to a verified fashion icon.

 

With thanks to Jeff Carvalho, Tracey Panek and Masahiro Uchida.

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