Haas, Peter E., Sr.

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HAAS, Peter E., Sr.

(b. 20 December 1918 in San Francisco, California), and Walter A. HAAS, Jr. (b. 24 January 1916 in San Francisco, California; d. 20 September 1995), members of the Levi Strauss family clothing business that propelled the blue-jean fashion revolution of the 1960s.

Levi Strauss and Company was founded as a San Francisco dry-goods store in 1853 by a young Jewish-Bavarian immigrant merchant named Levi Strauss. Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis came up with a denim pant using rivets to strengthen stress points; they patented their "waist overalls" in 1873. Sales of lot number 501 of the design, produced in 1881, were fueled by the booming mining business. Strauss had no children when he died, so he left the company to the children of his brother-in-law, David Stern. Walter A. Haas, Sr., married Stern's daughter Elise and ran the business from 1928 to 1955. Haas eliminated the dry-goods business when he took over and focused the company on clothing, doubling revenue from $3 million to $6 million per year. The sons of Walter A. Haas and Elise Stern, Peter E. Haas, Sr., and Walter A. Haas, Jr., were born into the Levi-Strauss family business.

Both Walter and Peter earned B.A. degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and received M.B.A.s from Harvard. Walter joined the family business in 1939, after his graduation from Harvard, whereas Peter began at Levi Strauss in 1945. Walter served fifty-two months of active duty in World War II, and married Evelyn Danzig in 1940; they had three children.

Although Walter and Peter's relationship with their parents had been somewhat formal and distant while they were growing up, the sons grew closer to their father when they began working for him. Walter became president of Levi Strauss in 1958. Segregation had not yet been declared a violation of federal law when Levi Strauss and Company opened its first manufacturing plant in the South, in Blackstone, Virginia. Despite pressures to do otherwise, Walter insisted that the plant be integrated from the start.

The Hollywood screen cowboys of the 1930s wore Levi's blue jeans in western movies, and western wear and the cowboy image were Levi Strauss's mainstay until the company launched a women's line and began selling it in department stores. As the Levi's line grew to include clothes beyond basic blue jeans, the brand's profile also expanded. Blue jeans were no longer thought of as clothing worn only for work. When Levi Strauss brought out a line of pants in citrus colors they called orange, lemon, and lime, Americans took notice. Life magazine featured a story on Levi's, and although the fruit-colored line was a flop, it grabbed people's attention. Major department stores took on the Levi Strauss line, and the company had to adapt its advertising and marketing schemes to accommodate the boom. Smoldering 1950s movie stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando, sporting Levi's jeans in films like Rebel Without a Cause and On the Waterfront, did not hurt the Levi's image, either. The brand grew to represent independence and became such a symbol of youthful disaffection that blue jeans were banned in many schools.

Walter led the Levi Strauss blue-jean revolution of the 1960s, and he started by going global. The company's French distributor exhibited the clothing in Paris in 1961, and the Levi Strauss Europe arm of the company followed soon after. Levi Strauss was awarded President John F. Kennedy's "E" Award for contributions to the United States export program in 1962. Levi Strauss International and Levi Strauss Far East followed in 1965 and the brand appeared in Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland soon afterward. Levi's jeans became part of the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution in 1964. The company aired its first television commercial in 1965. Levi's jeans became forever associated with rock and roll in 1967, when such rock groups as Jefferson Airplane and Paul Revere and the Raiders recorded radio commercials for the brand. Walter came up with the slogan "Levi's is people" in 1968, and by that time, it was true—Levi's blue jeans were being worn the world over.

In 1969 a writer for American Fabrics magazine declared denim "eternally young." Over the course of the decade, Levi's competitors came and went. A particular brand, such as Haggar or the television star Farah Fawcett's line of jeans, would spark interest and become popular for a few years, but Levi's outlasted and outsold them all. Just before the turn of the decade, the Levi's line introduced the bell-bottom design, which then became the fashion statement of the 1970s.

In 1970 Walter turned the company over to Peter, who remained president until 1981; Walter became chairman of the board and chief executive officer. Although Walter made the company public in 1971, his son Robert D. Haas returned it to privately held status in 1985, after he became president. Employees such as Rita Guiney, a forty-five-year veteran of Levi Strauss and Company, thrived in the environment that Walter and Peter created. "They had a lovely manner and tremendous respect for the people who were here," she said. "They felt strongly about providing us with a good environment and the opportunity to move ahead."

Historical and biographical information on Levi Strauss and Company and the Haas family is included in David Bollier, Aiming Higher: 25 Stories of How Companies Prosper by Combining Sound Management and Social Vision (1996). An obituary for Walter Haas is in the San Francisco Chronicle (21 Sept. 1995). An oral history of Walter A. Haas, Jr., Levi Strauss & Co. Executive, Bay Area Philanthropist, and Owner of the Oakland Athletics (1995), is available at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

Brenna Sanchez