It’s without question the most cross-cultural fashion item of our modern society: Jeans.

From Kazakhstan to Korea & Quebec, the blue denim jean is an iconic & timeless fashion statement. Its social cache is unquestionable.

But how did this strange fabric get there?

This thread is amongst the best strategy case studies. When in a competitive market find the single input or complimentary product that all your competitors need, and sell that.

This way your competitors become your customers and your business: blue ocean.

Jeff Bezos did something similar, converting his costs into revenue generating business. A true Bezos master stroke. More on that in a later thread.

For now, let’s keep our pants on and get back to the jeans.

The Rise Of Jeans

The jeans themselves can be traced back to Genoa, Italy and later Nimes, France in 1662.

The low cost of manufacture, ease of wear and wash as well as extreme durability made jeans the item of choice for coal miners in Europe

In 1873, a dry good trader from San Francisco called Levi Strauss was granted a patent for “waist overalls” which were copper rivet reinforced.

No surprise then that in 2013 a new competitor was founded called “Copper Rivet” offering a fresh take on jeans and jean culture.

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The History Of The Infamous Copper Rivet

The “jean overalls” manufacturers & cultural enthusiasts are so religious about their copper rivet that they even have an association dedicated to meetings, research and development as well as industry best practice.

And get this, the association is 100 years old.

But if the Levi Strauss that is often oversold, there is the lesser known story of Jacob Davis who brought the copper rivet innovation to Levi.

There is some historical contestations about this claim but scholars agree that Jacob played some role.

All through the 1800s and the well into the first three decades of the 20th century, jeans were a utilitarian tool, worn by men in heavy industries.

Enter Vogue Issue of June 1935 which placed jeans as the future of urban chic wear.

And like sheep to the slaughter, here we are.

If, like me, you like a remaster of a relic,

Vogue Magazine has some great remasters of the their 1935 cover. You can subscribe to their service and get access to the archives.

The jeans remained a fashion world preoccupation with the Vogue urban motif as its straitjacket .

Enter Hollywood, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis & Marilyn & suddenly retail stores are awash with jeans. Pardon the pun.

Jeans become the new gold rush.

But here is the insight: when miners were digging for gold and coal, Levi’s sold them the jeans that made work possible.

It’s the pick and shovel strategy.

When everybody is digging for gold, don’t start a gold mine, sell the miners picks and shovels.

This is amongst the most defensive strategy playbooks:

Consider the world of car manufacturers: Competitive. Price gauging. Bullying tactics. Ridiculous marketing campaigns. 

Frankly given the choice between running a car company or a roads company, most choose the latter.

If you run a private roads company managing road infrastructure, you don’t really care who makes which car and what price for which customers.

As long as cars are made and customers buy, they will need your road.

If you’re building a business ask yourself, rather than operate in a cannibalised market with paper thin margins, why not supply the cannibals with something all of them need, razor sharp teeth.