On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of 501 jeans, Levi's launched "The Greatest Story Ever Worn" global campaign.

In the context of these celebrations and a series of events related to Milan Design Week, the new campaign debuted in Milan, inside the Cortile d'Onore of Milan's Università Statale, becoming a giant denim mural measuring 10 meters x 6 meters, designed to celebrate the historic Levi's model.

The 501 fresco by Ian Berry, Università Statale, Milano
Photo: Levi's
The 501 fresco by Ian Berry, Università Statale, Milano
The British artist Ian Berry is known for recreating unique realistic portraits made by assembling together hundreds of different blue tone second-hand denim pieces.

Berry has already created a vast amount of portraits of well-known personalities including Giorgio Armani, Gisele, Ayrton Senna and Debbie Harrie, along with historical personalities like Levi Strauss and Giuseppe Garibaldi, but also most inspiring and influential personalities of the denim world, as part of "Denim Legends", a project disclosed in 2022 as an installation of most iconic personalities at Textil Museet, Sweden, to be continued.

For Milan Design Week, Berry created a record size fresco work inspired by the campaign's message also made by assembling upcycled pieces of secondhand 501 Levi's jeans.

"The Greatest Story Ever Worn - by Ian Berry" is a traveling European project that debuted in March 2023 in Paris–where it was conceived as an immersive space in Place de République. It arrived in Milan on April 17 at the opening of Milan Design Week, where it will remain until April 26. After the Milanese stop, in May it will move to Madrid.

Ian Berry explained The SPIN OFF what was the inspiration behind this project, and his vision of jeans' past, present and future.

Ian Berry
Photo: Levi's
Ian Berry
How was this idea born? And who had the idea to create this art piece?
I have been the one to have this idea for about 20 years. I liked the idea to create a big kind of fresco, outdoors. Furthermore, I used to work in advertising and always wanted to create such kind of huge billboard.


In the meantime I have been talking to Levi’s off and on for more years, and in 2022 before Christmas, one of their agencies approached me for this project as they wanted to create a large piece outdoors.

This idea in particular has also to do with the fact that we all wear jeans outside, so jeans also had to be taken outdoors for everybody.


How was the topic of the fresco decided?
After, we sat down and talked for quite a long time to come up with the right idea and how to get the message across.


In particular, what came out was the idea was that Levi’s had a great story for everyone. Many of us in the denim business know Levi’s story, but off in the world not many know how amazing is the story of jeans and what are 501 jeans.


It all originated 150 year ago when they decided to put a rivet on this amazing jeans and garment. Without that rivet there would have not been these jeans, the overall expertise it generated and, especially, the industry of jeans and denim. Without that rivet, something else would have taken over, I think.


Moreover, it is such a special material and garment. I think we are all taking that for granted, but by simply adding that rivet they made the garment stronger, and last longer. That's how sustainability started.


Is the story of Levi's 501 jeans so tightly connected to sustainability?
That rivet helped those jeans last longer. If you visit the Levi Strauss Museum, in Buttenheim, Germany, you will see different kinds of jeans, worn by miners and other people doing physically tiring works. Thanks to the rivet innovation, those jeans could last longer, but also 150 years after I am reusing them, other people are still using them in the building sectors, working in the woods, but also giving them a new life as secondhand apparel, and even reinventing as runway design clothes.

Portrait of Levi Strauss by Ian Berry, Levi Strauss Museum, Buttenheim, Germany
Photo: Portrait of Levi Strauss by Ian Berry
Portrait of Levi Strauss by Ian Berry, Levi Strauss Museum, Buttenheim, Germany
It is such a durable material that we would not be definitely celebrating them today, and there would be no denim industry without that moment 150 years ago.

Who decided the message to convey through this fresco?
It’s Levi’s global campaign “The Greatest story ever worn” as part of the 501 jeans 150th anniversary. That's the idea that we fed in it.


It is also part of my career as an art director in advertising, and as an artist as well. But it's also thanks to so many people coming together involved in it­–in Europe and The US­–all the way down to the construction of this amazing project. It was a privilege to work with so many talented, great people, all trying to push the same goal and message.


It's fantastic how this project could be an extension of what I have been doing in my art.


Through it, we could also celebrate all the different archetypes of people, including famous people who wore jeans like Patti Smith, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean…

"The Greatest Story Ever Worn - by Ian Berry", Università Statale, Milan
Photo: Maria Cristina Pavarini
"The Greatest Story Ever Worn - by Ian Berry", Università Statale, Milan
Tell us more about this message.
The fresco is a representation of the different groups who wore jeans–for instance, the cowboys in the 1880s, the punks in the 1990s, but earlier also Rosie the Riveter, one of the first women who wore jeans as women back in the days weren’t allowed to wear trousers.


We tried to embrace as many people, as possible, as each group proudly wore them as means of self-expression. For instance, the queer community from San Francisco in the '90s wore them. They were wearing them with a white t-shirt, reminding of Marlon Brando and James Dean, but they also chose jeans to support the masculine movement.

Also, punks would wear jeans as they are strong and affordable clothes.


Consider Patti Smith, instead. She made this look by accident as she wore her boyfriend's jeans (Robert Mapplethorpe)–hence the inspiration for "boyfriend jeans"–as, probably, she couldn’t afford anything else at that time.


It was all from necessity, and it shows how this material has been accessible to a lot of people wearing them... And also people wearing jeans in the street and urban context, just the opposite of jeans, that come from a rural origin material.


That’s all that piece of art is about, and it all moves forward in these 150 years. Though I also think that in a 150-year time Levi’s and jeans will be still relevant as it is today.


In which sense?
Jeans has been always about people's movement and it’s less obvious today.


Take, for instance, when the Berlin Wall fell down and everybody was wearing Levi’s and that was a very strong moment.


When we see the pictures today, we think it’s normal, but it is a very powerful message: the people in Berlin West searching for freedom were wearing these jeans while people in the East part who were not. It’s very symbolic. Civil rights move if they are worn as a statement.


Jeans have been worn many times as a means to express a message or protest many times through the 20th century...


Also, many think denim is youthful and if you are a 60-70-80 year-old man or woman and wear a pair of jeans you feel youthful. So not only the young are wearing jeans, but also people who want to be youthful.

A detail of the Levi's 501 model
Photo: Levi's
A detail of the Levi's 501 model
How many pieces did you use to create this fresco, indicatively?
I could never count, but I can show you a photo of my studio, which is a complete disaster as I have so many pieces of jeans everywhere in it, I have never had as many before.


Though, I had never worked on such a huge project before... It has been definitely a different way to work and use jeans, too. For nearly 20 years, I have worked that way to give materials for gradients and textures. For example, creating each face requires a huge work of art to create all the details and expression of that person and only when you step back you notice all the little gradients and all the little details. Later, when I get the bigger parts of the work, the size of pieces get bigger.

Even gluing different parts together requires much longer times than I am used to.

"The Greatest Story Ever Worn - by Ian Berry", detail
Photo: Levi's
"The Greatest Story Ever Worn - by Ian Berry", detail
How did you work at it? Did you prepare it in your studio first?
Most of the work was done in my studio. Then I did a part in live in Paris. Instead, here in Milan did I some extra work for about three days here in place as I had to change and slightly adapt it. For instance, I changed the writing from French into English, as visitors of the Salone are more international, plus I added the writing "Milano" on the back of a vest, replacing "Paris".
"The Greatest Story Ever Worn - by Ian Berry", detail
Photo: Levi's
"The Greatest Story Ever Worn - by Ian Berry", detail
You have often spoken about heroes, which are also a crucial element in your work. Isn't wearing jeans making people somehow feel like heroes?
A lot of things have changed. I remember that jeans were banned in some places in the past. When I was a kid I wasn't even allowed to wear them at family parties.


The idea and semiotics about this has changed so much in the meantime. Today, we are taking for granted that we put on a pair of jeans and it's fine. If I think of each of these groups, heroes and subculture who embraced jeans, for each of them wearing jeans had a different meaning, but it was always there as wearing jeans is such a powerful statement.


What about the future of wearing jeans?
The very peculiar thing today is that we all can wear them­–from the rich to the poor guy. For the future, I would love to see a lot more redesigned and repurposed secondhand jeans, but I can't foresee what kind of movement is going to come out with today's age and technology moving so fast...


Today, denim is so much more relaxed and comfortable that people think they are just making a statement by simply wearing them.


Are there are any special new projects you are working at? Like, for instance, a documentary on Chile hosting huge quantities of dumped clothes you have started working at?
I am still working at it.

A screenshot from Ian Berry's documentary
Photo: Ian Berry
A screenshot from Ian Berry's documentary
I was there with Levi's, but I didn't go specifically to see that place, they have invited me, just before I went and it was frustrating.


The interpretation given by some posts circulating via Facebook and Instagram was wrong, as it appeared as if big brands were dumping their clothes, but it wasn't them. It's a more complicated story of how old clothes end up there. The real story is about the system and not the specific brands.


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