Jacob Youphes came to America from Latvia in 1854 with grand ambitions. Changing his name to Jacob W. Davis, he traveled the country, investing in breweries, coal, tobacco and pork, even panning for gold. But as he approached 40, with a wife and six children to support, Davis resigned himself to the Old World life of a Jewish tailor.
He was in his shop on Virginia Street in Reno one December day in 1870 when a woman ordered a pair of work pants for her husband, a large man who kept wearing out the pockets and splitting the seams of his clothes. For three dollars, Davis began making a pair of trousers in 10-ounce duck twill that he had purchased from Levi Strauss’ dry goods store in San Francisco. As he was stitching them up, he noticed some copper rivets nearby, the kind he used to attach straps to horse blankets for cattle drivers. “So when the pants were done,” he later recalled, “the rivets were lying on the tables—and the thought struck me to fasten the pockets with rivets.”
The quintessential American garment, blue jeans, was born. The pants were an immediate hit—Davis sold 200 pairs in the next 18 months—and soon imitators began copying his design. His wife objected to a patent, arguing that he had already paid good money for two successful patent applications that had made them no richer. So Davis wrote to his supplier, Strauss, asking him to become a partner. Strauss agreed, and the firm gave the famous “501” lot number to the pants with the rivets. The rest is history.
The Davis-Levi Strauss partnership (Davis sold his share in 1907) was one of the first major Jewish footholds in the American garment industry. Although New York was its epicenter, Jews owned dry goods stores throughout the country that were well positioned for entrepreneurial expansion. During the Civil War, the Fechheimer brothers of Cincinnati—whose father and grandfather were peddlers in Germany—won a contract to supply standard size uniforms to the Union Army. The company, now owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is still making uniforms for police officers, firefighters, postal workers and even baseball umpires.
Each wave of Jewish immigration brought success stories. One of the most dramatic is that of Rabbi Moses Phillips and his wife Endel, who emigrated from Poland. In 1881, with eight children to feed, they began sewing shirts by hand and selling them from pushcarts to coal miners in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Their business grew into the world’s largest shirt company, the Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., which by 1921 had introduced the self-folding collar and begun trading publicly on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1929, the company cemented its appeal by introducing shirts with attached collars—looser, more comfortable and easier to wash in new electric washing machines.
From the beginning, the connective tissue of Jewish history in the rag trade was family. “This business, the fashion industry, is truly a family business,” said Andrew Rosen, founder of the Theory fashion label and now CEO of Helmut Lang, a big New York clothing company. Rosen’s grandfather Arthur founded Puritan Fashions in 1910, his father Carl was a leading Seventh Avenue executive. “It’s about relationships, about community, about threading one generation to the next,” he says.
As the industry grew, so did the extended family. Soon Jews were involved in nearly every aspect of clothing—from the supply end to the retail world, from the sweatshops and manufacturing to the department stores and the advertising. Corporate America still maintained a strong glass ceiling—so-called gentlemen’s agreements barred entry into fields like medicine and the law—but in the schmatte business, the only ceiling was creativity and sweat equity, savvy and timing. Jews, says Alana Newhouse, “used their knowledge of the garment industry to pole vault themselves into high fashion.”