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The Levi’s® Shirt That Saved A Life


In a recent interview, I was asked to share my most remarkable story about a Levi Strauss & Co. garment.

It’s almost impossible to choose just one story, of course.  I thought of one teenager out of East Berlin who used her precious savings to purchase a pair of Levi’s® during the Cold War era. There is also the story of famed bull rider Shawn Edwards, who used his Levi’s® Trucker jacket to wipe the dampness from his rope before mounting the bull that sent him into a coma. But ultimately, I came back to a tale of a Levi’s® shirt that saved a man’s life.

In 1974, a construction worker in Detroit was three stories up at a work site—a new J.C. Penney store. Keith Kempainen, a 30-year-old who stood at 5 feet 10 inches tall, was putting up the forms for the poured concrete walls when he fell.

“My Levi’s® shirt, which I always leave hanging out (instead of tucked into my pants) . . . caught on a piece of re-rod steel,” Kempainen wrote.

Robert Dale illustration, "This is a Pair of Levi’s® Jeans," 1995.

Robert Dale illustration, “This is a Pair of Levi’s® Jeans,” 1995.

The shirt, a classic denim button-up, was caught by the back and split to the arm pits along the side seams, but it secured Keith, who was left dangling in midair.

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Keith made it safely down, breathing a sigh of relief for a quality shirt strong enough to hold his 210-pound frame. Grateful, Keith mailed LS&Co. a thank-you letter and included his ripped shirt as proof of his remarkable story.

“I am sending you the shirt so you can see for yourself what a fine strong product you have,” he wrote.

The shirt and the letter are now both keepsakes in the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives.

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Be sure to keep up with the LS&Co. Archives and other cool LS&Co. heritage news, follow Tracey on Twitter, @TraceyPanek.