Appeared in Grand Royal Magazine.
The King Kong of Work Clothing
Interview by O.D. Wolfson
Ben Davis Co. is working class chic, the Harley Davidson of coarse clothing. For 60 years, Ben Davis has been inspiring customer loyalty from ditch diggers and hipsters with a line of work clothes still cut from patterns drawn in the 30's. Despite zero advertising their popularity has grown at home and abroad (Ben Davis is big in Japan). It may be, in part, due to the fact that they have the worlds coolest logo: a big, tough, hairy yet humble, smiling ape and a kick ass slogan: Union Made, Plenty Tough.
The man behind the monkey is 80 year old Ben Davis himself, a depression era survivor who was destined to become the King of Work Clothes, as Ben's grandfather was instrumental in the creation of Levi Strauss jeans. Ben Davis never gives interviews so I consider myself fortunate to have gotten this one. I spoke with Ben and his son Frank, who now runs the company, at their sunny Mission Street factory.
O.D.Wolfson: I thought I would question you and Frank on some things the kids might be curious about.
Ben Davis: Certainly.
O.D.: What's your full name?
B.D.: Benjamin Franklin Davis.
O.D.: How did you get your start in the garment industry?
Frank Davis: Well, we could go into a bunch of historical stuff like my great grandfather's connection to Levi Strauss.
O.D.: So, Ben, your grandfather had some involvement with Levi Strauss?
B.D.: Well yes... Jacob Davis, he patented the pocket rivet.
O.D.: Wow, really?
B.D.: Yes Jacob Davis was an immigrant from Latvia; I believe his origin was Russia. He was a tailor living in Virginia City Nevada. He's the fellow who invented the copper rivet for jeans to help keep the pockets on. In those days pockets had a habit of falling off the jeans because people would put tools and what-not in them, so he installed a copper rivet and they remained in style ever since.
O.D.: So Jacob Davis collaborated with Levi Strauss?
B.D.: He had other inventions which were not successful... He had a number of children. He wanted to patent the idea of the pocket rivet. His wife, my grandmother, protested because it would have cost $75 to make the patent, money that they did not have, they needed it for food for the children. So he contacted a man by the name of Levi Strauss on Battery street in San Francisco and offered half of the patent if he would cover half the cost. Levi took him up on it. At the time Levi Strauss was just selling canvas, so Jacob Davis came down from Virginia city to San Francisco and started the first Levi's factory making jeans with copper rivets.
O.D.: That launched the whole Levi's jeans empire.
O.D.: Your family has a real history in the garment industry.
Frank Davis: I guess you could say clothes manufacturing is in the blood.
O.D.: How long did your family remain associated with Levi Strauss Co.?
B.D.: Well my father became the plant manager at the famous Valencia street factory. But he left in the early 1920s.
O.D.: But half the rivet patent was owned by your family.
B.D.: Well, patents only last, what, about, I think thirty five years, and Jacob came down here around the time of the civil war, I think the 1860s. so the patent was long gone by that time.
O.D.: You started Ben Davis Co. in 1935 when you were twenty one years old. What inspired you to start your own line of work clothes?
B.D.: Well in those days we were in severe depression and you had to work to make a living. If you didn't make a living you starved to death. I was playing professional saxophone at the time.
O.D.: What kind of band?
B.D.: We had a three piece combo : piano, sax, and drums. In those days almost everyone danced, and the radio was no good and records were no good either so we got jobs almost every saturday night. We played all over but you still couldn't make a living. My father knew some people who had some money in a roughly similar business (the garment business) and he persuaded them to set up this business and I ran it. My dad died shortly after that and I eventually bought out those people and that was the end of it.
O.D.: What about the monkey logo?
B.D.: In those days there a number of firms making similar merchandise. There was one that had a rooster for a logo, one that had a bulldog, one had the head lamp of a locomotive and so forth. I conceived the idea of putting in the ape or gorilla. I had a professional artist draw three of them and I picked the best of the three.
O.D.: Do you recall the artist's name?
B.D.: No. He's long gone.
O.D.:When I tell people that I've met you they ask me if you look like the ape logo.
F.D.: I get that question all the time.
O.D.: Did you design the original jeans and shirt?
B.D.: The shirts yes. As for the pants we acquired some patterns from an outfit called Neustadter Bros. which made the "Boss of The Road" which was the bulldog. They went out of business. We acquired their patterns which left a lot to be desired, so I modified and improved them.
O.D.: Who designs the newer Items.
F.D.: Generally I do. Sometimes its some form of copy with our special touch on it, but working clothes are generally not a high style item. Its more of a basic thing.
O.D.: In some circles it is high style.
F.D.: Yeah that's true.
O.D.: Do you see a connection between the popularity of rap music culture and that of Ben Davis?
F.D.: Yeah, they are related to some extent I suppose. I'm not sure. The fact that they wear that particular style is the relationship.
O.D.: There's a video by rapper Dr. Dre where he looks into his closet to find a shirt. He's scratching his chin as if he's trying to decide what to wear. Then we see a camera shot into the closet and there's nothing but about 20 black Ben Davis shirts.
F.D.: I think I may have seen Dr. Dre the other day. I'm not sure if it was that one. I heard something about that Snoop Dog guy getting in trouble.. Yeah, we get some good advertising from rappers wearing our clothes. One group called up asking us to make them some XXXXX large shirts.
O.D.: Oh, which group?
F.D.: I don't know, but we're going to make them. I assume the people requesting these are not actually that size. They probably want to wear them really large. some of these guys like to wear this big, big, big way oversized stuff.
O.D.: My girlfriend says you should make a line of clothes for women called Benita Davis.
F.D.: Well, the women usually wear our stuff anyway. They're not so form fitting but actually the pants always fit the women pretty well because they're full in the hips.
O.D.: Good point. So how long have you been working at Ben Davis Co., Frank?
F.D.: About twenty five years I guess. I started lugging bundles around here as a teenager, fixing sewing machines and doing that kind of stuff. Well, I'm 41 and I started at 16 or so...about 25 years. Seems like long enough eh?
O.D.: Long enough??
F.D.: Getting there. Ha ha.
O.D.: No, your the King!
F.D.: I know.