Hello everyone. I wanted to clear up a lot of the confusion regarding the quality variances people experience with Levi's. There is a LOT of misinformation out there, and much of it has circulated on this subreddit. A bit of background: I spent a summer abroad in Bangladesh and Burma during college, and then eventually found my way to working with Levi Strauss & Co.'s South Asia manufacturing operations after graduating from 2009-2011, and then with distribution back in the U.S. in 2012 before going back to graduate school.
The main misconception I want to clear up is that the quality of your Levi's — within the same model and type (e.g., Levi's 511 in Rigid Dragon) — will vary from retailer to retailer. This widely linked post seems to exemplify the heirarchy people have in their heads. Thus, many believe that the 511 Rigid Dragon sold at, say, Kohl's is of poorer quality than those sold on the Levi's website, or in their SoHo or Castro stores in NYC or San Francisco. This, however, is untrue.
The fact of the matter is that ALL retailers receive the same mix of stock, from the same warehouses, made in the same factories. Levi's quality control is notoriously variable. While in Bangladesh, I had a chance to see some of the factories. They look like this. (That's actually a Docker's factory, I believe in South America, but the Levi's factories in South Asia look much the same.) Basically, many human beings sitting at many machines in a big room.
Levi's is possibly the single most prolific denim manufacturer in the world. The sheer scale of the operation, combined with human error makes quality control a daunting prospect. Think of how many places you can buy Levi's jeans, within the U.S. and around the world. That's a heck of a lot of jeans. Then add in the human element: people of varying manual dexterity and motor skills man these machines, switch shifts, get impatient, tired, careless, etc. For the much more expensive, limited lines (Levi's Made and Crafted, Levi's Vintage), it's much more feasible to pay attention to fine detail and quality, because there are simply fewer garments to pay attention to. But for the jeans that are sent to every friggin' town in the U.S. and major cities around the world? Quality control on such a huge scale is basically a matter of checking for the most conspicuous irregularities and defects. And so you can end up with jeans that vary from pair to pair.
And thus, you will see the variation in quality in the inventory of anyone who sells the jeans: the inventory at Kohl's, Sears, Macy's, Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, Amazon, Zappos, the website, official Levi's stores, etc. will suffer from the same quality fluctuations. Some stores (not retailers, but individual stores, at the level of individual management) are more scrupulous about making sure what inventory shows up on their sales floor passes muster… but there's no guarantee that what you'll find on the shelves of a particular Nordstrom will be any more reliable than what shows up on the shelves of the local Kohl's. If you don't believe me, go to the store closest to you that has the greatest selection of Levi's. Try on several pairs. It is very likely that — even at the same store, even within the same size and make — the pairs maybe vary in sizing and stitching quality.
This graphic has made the rounds, and it is not untrue. It outlines the different lines that Levi's offers accurately, as well as the jean types (501 vs 510 vs. 511, etc.). However, notice that the poster makes no mention of varying quality within a specific line. The 500-numbered ones (501s, 505s, 511s, 513s, etc.) that we are all familiar with are identified as a single line: the Levi's Mainline jeans. And these are found everywhere. This post from a former Levi's store worker also is accurate.
So, why does the myth continue? A few factors I believe are at play:
The fact that Levi DOES have different lines, including lower-end lines for stores like Walmart (Levi “Signature”) and Target (Levi “denizen”), confuses people. People see the cheaper Walmart/Target lines, and assume they have to be extra careful about where they buy their Levi. The truth is, you don't have to worry about buying, say, 511 Rigid Dragons from one retailer vs. another. You have to worry about quality, no matter where you buy it. Without exception, all of their lines are clearly delineated. The “diffusion” lines are all clearly marked/labelled/named to differentiate them from their mainline products, as well as from their higher-end offerings like Levi's Made and Crafted. It will say clearly what you have on the label.
Some people don't understand that denim comes in different weights, finishes, and fabric compositions, and will mistake lighter-weight denim, or those with a synthetic component, for poorer quality or cost-cutting. Levi's, like all denim manufacturers, makes jeans of many different weights and with a variety of fabric compositions. Within the Mainline jeans, I've seen anywhere from ~7 oz. to 14 oz, and with fabric that ranges from 100% cotton to different degrees of elastaine, polyester, spandex, or other synthetic. The synthetics usually lend a bit more stretch to the fabric or offer different textural qualities to the fabric that some may find desirable. Thus, you get a lot of people complaining about the durability of the fabric when they simply have got their hands on a lightweight denim.
In addition to the higher-end Made and Crafted and Vintage lines, the Levi's stores, the Levi's website, will usually sell washes of certain jeans with a more limited production. These tend to be a bit more “experimental” washes or colors, or made of more expensive fabric that would not be profitable for mainstream retailers, and thus aren't produced on as large a scale as more mainstream varieties. The smaller production scale often means the quality can be more consistently monitored. One example of such a jean would be this 511 called “Black Depth”. I haven't seen this particular wash in the big box department stores. Some people may see jeans of this sort in the Levi's store and assume that ALL the jeans there must be of similar quality. In reality, within the same model and make, it's all pretty much the same. The Rigid Dragon sold at the Levi's store or website will be the same as that sold at J.C. Penney's.
Placebo effect/perceptual bias/whatever you want to call it. There have been boatloads of scientific studies on this phenomenon: people are very good at fooling themselves. A meal can taste better or worse depending on whether it's served on fine china or paper plates, in a gorgeous restaurant or a fast food shack, or whether you paid $5 for it vs. $50. The same applies to clothing.
TL;DR: So, the bottom line: I would always buy Levi's in-store — ANY store. So long as you know what model and make of jeans you are looking for, you have just as much chance of getting lucky paying less at J.C. Penney vs. full retail at the Levi's store (although the latter with have greater selection). Heck, this guy got his at Kohl's for $30. Try on several pairs in your size to find the pair that fits you best, and look at the quality of the stitching, dye, and fabric no matter where you are.
Also, don't ask me to justify or defend Levi's. I no longer work there. But I will say that I think Levi's are very good jeans, and (as far as I could see) very ethical factory employers in the third world. I never saw anything that would even remotely qualify as a “sweatshop” in my time in Asia. The Asian factories looked like what I imagine the American factories looked like when Levi's was still mostly made in the U.S. (However, IMO, the workers should definitely be paid more.)