Ron Pritipaul, '19, standing next to the Levi's sign, where he was offered a job after graduation. Pritipaul has had a life-long love of denim. (Photo courtesy of Ron Pritipaul)
Discovering denim in the West
Stanford alum Ron Pritipaul, ’19, shares how the Bill Lane Center helped him land a dream job with an iconic Western clothing brand.
By Alex Kekauoha
Growing up, Ron Pritipaul developed a strong penchant for denim fashion. Collecting and wearing jeans was a pastime, he said, but not something he ever saw himself pursuing professionally.
“It wasn’t something I really considered part of my academic or professional life. It was my hobby,” he said, adding that he’d always intended to pursue a career in a STEM field.
But attending Stanford and participating in Bill Lane Center (BLC) programs would soon put him on a new and unexpected career path. It would also expose Pritipaul – a lifelong New Yorker – to the vast culture and history of the American West and its influence on the denim and fashion industries he was so passionate about.
Today, Pritipaul works for Levi Strauss & Co., an iconic Western clothing brand known for its denim products. It’s a role he says he loves and a career path he credits the Bill Lane Center with helping him find.
“The BLC was life-changing for me,” he said.
Pritipaul was born and raised on Long Island, New York, just outside of the New York City borough of Queens. In middle school, he started collecting vintage jeans from secondhand stores.
“I was thrifting a lot out of necessity because I wanted to be very fashionable, but I also didn’t have a ton of money,” he said.
Pritipaul became so obsessed with denim fashion that he’d later get a tattoo of a selvedge, which is the white strip on the inside of jeans that becomes visible at the finished edge of a pant leg when the cuff is rolled up. He also discussed his love for denim during his Stanford admissions interview, which he partly credits for his acceptance to the school.
In addition to his love for the fabric, Pritipaul was fascinated with the mythology of the American West and its history. But he said his understanding of the region was mostly limited to popular cultural depictions of cowboys and Indians. Being the son of Guyanese immigrants and living in New York, he also was unfamiliar with contemporary Western styles.
“For me [the West] was this very foreign thing – the landscape, the culture, the style,” he said. “The loose, laid back West Coast style, it was very different than where I grew up in New York, where things are a little more put together, so to speak.”
Lured to California, in part, by the sunshine and warm weather, Pritipaul enrolled at Stanford in 2015. He’d initially intended to major in engineering or computer science. But participating in a Sophomore College course (SoCo) through the Bill Lane Center exposed him to other opportunities.
“Taking part in Sophomore College kind of showed me that there’s way more to life than computer science,” he said.
The SoCo course he took was called Managing Natural Resources on Native American Lands
. For three weeks, students in the course explored the complexities of governance, land use and cultural resource management on tribal lands in the American West. The course included visits to Washington state and Montana where they visited Native tribal lands and met with tribal leaders.
“To be on the Bill Lane Center trip, to be so thoroughly entrenched in the American West, kind of shifted something in my head,” Pritipaul said. “The West is this amazing place that’s geographically and culturally so much more than I ever thought it was.”
Pritipaul eventually declared a major in American studies with a focus on denim in the American imagination. Much of his academic research focused on the role of denim in Western culture. He also participated in the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project
and wrote a book proposal about American labor relations and denim production in three distinct parts of denim history.
By the time Pritipaul graduated from Stanford in 2019, he knew he wanted to work in the denim industry. When it came time to find a job, he looked to Levi Strauss & Co., which was founded during the American Gold Rush and is headquartered in San Francisco.
“I emailed every person at Levi’s whose email I could find on the internet and I begged for a job,” he said.
The company offered him a temporary job unpacking boxes in a stock room – an opportunity he enthusiastically accepted. But it didn’t take long for him to network his way to his dream job with the company. Today he is a design coordinator for the men’s denim team, helping to design jeans and denim jackets.
The company often looks to history for creative inspiration. So Pritipaul is currently creating a “look book” that features fashions and people throughout Western history, including Chinese railroad workers, to give designers inspiration for new styles. Now that he’s settled into work life, Pritipaul said he’s grateful for his time at Stanford, and that the BLC has had an indelible impact on him and his career.
“When I think back to Stanford, [the BLC] is one of the things at the forefront of my mind,” he said. “A lot of the experiences that I have through the Bill Lane Center impact the way I think about denim and designing denim and how I think about our company’s history within the West,” he said.