Worn by presidents, movie stars, musicians and blue-collar workers alike, Levi’s® captures the essence of America unlike any other clothing brand. Established in 1853 by Levi Strauss — a German immigrant who came to the country to set up the West Coast division of the family’s dry goods business — Levi’s® over 150-year history traces that of modern American style. In 1873, Strauss and local tailor Jacob Davis patented the first pair of “riveted waist overalls” and unconsciously birthed one of the most iconic garments in the world.
Originally focussed on the production of workwear, the late 19th and early 20th century saw cowboys, coalminers, farmers and factory workers wearing Levi’s®. By the 1950s, Levi’s® cultural influence began to grow in America and ripple throughout the world. Post-war wealth and the baby boom resulted in a new consumer class with new-found disposable income and increased leisure time. The teenager was born and they quickly adopted the tough, practical and unpretentious blue jeans to go along with their rebellious and creative spirit. During this time, Levi’s® became synonymous with American idealism and, as American influence spread abroad, so did the legend of Levi’s®. During the Cold War, stories of Levi’s® blue jeans being smuggled and resold at high prices in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe shed light on the powerful symbolism of Levi’s®. At home, Levi’s® was at the vanguard of nearly every influential cultural and counter-cultural movement of the 20th century; from rock and roll, beatniks, hippies and bikers, to punk, grunge, hip-hop, and skateboarding.
With this illustrious history in mind, Levi’s® created Levi’s® Vintage Clothing. Led by Head Designer Paul O’Neill, Levi’s® Vintage Clothing gives new life to Levi’s® storied past and offers timeless and well-crafted products for modern day. Working with the company’s extensive archives, Paul incessantly hunts for vintage Levi’s® garments that are then analyzed in excruciating detail, from the cut down to the yarn, and then faithfully reproduced. Each season, Paul is the author of a unique type of historical fiction — inspired by everything from Motown and Abstract expressionist art to 1800’s miners, hot rods, 1920’s Brooklyn and, most recently, San Francisco’s legendary 1967 Summer of Love — culminating in a full garment collection and a corresponding seasonal lookbook.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul at his San Francisco office. Tucked into a corner of Levi’s®’ cutting-edge Eureka Innovation Lab, the Levi’s® Vintage Clothing studio stands in stark contrast to its modern surroundings. Stripped down to its original brick, it’s stacked floor to ceiling in vintage Levi’s® garments that Paul has collected throughout his travels. Over the course of the afternoon he tells me more about his early memories of Levi’s®; how he got involved with the brand; and the intimate, hands-on approach he takes in every collection. After our conversation, we made a special visit to the Levi’s® Archive, where in-house historian Tracey Panek shed light on some of their most historically significant items.
What is your earliest memory of Levi’s®?
Paul O’Neill: My earliest memory of Levi’s® is when I was around 12 years old. That was the first time I went on my own and bought a pair of 501® Jeans with a friend of mine at a store in Dublin and I can remember being really excited by it. Since then, I’ve always worn Levi’s® and I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t wearing them. That was the starting point. Another time — this is a funny story — a group of friends and I were bored teenagers and we would acquire Levi’s® from the washing lines in our neighborhood. There would be three of us at each leg and we’d try to rip the jeans apart in a backyard. We could never rip them apart though; I think we tried a few times. The Two-Horse pull branding on the back patch was the reason we tried to do this, but I have funny memories of not being able to tear them.
Were you always interested in American vintage clothing as a kid?
When I was around 13 or 14, my dad gave me his entire record collection and I can remember looking at all the covers of the records. It was a lot of English bands at the beginning, but there was also Jimi Hendrix and stuff like that from America. I remember being fascinated by the clothes on the back of record sleeves and the photos of the bands. I think Cream, on the cover of their first record Fresh Cream, were wearing these amazing flight jackets and other interesting vintage clothes. This was the late 80’s when I wasn’t really into what people were wearing, but I remember seeing these records as a thirteen year old kid and my mind was blown. My friend and I went into the city to the thrift stores and vintage clothes stores and found all these old corduroy jackets from the 60’s and beat up 501® Jeans. That was the start of my fascination with vintage clothes, and since then I’ve always been collecting vintage clothes, Levi’s® especially.
Coming from Ireland, do you think you see Levi’s® in a different light than an American?
Yeah I do actually. I think it’s like the grass is always greener on the other side. Sometimes you don’t appreciate what’s on your own doorstep. I think an example of that is in the early 60’s, when you had the British invasion coming to the US. Bands like Them, Van Morrison’s band, and the Rolling Stones — they’d come to the US and play all this American rhythm and blues music and all the American kids were blown away and like, “Where did this music come from?” And it had originated right down the street from them, so it was like the English kids showing the American kids what they already had. I think it’s interesting, not to say that you have to be from another place to do it justice, but you have a fresh perspective when its further away and it has more romance to it.
Do you have a formal fashion education?
I started off studying fine art for several years when I was younger. I went on to study environmental design: furniture and bridges, etc. Then I went back to study fashion, I moved to Manchester in the mid 90’s and completed a fashion degree there.
Were you into fashion or were you always more interested in vintage clothing?
I was never really into fashion. I’ve always been more interested in style. Some people have good style, and I didn’t care if it was fashion, or if it was a tracksuit or whatever. I was interested in people who looked interesting and never into the latest trend. I just liked what I liked. I was also interested in history a lot so vintage really appealed to me.
How did you first get professionally involved with Levi’s®?
I was working in Dublin in 2008 as a pattern maker, which is something I have a great interest in — the construction side of garments. I was introduced to someone who was setting up the LVC office in Amsterdam and I convinced them that I should be working for them. It got me an interview and my foot in the door. It had been in Brussels and the company decided they were going to set up a global office; before that, you had LVC in the United States, LVC in Japan, and LVC in Europe. The office and that division became known as XX, which focused on LVC. As with any new venture there was a lot of freedom, and it was fantastic time.
Were you designing right from the start?
At the start I was helping the senior designers. I came in at a lower level where I was there creating the artwork, the checks and stripe patterns, and working closely with the Head of Design. It didn’t take long before I was designing product.
What led to the creation of LVC?
There were only a few denim brands in the market for years and years that were big players, but in the 90’s all these new denim brands started to come out of nowhere. There was this denim trend going on. Just an oversaturation in the market. The Brand made the decision to start Levi’s® Vintage Clothing as a way to celebrate the history and heritage of the Brand. At the same time they came out with the Red collection that was a very innovative and modern collection. It was in 1999
“It was a smart move by Levi’s® to make sure we weren’t seen simply as a product of the past, but also an interesting and relevant collection for today.”
when both of these labels were launched and it was a way for Levi’s® to stamp their authority on the market, saying, “We’re still here, we’re the original denim brand, we’re going to share our history and lead the way to the future.” It was a smart move by Levi’s® to make sure we weren’t seen simply as a product of the past, but also an interesting and relevant collection for today.
How has LVC evolved since its beginning?
Roughly around ‘96 they reproduced a couple of pieces, and in 1999 is when it became an official collection. I’ve got some of the old lookbooks from the beginning and it was a very small collection. When it moved to Amsterdam in 2009 it turned into something bigger. We started to tell bigger stories and at one stage it was over 150 pieces — so it grew significantly. Now we’ve concentrated the collection into just over 100 pieces. I think it’s a good size at the moment.
What role do you play as a designer in a company that’s focused mainly in reproducing garments?
You could consider it more like a curator, but there are elements of design needed to build a collection. I’m lucky enough to create the concept for the collection, choosing what part of history or what subject we want to talk about, and then I see that through by putting together the imagery, building the collection and curating the pieces from the Archive. I work on everything through to fits and we have a great team that works with us on the denim finishing and pattern making. Then we see it through to the final garments and I visually merchandise the setups we have. I go on to create the content and direct what’s going to happen for the lookbook. I’m physically out on locations looking for real people because we don’t use models for the lookbooks, we street-cast. The photographer and I go out a month before hand and we scout around and go to dive bars, petrol stations, college libraries, anywhere to try and find interesting people. Then a month later we’re back on set, and I’m styling it and figuring out how we’re going to bring it to life.
That’s a really great part of my job; having the trust of the Brand to deliver one vision from concept through to the finalized lookbook, is fantastic. We’ve made 12 books with the same photographer and we have a great relationship. It’s a real passion project. It’s not like we have a massive budget and there’s probably 6 people that work on the lookbook from beginning to end. We’ve had thirty models on shoots, but there’s only two of us dressing everyone. It’s always super hectic but we get great results, and I think because everyone cares so much about it, we put a lot of effort into it. I’m very lucky in that sense, because not many designers get the opportunity to see their vision from the concept and then be able to hand someone a book and it’s still that one vision. Everyone thinks it’s a big production, that we hire a company to do everything for us but its nothing like that, everything’s super hands on. I think that’s why it works so well. We love it.
Every season you do a story based on an era or movement in American history. Where do these ideas start how do they come together?
The idea for the Fall/Winter ’16, 9th Street, collection came when I went to the Guggenheim years ago and saw all this mid-century work, and I became really interested in that when I started to look into it more. I saw what they were wearing, read some books about them and thought it would make a great LVC concept. When people talk about Levi’s®, they always think about Marlon Brando or James Dean being these guys that were the first people wearing denim, but when you look at Jackson Pollock, he was head to toe in denim in the 1940s but doesn’t really get any credit for it. It may not have all been Levi’s® but you know, this look that they had, they were kind of hard working and hard living men and it was really something special. The Spring/Summer ’17 —Forever Changes — collection I’ve been researching that since I was 14, so I’ve been waiting to do that one for a long time. I had to hold myself back because I knew 2017 was going to be the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and it’s linked to San Francisco, so I knew it would be a perfect time to do it for Levi’s® Vintage Clothing.
So you took your crew to New York?
Yes, for the 9th street shoot we went to New York and finished the lookbook shoot in three days. The Forever Changes shoot was all shot in New Mexico and San Francisco; the story behind this one was three kids from a small town in Texas leave home by jumping on trains and hitchhiking their way to San Francisco to be part of the ‘Summer of Love’. It was a lot of fun producing that book.
It sounds like this was a real a passion project.
Definitely. I’ve been collecting records since my dad gave me those records when I was 13. I’ve got thousands of records at home and a lot are from 1967, like the Forever Changes record by Love that we named the collection after. From 1967 you’ve got the first Doors album, the first Velvet Underground album and Sgt. Pepper — I mean it’s such a monumental year for music. At the same time in 1967, Levi’s® were doing all this incredible stuff. Jefferson Airplane recorded a radio advert for Levi’s® in 1967, which is so wacky and not commercial in any way. I have no idea how it could have possibly got through, but I’m glad it did. Levi’s® were doing some crazy stuff at the time. These are the Levi’s® crazy legs, which were also put out in 1967. We could only find 4 different one’s: we’ve got one original here and the Archive has a couple too. We were really excited, about reproducing these; we’ve kept them really limited and have only produced 100 of each style. If you look through the rest of the collection, it’s not super hippy flared stuff. If you really look at photographs from the time, it’s not like everyone was wearing bell-bottoms and flares. They’re still wearing slim jeans and short hair, but they’re breaking into this new attitude. We tried to tell the story through our lookbook as more of a coming of age story about these kids who were slightly innocent but wanted to see what all the fuss was about in San Francisco.
I guess that whole stereotypical hippy look didn’t come full effect until the 70’s, right?
I don’t think Levi’s® produced bell-bottoms until ‘69 or maybe even ‘70. People were customizing their own jeans and adding panels, and there were small, more fashion driven brands doing bell-bottoms. The bigger companies were slightly later.
Is there a certain era or time period you find yourself coming back to or a favourite?
We’ve got so much time to play around with at Levi’s® — from the 1870s right up until now — that I get fascinated by different things when I start looking into them more. It could go from the 1960s to the 1880s in two seasons. I am passionate about the mid-century and the birth of the teenager, when things shift from everybody dressing and acting like their parents to individuals creating their own identity. I think that is something I’ve always been interested in.
“I think people will slowly realize how important the old world was and, because it was that way for so long, you can’t just wipe it out.”
The last year of 501® Jean I recall LVC making is the 1983. Why is this?
In 1983 the 501® Jean went to a wide loom fabric, as opposed to a selvedge fabric. That was the year the 501® Jeans were no longer selvedge garments. Selvedge fabric is a narrow cloth that you can essentially cut two legs across the width, so it’s obviously a more expensive process and that’s what we use for all our LVC 501® Jeans. 1983 is the current cut-off for us because that’s when Levi’s® were more mass-produced and readily available. I think we can definitely expand the scope of LVC when it feels right. The 90’s are having a big resurgence at the moment, but that wouldn’t be a reason why we would want to go down that route. With LVC, we’re trying to steer away from what’s happening in fashion and not be influenced by trends. I’d much rather be inspired by a record that I heard, a book that I read, a photograph that I’d seen, or someone I met.
The life and legacy of Levi Strauss is the quintessential immigrant success story of fulfilling the American Dream. How does Levi’s® fit in to modern America under the leadership of someone like Donald Trump?
We’ve been through two world wars, the great depression, more than 20 presidents. What is so interesting about Levi’s® is our continued relevance over the last century, regardless of any factors around us.
LVC markets itself on maybe an idealized version of America. Do you think the reputation of the country has an impact on how people view Levi’s®?
I think that with Levi’s® Vintage Clothing, we certainly don’t only have an idealized version of America in mind when we’re developing a concept for the collection. I don’t think it always has to be a glorified version of America – what makes our collection relevant is that it’s an actual portrayal of a specific moment in history.
Something like the Summer of Love almost seems like a subtle form of protest or statement?
I think it’s nice to bring things back to show that there’s all these positive things that happen as well, and it’s great to celebrate them. It’s not that we’re trying to make big political statements, but sometimes it just feels like the right time to talk about something. The reason we did the Summer of Love was because its the 50th anniversary, but it is interesting that it feels really relevant at the moment. A lot of things come around in circles. I think that’s one thing with LVC, it’s trying to find the right time to pull something out. I’ve been going to the archive for 7 or 8 years now, and I’ll pull something out and have very little interest in it, then all of a sudden I’ll walk by it and go, “That’s perfect, lets do that now!’ It all depends on what your thinking and how things feel. We’re definitely not looking at trends but you also can’t help but be influenced by your surroundings and what’s happening around you. Things get triggered by that.
The market has kind of calmed down since the big denim boom a few years ago. Have you had to adjust at all?
The denim boom that happened —we’re obviously lucky to be a part of that, but as a Brand we have been building that desirability for decades and will continue to stay relevant long after any trends or fads. We have gone from a collection about the dustbowl to a collection about the Summer of Love to a collection about mid-century American artists. Now we’re finding ourselves in many more fashion stores like Opening Ceremony or Colette in Paris. We’re no longer seen solely as a heritage brand. With our history we have the unique opportunity to tell all these varied stories in an authentic voice.
Do you feel you have more freedom now?
I think we always had the freedom. Something I’m interested in is flipping things around a lot and not getting stuck in one box. Not trying to always have this workingman thing. Levi’s® started off like that and it’s great to explore and talk about that, but Levi’s® was also a part of all these other amazing cultural movements, like the 60’s so it’s great to talk about that as well.
Can you tell me more about the 1976 501 Mirror Jean?
This garment here is an original 1976 501® Jean that I bought in Japan. We put that in the collection and a few months later, I got a message from a colleague of mine who had been at Cone Mills and he said he found some deadstock 1970’s fabric that was still on the loom. “Oh man that’s amazing,” I said and they said, “You can have it.” The first thing I thought was that we could make a pair of 1970s 501® Jeans from original 1970s Cone Mills fabric, it was really exciting. So the fabric came in the post and we discovered that it’s a left hand twill fabric. Levi’s® only uses right hand twill, especially in the 501® Jean. We had our back against the wall, thinking what can we do with this fabric, we can’t really make 501® Jeans with it anymore. But then we came up with the idea to mirror every single detail on the garment to create a 501® Jean that, when held in front of a mirror, would look exactly like a normal pair of 501® Jeans. We then mirror imaged every single detail in the garments — right down to the writing on the rivets, the writing on the back patch and red Tab — so every single thing is a mirror image of a normal 501® Jean. We could only make 12 out of the original fabric and with what we had to go through in remolding the metal hardware, the screen-printing. It was a lot of work. Because we loved it so much, we asked Cone Mills to reproduce our denim in a left hand twill so we could make a limited run of five hundred and one of them to put into the Spring/Summer ’17 collection.
It seems like a departure from something LVC would usually do since there’s no historical precedent.
It’s not something we would have just come up with; it was just the circumstance. We had this beautiful fabric that was 40 years old and we felt like, “damn, I wish we could use it.” Then the light bulb came on, and we thought that maybe this could be a way and it would be kind of funny as well. I had to call the head of design and ask if I could develop all these new sundries and metal moulds and he said, “We’re going to have to do it.” In the end, it was worth it because we ended up putting it in the line. I think it’s fun to do something like that, we don’t always have to take ourselves so seriously. If a moment like that happens, we should celebrate it.
Textile research is usually about pushing things forward, coming up with new fabrics. I imagine LVC faces the opposite challenge, making something that was made decades ago on machines that are long out of use.
What are some of the challenges you face?
That’s a very good question because yes, we’re trying to go backwards and trying to produce fabrics that were produced anywhere from the 1870s up until the 1980s. It’s definitely challenging. We’re lucky enough to have worked with Cone Mills for over 100 years. In 2015 we celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Golden Handshake, which was a gentleman’s agreement between Levi’s® and Cone Mills to produce all the Shrink-To-Fit denim for the 501® Jean. We’re really lucky to have a great relationship with them. Recently I brought a pair of jeans from the 1880s down to North Carolina, and we spent a few days down there analyzing the fabric: the weight of it, the yarn count, trying to match the homespun character in the fabric. We work with some amazing people down there that know a hell of a lot more about these fabrics than I do, and can work out how to rebuild the fabrics and get the irregularity in them. It’s very complex, but these guys are so well versed that we end up getting some amazing fabrics. It does take time. It’s not something that I can request at the start of one season say, “I want to have that fabric from the 50’s.” It’s not going to happen that quickly; we need to give it time to really work on it and make sure its perfected. It could take at least a year, if not more, depending on what it is.
Cone Mills has a lot of modern machinery that sits on a concrete floor weaving their more contemporary fabrics. The shuttle looms, that we’re using at Cone Mills are sitting on this old wooden floor for the past hundred years. They’ve stripped it away in other areas to put the modern machines down, but they’ve had to keep it where the shuttle looms are because the shuttle looms are literally bouncing all over the floors. I think they would just dig the concrete up if they were on that. If you stand there, you can feel the chatter of the looms and it’s quite a humbling experience. All the machines are controlled by real people and, when a yarn breaks, there’s someone over there tying it back with their hands. It’s all manual. There’s just something about that process, and the irregularity of the process and the machine bouncing on the floor; all of this adds character to the fabric. I don’t think you can reproduce these fabrics without having all these rich organic things happening. Cone Mills denim is part of what makes the 501® Jean so unique.
How far back does this relationship go?
The gentleman’s agreement was in 1915. I imagine Cone Mills was making some fabric for Levi’s® before that, but that was when we shook on, “Ok well you’re exclusively going to make the shrink to fit fabric for the 501® Jean.” It really feels like nothing has changed. There is a guy that still works at Cone now, who has been working there for 60 years. He is in his eighties; he started there as a young man. Sixty years have passed and he’s still going there everyday. It’s incredible. You can’t go to the store and replace the parts on these machines as they are no longer available. He knows the machines so intimately that he’s actually building all the parts to replace them and keep the machines functioning.
Is there a risk in the next few years that the knowledge will be lost?
No because we know they’re preparing for the future. I think there will be a resurgence of people wanting to go back to how things were made. It’s already happening — people are buying vinyl records and want to invest in things. It’s kind of a kickback against fast fashion and MP3s. I think people will slowly realize how important the old world was and, because it was that way for so long, you can’t just wipe it out.
Apart from raw denim, LVC creates faded, repaired, and distressed garments. Can you tell us how they are conceived and executed? Do they have a basis in the archives?
Some of them do have a basis in the archive. I’m also always scouring vintage stores and markets, turning rocks upside down trying to find vintage jeans with interesting repairs and interesting wear-patterns. I think that’s the starting point: always trying to find something authentic and trying to recreate that, rather than just putting a rip there, and doing this and that. When we reproduce a garment, we’re measuring how many stitches per inch, the thickness and composition of thread. We’re going into minute details for everything we do and we take the same approach when we look at a vintage worn in finish we want to reproduce. There’s a reason there’s a hole in this place, or it’s faded more in that area. We want to look at reality and mimic it or forge it.
Do you have a factory specifically for distressing?
We work with several factories in Europe. We have certainly gotten better as time goes on at reproducing these vintage finishes, because we have been working with these factories for so long and we are both growing at the same time. They’re fantastic at this — there are certain people there who are artists in their own right. Sometimes people can think it’s a vintage garment. There’s a lot of hand-work and hand-processes that go into the garments. It’s not mass manufacturing. We don’t use laser machines; it’s all hand scraped. If there’s paint on the garment, it’s applied by hand and some of the repairs are hand stitched.
Many brands copy or reinterpret the cuts and details from Levi’s®. How do you feel about this?
I think people reinterpreting or looking at Levi’s® as a starting point is great. That is something everyone does in the creative world. John Coltrane made some amazing albums that are beyond classic, but does that mean that no one should make a jazz album? Is it a positive thing that people might listen to a John Coltrane album and build their own jazz album? I think it’s definitely a positive thing that people look at the creative highs in art or music and then interpret their art from that. I think it’s only a compliment to Levi’s® that we are a building block.
When did the process of archiving first begin?
In 1920 we were sent a letter and a pair of 501® jeans from a customer called Homer Campbell, who was a rock miner from Arizona. He’d worn the jeans mining everyday for 3 years “except Sundays,” the letter stated, and he wanted to show us the result. They were kept in an office until we actually opened the archive in 1989. I always think of those jeans as our first archival garment, we just didn’t know we had an archive yet.
How do you typically find the vintage garments you reproduce?
The archive is one starting point; the other way is going out looking for and purchasing garments that will be reproduced and eventually make it into the Archive. I go out and buy them in thrift stores or vintage markets, or someone will call me to say, “This guy has this amazing sweatshirt, you should see it.” I pulled a few things out that I thought were interesting to show you guys. This is an original Levi’s® shirt from the 1920s. Actually this shirt I’m wearing is the reproduction. The fabric is made with natural indigo. We produce a bunch of different shirts, from work shirts to dress shirts. As much as I use the archives and they are amazing, I also try to find pieces myself. As I can really explore the garments more and get my hands on them. This is a 60’s 505™ Jean, but its very rare. It’s got a rare tab in black and orange and it’s also has a black weft, instead of the classic natural weft. When you start to wear it in, instead of the white coming through, you have black. It’s kind of a negative effect, which is quite interesting. We reproduced this as part of the 9th Street collection. I’m interested to see how it wears in with time.
This is a really cool Levi’s® sweatshirt, which is from the 1940s. The Bay Meadows label is a label which was started in the 1930s, and continued through the 40’s. It has the double V’s, it’s beautiful and the label is fantastic. Bay Meadows is a horse track in California — you can see the horses on the label. It’s a beautiful piece. This is the oldest sweatshirt we have found from Levi’s®. It’s really interesting the way they made these old garments. The way the sleeve is set in, it’s like a saddle sleeve. When they were creating the pattern for this garment, basically they just cut a square and slash in, pull this part out and throw in the sleeve. It forms a natural gusset.
It must save time and materials too.
Exactly, it was all practical before it became fashion details.
So do you go on research and buying trips?
I constantly go on research trips. Every season I go to find out more about what I’m researching. For example, the 9th Street collection was inspired by Clyfford Still, a pioneer in the abstract expressionist movement. Early on he withdrew himself from the celebrity that was happening around the abstract expressionist movement, and kept most of his paintings private. But when he died, he said in his will that whoever would open a gallery in his name and only show and dedicate the gallery space to his work, he would be willing to donate all his work to them. There were bids from different places, but Denver actually won the bid to open a gallery in Clyfford Still’s name. The gallery has only been open for a few years, so it was very exciting for me to go there and see this guy’s work that I’ve only heard about and who was a bit mysterious. I mean, there was work of his in collections but this was the majority of his life’s work all together, so that was the first port of call to research that collection. I’ve done some amazing research trips. Some parts of the trips are about trying to find out more about what you’re working on, and other times it’s buying, going to markets and vintage stores. A lot of the stuff is taken from the archive, but a lot of stuff is hunted down.
Are these trips always in the United States?
Yeah, nearly always the States. I’ve been in San Francisco since 2014. When I was based in Amsterdam, it was a ten-hour flight to the archives and to the Rose Bowl flea market in LA. You’re freaking out with a trolley, running around trying to get as much as possible, trying to take deep breaths. But now the archive is five minutes from my office. There’s amazing little stores all over and I can go on road trips. I drove from Chicago to Los Angeles, going through Oklahoma and Kansas and all these places, finding interesting things. To be surrounded by this culture is something I’ve always dreamed of, and when we were designing Levi’s® Vintage Clothing from Amsterdam, it was always such a great experience to come here twice a year. Now I’m constantly in the middle of it all.
So it feels more natural now?
I think everything seems a lot more accessible. It’s easy for me to go on these amazing trips, and I can also convince my wife to go on vacation somewhere where I can do research. We spent two weeks driving through Mississippi and through all the old gravesites of the old blues guys. I got lost in a forest on my own trying to find Tommy Johnson’s grave and thought I was going to be sleeping with him when the sun started to go down. My wife was freaking out an hour away, waiting for me in the car [laughs].
“We put garments out in the market, people mess with them, and then we buy them back and put them back out in the state we found them in, inspired by somebody else’s creation. That can inspire us.”
Aside from clothing, what else is in the archive?
We’ve an amazing collection of old catalogs, photographs and company history. Loads of crazy knick-knacks and things Levi’s® has produced. We have records, like the Jefferson Airplane record I was talking about — it’s super rare, it was only made for the radio spots.
What is the virtual vault?
The virtual vault is an amazing tool that we’ve just had access to in the last year or so. Basically, the archive has been digitally captured so I can go in at my desk and research product. I can sit on a flight on my phone and get into the vault and do research. It’s just a great tool. Beforehand we would be looking for something, and it would be written down in a catalogue, and we would go into the archive and pull out the box, and oh wow, we’ve discovered something else in the box that no one knew was there — like an amazing deadstock 606 with a different tab that we didn’t realize we had. So there’s lots of discovery. The way I think of it now is like, when I was in university I didn’t have the Internet, I couldn’t just Google things. I had to go to a library, look through all the books and eventually find something that was really cool. But if I’m in university now, I just go online. I don’t have to leave my desk. There are positive and negative sides to that. In terms of the archive, I think it’s all positive because I can be much more thorough. I think it’s a great thing to have.
Are there any unfound items in Levi’s® folklore that you are still looking for?
Yes, definitely. There are a lot of things in the catalogues that we have never seen in real life. Specifically, someone asked me recently, when did Levi’s® first make black denim? I looked in the archive catalogues, and I think it was pre-1900 that there were black denim garments. I’ve seen dark brown denim garments from that period, but I wouldn’t call them black. I don’t know if that’s what was in the catalogue, and they have oxidized over time or something, but there are things like that I find fascinating and there are a lot of things I’d like to discover. There are denim jackets from 1870s that I have seen in catalogues and I’ve never seen a real one, so that would be like a holy grail. We produced so many things over time and every season I’m finding something that I’ve never seen before. The hunt is great and it’s very rewarding.
Do you reproduce things that you don’t have physical versions of?
We try not to. I’m always a lot happier to have something in my hand that is tangible, that we can feel what the fabric is like and match the colours. There have been things reproduced from photos or from archival catalogues, but it’s always best to have the actual garment to study properly.
Is there any particular criteria for an archival piece, say if it was reconstructed or modified?
For sure! You see these old skirts created from old Levi’s®. You have to take notice of things like that. Its great what we have done with the product, but I think its great to open things up to how other people interpret your product and what they do with it. I love to find jeans that have been customized in really interesting ways. That can inspire us as well. We put garments out in the market, people mess with them, and then we buy them back and put them back out in the state we found them in, inspired by somebody else’s creation. Anything somebody else has done with a Levi’s® garment is super interesting to me.
Outside of the archives, where do you find your inspiration?
I’m very passionate about the history of music. I’ve collected records since I was a young kid. I find a lot of inspiration in music, as well as in art. Like I said earlier, it could be anything; someone I met that told me a story or a photograph I found at a thrift store.
What’s next for LVC?
The plan is keep telling interesting stories and keep our audience interested, as well as ourselves. To keep finding new Levi’s® pieces that we’ve never seen before, and to remake them and put them out in the world for other people to enjoy.