We sat down with Levi's Vintage Clothing Head of Design Paul O'Neill to learn more about the iconic brand, sifting through archives and more.
Keeping the world of vintage feeling fresh is a difficult task. After all, how do you breathe new life into something that is, by it's very nature, old? That's what we set out to discover when we sat down for a chat with Paul O'Neill, Head of Design at Levi's Vintage Clothing. With over 150 years' of denim heritage at his disposal, there aren't many people who better understand how to reinvent a classic. Read on for a lesson in keeping it strictly old-school...
To begin, give us a brief overview of how Levi's Vintage Clothing differs from the brand at large.
At Levi’s Vintage Clothing, we have a relatively small collection that focuses more on our history and attention to detail than on current trends. We have an archive of over 20,000 pieces to reference, and when we make our selection we’re not only trying to copy the fit, but replicate every single detail of the design of that garment. Essentially we’re using our collection to tell stories about American History, its culture and inspire people with over 150 years of history.
Is it difficult to pick a piece from 20,000 in the archives ?
We start by coming up with a concept or a direction to follow. We might listen to a record or browse some photography to spark off an idea – something we think is going to be an interesting look for the season. Then we'll do a lot of further research to flesh it out. For example, for the Fall/Winter 2013 Motown collection we conducted many trips out to Detroit for inspiration, and then used those insights to filter through our own collection. Sometimes there'll be something you've looked at 10 times before and passed over that will suddenly be perfect. You really look at those 20,000 pieces differently every time.
Where exactly is the cut-off point for something to be considered "vintage?" Peoples' perceptions of that term certainly differ.
Ha, yes. We were talking to some kids last week in North Carolina, and they were telling us, "yeah, we’re really into vintage clothes." We were like “oh great, what kind of stuff do you like?” and they said “mainly stuff from the ’90s!” That certainly makes you feel old... There’s no official cut-off point, but I think in the mid-’80s Levi’s started to make everything a bit more commercial and industrial, so that’s been seen as an unofficial limit for us.
Do you feel any responsibility to update those classic vintage designs with modern developments or production techniques to make them more "current?"
Actually it's quite the opposite. We try to keep things as close to the originals as possible and maintain those original production processes, although there are times where that's just not practical. We try to keep hold of that original spirit while making things suitable for the modern customer. Ideally, when someone comes into a Levi's store and picks up a pair of 1890 jeans, we want them to feel as if they're picking up exactly the same product as someone 100 or so years ago.
Given how far back the history of Levi's stretches, is it important to you at LVC to show that there's more to the brand than the notion of cowboys in the prairie?
A lot of people have that vision of guys in checked shirts and waist overalls with a stick of straw in their mouth when they think of vintage Levi's. That is one important part of the history of the brand, but there's so much more. The current Metropolis collection is all about those construction workers who were the very architects of New York in the ’30s, which is completely different. We're lucky that pretty much everyone has worn a pair of Levi's at some point, so we've got a lot of history!
With modern fashion, and streetwear in particular, moving further towards a more future-focused look these days, is it hard to keep 150-year old fashion styles relevant in today's market?
We're lucky enough that fashion has shown an interest in vintage clothing over the past couple of decades, but if it starts moving away then that's not something we're particularly concerned with. There's an audience for Levi's and an audience for vintage clothing, and what we're trying to do is keep telling these stories about periods in history through the medium of our collections. If we started to worry too much about what the people at the top of the fashion tree are doing then we'd be distracting ourselves from the real goal.
So you'd rather let fashion move around you than move around fashion ?
For sure. It's exciting to see how things progress, and there's always going to be interesting new angles we can take with our work. I love the richness of American history, and I love being in the position to choose which bits of it we get to reproduce. It's hugely exciting, and I hope I'm still the guy doing it in 30 years time.
Well, if you are, perhaps we'll talk to you about it again then...
Explore the entire Levi's Vintage Clothing collection now over at their website.