White Oak Economy is a monthly column by denim journalist veteran, Amy Leverton where she examines the interplay between the worlds of high end artisanal denim and the mall brands behind them.
We’ve all had experience with the world of big corporations, be it direct or otherwise, and the major pain point is how to maintain a creative, pioneering spirit whilst within a big business system. I’ve recently left conventional full time employment to work for myself and have definitely found it freeing, but while spending time at the Levi’s Eureka Lab last week, I have to say I was pretty inspired by the incredible set-up. As I told Levi’s SVP of Design, Jonathan Cheung after seeing the Lab for the first time last week, I felt like I’d just walked out of a really great movie.
Levi’s have highlighted an issue that many creative people rally against throughout their entire careers–corporations rarely invest efforts or funds into nurturing designers’ needs. It’s often left to the creatives to struggle to fit their personalities inside an office cubicle.
But investing in an innovative atmosphere and space is far from a waste of money. It’s essential to the success of a company and if you simply try and tackle the problem with a couple of inspirational pictures on the wall or a monthly ‘cultural day’ (that nobody has the time to take) you’re going to fail. Designers don’t need fancy, they don’t need glass and steel, they need somewhere light and open that they can customize, stick their inspiration on the wall, hoard their book and magazine collections, leave jeans on the floor, experiment and collaborate.
From the first ten seconds of walking into that space I could sense the change in creative temperature. There was an electricity in the air, and you know what? There was real work happening, everywhere.
So much has been written about this new denim playground/experimental lab that I don’t want to repeat old words, I just wanted to comment (from a non-biased point of view) on the refreshing things I am seeing at one of the world’s longest-established companies. Because I’ll be honest here: three or four years ago I didn’t feel quite this way about Levi’s. Now I’m feeling it big time and I think soon, you will too.
Eureka Lab opened just under three years ago on April 1st, 2013–a pretty confident date to pick for such a concept. The ‘dad of the house’ (or should I say dude) is Bart Sights, an incredible force in denim who was literally born into indigo (his family owned Sights Denim Systems: a denim factory and development center in Henderson, Kentucky who provided jeans for Ernest Sewn, Rogan, RRL and, you’ve guessed it, Levi’s) and his sister is Carrie, one half of Imogene + Willie. To hear more about that story, watch this TED talk from Carrie and Matt about their family business’s struggle (I cried).
The walls of Eureka are testament to Bart’s rich life of denim, as they are lined with hundreds of his archive of samples, most of which he’s broken in from raw.
I’ve heard so much about Bart but only met once him briefly once in London, so it was great to see him in his element at the innovation center. Bart is way more dynamic (and fit) in the flesh than my book does him justice and he was flitting from sample area to laundry to lab to conference room throughout my visit. He’s like the head chef of the operation and everyone flocks to him for advice or approval.
The downstairs is where all the messy stuff happens: there are the machinists, a laundry, and a lab. It’s a micro production facility but of a top-of-the-range quality: the sampling machinists are from the ex Levi’s factory on Valencia Street and they work in a non-production-line style, so someone makes a whole garment from beginning to end. They have laser machines, Tonello G1 ozone washers, a chemical lab, indigo vats, laundry recipes all over the place…I’m in heaven.
Jonathan is my main contact at Levi’s and he walked me through the facility telling me what it means to him as SVP of design to have such a resource as Eureka.
“This is basically our kitchen and its official purpose is for prototyping. We used to go through this stage with factories a plane ride away which is fine but it’s time consuming. It’s the same as writing music: imagine you’re a songwriter and you have a little recording studio in your back garden, Eureka is like that recording studio where we get to try things out.”
Jonathan is good at analogies and proceeds with this amusing comparison:
“At Eureka we’re having a jam. You realize you need an extra drum pattern or guitar riff here so you can add it in, you fuck up on a bit and you go back and make it right. You’re in the studio for a month to put together your song or your album. So what happens if your music studio is a plane ride away, say in Turkey or China? You go: Ding-ga ding-ga ding on the guitar… ‘ok, now I’ll take that skeleton of a song idea to Turkey’ you get it back ‘oh no I want to change this bit’…Then it’s back on a plane back to the studio…It stunts the development time dramatically.
“Eureka is like having a music studio in your backyard, one that’s completely yours and that has the world’s best producer in residency (a big part of that Eureka magic is Bart himself). Having this facility gives us an exponential increase in prototyping power, exponential!”
The upstairs is where the design team work on a regular basis. Jonathan likens it to cooking again “if it’s cooked down there, we come up here to plate it up, to arrange it into stories.” Also upstairs is a tailor shop, both for sampling and also for customizing pieces for celebrities or special projects.
The Levi’s Vintage Clothing design team is also here. Behind an unassuming curtain is an Aladdin’s cave of vintage Levi’s memorabilia: perfectly worn vintage tees, lovingly distressed stacks of jeans, rows and rows of the perfect plaid shirt–it’s like a vintage Narnia. I stole quite a bit of time in here just gazing at all the beauty and I’ll be back in ten days to photograph Jess Geesey, (a Denim Dudette) here too.
Since first visiting the famed Levi’s plaza in 2011, the company have turned a massive corner. I don’t know who or what has turned things around (although I have an idea) but I don’t think it’s down to just one person or one element. Good things are happening and I think consumers are going to see those changes very soon. I walked into the flagship in SF last Monday and bought three t-shirts; I sensed the change already and wanted to buy in on it. I don’t think it’s hit Regents Street in London just yet, I don’t know that it’s hit the NY stores but it’s trickling in from SF and coming to a town near you pretty soon.
Which brings me to my closing thought: Levi’s have taken a bold but necessary step in nurturing creativity, something that many large brands lose sight of along the way. In my opinion, without creativity and passion, you are dead in the water. If they hadn’t created Eureka back on April Fools day in 2013, I don’t think they’d be in the place they’re in today. You create your own luck.