An Indigo Interview: The Denim Journey of Amy Leverton of ‘Denim Dudes’
Anyone who’s involved in the denim world will agree that during the last 5-10 years, we have pushed into a new era of indigo. With sustainability and environmental impact going from a nice-to-have to a must-have and small businesses having just as much influence as their multi-million dollar cousins, the old denim world of the ’90s and prior is becoming a distant memory. Denim is at an exciting crossroads, with new factories pioneering cutting edge manufacturing techniques, mills becoming more and more creative with fabric development and designers, influencers, vintage dealers and bloggers having a significant say in the way that the industry is cut and sewn.
One woman who’s got her finger on the indigo pulse is our very own Denim Dudette, Amy Leverton. Amy has written for us before on Heddels, when she hasn’t been busy writing books, forecasting trends, visiting factories and mills, or working with visionary denim brands. Amy is a woman who is paving the way in the industry (much like her fellow dudettes Kelly Harrington, and Lauren Yates) and has become a household name in the denim world, for very good reason. Two books down, a ton of hard work and a move to Los Angeles later, Amy is going full speed and shows no signs of slowing down. Anyone who knows Amy will understand just how motivated, driven and dedicated she is, so we felt it was only right to make her ‘take five’ and share her thoughts on her journey so far.
We caught up with Amy during New York Denim Days (when she wasn’t co-ordinating panel discussions, presenting, or working on content for Denim Dudes) and the following is a record of the discussion. We hope this inspires you just as much as it did us. Stay blue, Amy!
Heddels: You grew up in the English countryside, which is a far cry from your now-home, Los Angeles. Tell us about this journey and what inspired you where you grew up?
AL: I grew up in a 400-year-old cottage some 3 miles from the nearest village in Somerset, South West England. My entire primary school was 100 kids total, so very small beginnings. I was into clothes since I was a little girl and made a lot of clothes when I was a teenager. I bought Vogue from my village shop and pored over the runway images…Alongside all of this was the contrast of being a raging tomboy: I wore jeans and dungarees, climbed trees, rode bikes and built dens in the woods. I was a proper feral country scamp! I think these two sides to me probably influenced exactly where I am today: the love of fashion and then my natural tomboy character.
I moved to London in ’98 and lived there until 2016, so exactly half my life. I needed a change, a new challenge and I was madly in love with LA, so I decided to start the visa process which was long, expensive, and arduous—but worth it. I just sat on my steps watching the sunset behind the palm trees, so I ain’t complaining!
H: What is your education/training background and how did this inform where you are today?
AL: I left the countryside as soon as I could at 18 and headed straight for London because that was the center of fashion, in my opinion. I completed my foundation course at London College of Fashion and then went to Kingston University for my BA (Hons) in Fashion Design. Looking back, I excelled at casual-wear. But in the moment, it’s hard to recognize what kind of designer you are and what you want to do. My denim projects were definitely my strongest looking back. Kingston was a tough course; I have a photo of our class of ’99 and there are red stickers on everyone who left or were kicked off the course. It was gnarly! It definitely instilled in me a strong work ethic and the friends I met there will be friends for life, as we went through so much together.
H: You have previously worked at oki-ni and WGSN, before making the transition to going freelance with Denim Dudes. But what else happened during these years? Fill in the gaps for us…
AL: Well oki-ni was my first job out of uni (besides working for pennies at a couple of young designer’s studios!). Oki-ni helped to further shape my career because it was a very casual, dude-heavy company to work for; limited edition jeans, sneakers, and tees were the heart of the business and it was a collaboration-only company meaning that everything was limited. In 2003 this was very ahead of its time. My career-defining moment was visiting Cone Denim in North Carolina in 2004 for their three-day denim school. I still have the certificate! It was at that moment that I truly began to grasp how much was involved in the world of denim: the history, the creativity, the craft, even the chemistry! After oki-ni, I freelanced in design for a year or so and then worked as a casual jersey designer for mum-fashion brand, NEXT. It wasn’t my dream job, but I used to travel to Sri Lanka regularly and the people I met at the company were amazing. Kelly Dawson from Dawson Denim for one! I actually learned a lot from that experience and value it to this day.
Then I scored the job at WGSN and that really was the career turning point for me. I have always loved the research side of design: the inspiration and mood boards, the stories, and that ‘eureka’ moment of inspiration. This was a job that focused on that part of design ALL THE TIME! Heaven. I was with WGSN from 2006 until 2010, when I moved to Stylesight, WGSN’s American competitor. I headed up the denim department and soon found Sam Trotman to assist me; a young, passionate and smart recent graduate who was already working occasionally for the company taking street style photos at festivals. We bonded immediately and won over companies like Levi’s who I still work with today. In my spare time, I started working on Denim Dudes the book. It was a lot of work, but I was super passionate and driven to do it. In 2015 Denim Dudes was released and about 5 months later, I was heading on a plane to LA, having handed my notice in. That’s when things got a whole lot warmer!
H: What are some of the most memorable highlights of your career so far?
AL: Honestly, I would say all the people I have met along the way. My friends in the industry who have helped and supported me, recommended dudes or dudettes, photographers, brands to work with, projects to embark on. In my very first job at oki-ni I met Mohsin (Sajid) and Sadia (Rafique) who still work in the industry and I see often. I even stay in their home when I land at Gatwick airport! And my mentors led me to where I am today. Mark Westmooreland was ex-Levi’s at oki-ni and he taught me to think about the tiny design details such as the subtleties of choosing the right thread colors. I can spot a jean designed by him at ten paces, it has such a specific look. Once I was at WGSN, my boss Sue Barrett was an ex-Wrangler designer and taught me how to be a ruthless editor. I love images and wanted to use everything on a page and she showed me that less is more, something I really utilized when editing imagery for Dudes and Dudettes.
And then the book introduced me to so many legends in the industry; I remember the first time Piero Turk introduced me to Adriano Goldschmied in Venice at a denim event and I think the conversation was like 10 seconds long. Now we embrace each other like long lost friends when we bump into each other at a show. He continues to be so supportive to me to this day. Finally, Jonathan Cheung has been and continues to be my ultimate mentor. When we first met in maybe 2010, he was working for Levi’s in Amsterdam and talked to me about a button for almost ten minutes solid, I was like ‘this dude is so enthusiastic, I love him!’ Little did I know that we would go on to work almost like colleagues every season for Levi’s and he would teach me more about philosophy, statistics, culture, and anthropology than I thought possible.
H: Was it always denim?
AL: I think considering my lengthy answers above I would say: yes it was always denim, but I definitely didn’t know it until that ‘moment’ I had at Cone Mills.
H: It’s clear that Denim Dudes is a huge passion project and labor of love for you. Now you’re doing it full time, how does it feel?
AL: Weeeeellllll here’s the thing: I’ve gone freelance and registered Denim Dudes as the company name I work under, but my day job is still the trend stuff. That can be a 12-hour day on the regular. We put that stuff on the public feed to a certain extent but only a fraction, really. In fact, there’s more of it on Samutaro’s feed than on Denim Dudes. If I was working Denim Dudes, the books, the blog and the Instagram full time, then wow, I would have about 6 times the content! Being a denim trend consultant is still my bread and butter but I think since going freelance the two worlds have merged quite a bit and the work I get asked to do is more interesting and varied than it used to be, which I’m so grateful for.
H: Tell us more about the purpose of Denim Dudes and the work that you’re undertaking. Where do you see it fitting within the industry?
AL: To me its a celebration of people. The denim industry is actually pretty tight-knit and many of us know one another, if not as friends, certainly as acquaintances. And then my main passion has always been style; being inspired by the way people dress to express themselves. So the crux of the book was to marry those two passions: people and style.
H: Media content is a huge part of what you do. Is it hard keeping up with different forms of media and tailoring content to the most appropriate platform?
AL: Well I don’t know if this answers your question but it’s something that’s been bothering me for a couple of years now. I am trying to actually publish more of the behind-the-scenes inspiration covering trend. I work every day with the amazing @Samutaro and he is great at not only publishing the alternative archives of denim but also some of the newer talents and brands that we look at for inspiration. I’ve really struggled with the concept of publishing more of that on my Insta. Oh and then bandwidth: Sam and I have probably about 10 articles in us at any given time but because we’re always having to balance the content creation with working with clients who are actually paying our wage, it sometimes gets frustrating. I wish we could do half the things we talk about doing!
H: You’re now two (very successful) books down and we’re assuming/hoping there are more on the horizon. Do you still think there is a place for physical and printed content in today’s fashion world?
AL: Great point because even back when I put out book one this was a very important topic. Here’s the thing: magazines are hard to sell these days for sure, but I think books still hold something of value to people. Especially in denim: people like to collect denim tomes and I think there’s still the market for it. But it’s got to be very well thought out, well-considered and of a great standard. That’s why I take my time with them! Interestingly Dudettes didn’t sell half as well as Dudes and I was really surprised by that because I think its a stronger book. I don’t make the books for the money though, there’s certainly no money left in that. I do the books for the passion.
H: You spend a lot of time traveling and attending trade shows, events, visiting factories and meeting with brands. How do these trips and experiences inspire you and inform what you do?
AL: As far as career highlights are concerned the travel is up there at the top. I’m getting a bit too old and tired for it now but even despite that, travel still feeds my soul. Walking the streets of Shanghai, Tokyo, or Hong Kong, and knowing my way around is an empowering feeling. Denim has taken me to Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan, to Ho Chi Min and Hanoi in Vietnam, onto some of the most cutting edge factory floors, in front of some of the most inspirational and talented people. At the end of the day, it’s the people who inspire me and yes, I keep getting back on those planes because if you don’t get out there and see the world, it’s hard to connect the dots. But honestly most of the inspiration I get is from conversations; walking into a store in San Francisco or a cafe in Tokyo and getting into a conversation with someone passionate and talented is what informs most of what I do. I’m never not learning!
H: A central part of your role is trend forecasting; How difficult is it to keep up with the fast pace of the industry and anticipating what’s next?
AL: I don’t think it’s hard when it’s all you do. As a designer, I would have a sixth sense and I would say that most creative designers do too, but what you lack is time and that’s honestly becoming unmanageable for today’s designer. Seasons barely exist, regular drops are the norm and timelines are impossible. When do you have time to research and find inspiration? But Sam and I are always looking, always traveling and collecting. Its also actually become easier with the whole world now sitting in your pocket!
H: Sustainability and transparency is on everyone’s lips at the moment. Is the denim industry heading in the right direction and doing enough to turn the tide?
AL: I don’t think anyone is doing enough to turn the tide quite frankly but mother nature will figure out a way of kicking us off the planet if she needs to! I realized that a couple of years ago and it made me feel a lot better; I don’t really worry about the future of the human race, I just want Mother Earth to be ok and I’m sure she will be! On a more positive note, there are many denim companies out there kicking arse and challenging the systems and processes that humans have created which got us in this mess. I love Sanjeev, owner of Saitex and feel like his approach to manufacturing is taking us in a positive direction. I also rate brands like Story, who are transparently approaching fashion in a holistic, craft-led way and creating beautiful garments too. Another individual who I admire and respect is Jordan from Boyish jeans, his knowledge, and passion for sustainability is infectious and I think he’s the Adriano Goldschmeid of the future!
H: Speaking of ‘whats’s next’, what is on the horizon for Denim Dudes?
AL: Book three has started, but it’s gonna be a three-year wait I think. We actually want to grow and are looking for budding writers, trend forecasters, and photographers interested in collaboration. The hardest part of running a business is growth, 100%. But a year ago it was just me and now it’s Sam and I together, so I feel positive.
H: Ok, chance for some shout-outs before we sign off. Brands, companies, people and anything that’s getting your attention? (including your four legged feline friends)
AL: Well I would honestly say the names I’ve mentioned throughout this chat are my go-to’s. From mentors to sustainable market drivers and then, of course, the creative and talented people I am lucky enough to interact with season on season at the trade shows and events. It’s an industry of many talented individuals and I am privileged to be able to celebrate them for a living.