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How Levi's conserves and preserves the iconic look of its 501 jeans

By Emilie van Kinschot


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Business |Interview

Levi’s Paul Dillinger, vice president global design innovation. Credits: Levi's

When you think of Levi's, you think of 501 jeans, the brand's signature piece. With its high waist and straight legs, the cut of these trousers has looked the same for 150 years. Yet it has changed more than you might think, with Levi's recently introducing the 'Plant-Based 501', made of 97 percent plant-based material.

On this innovation and about further sustainability in the fashion industry, FashionUnited spoke to Levi's sustainability expert Paul Dillinger, who holds the position of vice president global design innovation. During the innovation-focused Copenhagen Fashion Week, he shared his insights from the Levi's showroom in central Copenhagen.

The 501 Jeans celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. What makes this jeans style so successful?

The appeal of the 501 lies in the model's accessibility: these are trousers for everyone. Some 501s that are 40 years old are now being resold vintage. Certain garments I myself wore 40 years ago I wouldn't even want to touch now, but jeans have the power that they can be timeless. It also shows the quality of trousers: they have been consistent for 150 years.

What have been the biggest changes over these 150 years in terms of the quality and material of 501 jeans?

Although the composition of the fabric evolves, it remains crucial that it meets the same rigorous standards. Often enough, a newly developed fabric does not pass our test and then it does not last. We will always ensure our quality.

Last year, a new composition did pass the test, it consisted of 40 percent circulose, an innovative Swedish material, and 60 percent organic cotton. Circulose is a sustainably produced viscose made partly from post-consumer recycled denim and textiles.

For the 501's birthday this year, we launched the 'Plant-Based 501', which is made of at least 97 percent plant-based material, with fully certified organic cotton, natural dyes and a plant-based patch with ink made from wood waste.

The 'Plant-Based 501' consists of 97 percent plant material. Credits: Levi's

Can you give more examples of how Levi's is using new methods or innovative technologies to make production more sustainable?

In November, Levi's invested in Stony Creek Colors, a start-up that was the first to succeed in naturally making the dye indigo in the form of a liquid. With the investment, we don't want a monopoly on the technology, we want other companies to use it too. Because, only by implementing it on such a large scale can we make the intended positive impact on the environment.

In early July, Levi's announced that it was lowering its annual profit forecast. Higher costs would squeeze the brand's margins as it struggles with falling sales at wholesalers in North America. How does Levi's deal with sourcing materials in a market facing inflation and increased costs?

For us, falling sales at our wholesalers have no effect on sourcing our material, our cotton. The price of cotton would change only if something happens to the climate; a flood in Brazil or a drought in India. But even if something like that were to happen, as a global brand, with a global crop, we have ways of smoothing that out.

How can Levi's balance profitability with its long-term sustainability goals?

This question is linked to the following: 'How can we prioritise sustainability if consumers don't?' It is a mistake to see sustainability as an option, because as a brand you can no longer avoid it. Especially in Europe, where new legislation, such as the extended manufacturer responsibility, the retail landscape is completely changing. So as a brand, you have to accept that there are no choices when it comes to sustainability, otherwise you will soon be unable to compete.

What advice do you have for smaller brands trying to keep their heads above water in a time of inflation and rising costs while remaining sustainable?

A smaller brand should focus on improving its own product. This is how you win and grow as a smaller entrepreneur. After all, the lack of economies of scale means you can never compete in price with bigger brands, which is why you have to offer something that is distinctive. Do something cool and unique that we, as a big multinational with all our testing and validation, cannot do and ask for more money for it.

Do you have any practical tips for these smaller brands?

Our course in terms of sustainability is based on our 'life cycle assessment'; a process in which the effects of a product on the environment are evaluated over its entire life cycle. Such an assessment is incredibly expensive. So any brand that conducts one wants to shout it from the rooftops. Our results, and those of brands like Nike and Patagonia, can be found online. Such a life cycle assessment contains a lot of useful information for other brands. It makes a big topic like sustainability smaller when you share information with each other.

The ‘Plant-Based 501’. Credits: Levi's

This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.NL. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.

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