The story behind the collaboration between denim behemoth Levi’s and buzzy streetwear label Off-White fell into the familiar pattern of many modern romances — it involved youth and passion.
The youth was an intern who flagged Jonathan Cheung, Levi’s head of design, in the San Francisco-based company’s canteen and urged the executive to work with Off-White. On the spot, the Millennial unreeled the entire biography of Virgil Abloh, the architect and DJ who was valued by Kanye West for his creative direction before starting Off-White. As it happens, Abloh wears Levi’s all the time.
Sensing a marketing opportunity, Levi’s asked Abloh to expound on his fondness for the brand in a video. Abloh refused to sit in front of a camera. He countered with a different proposition. “Let’s make product. I think it’d be cool,” he told the company.
A year later, Levi’s and Off-White are about to start retailing their collaboration. Priced from $650 to $1,675 to segue into Off-White’s high-end distribution, Abloh’s jeans, jackets and coats for Levi’s Made & Crafted’s women’s line manifest his theories on gender-neutral dressing and street-smart style. For instance, one coat shields the body with a wide swath of denim in a rather clean wash emboldened by fraying hems, galvanic steel zippers and big ring pulls. As a futurist addition to a classic style, the zipper on the jeans takes central stage by sitting exposed atop a bright white placket.
“Denim as a fabric and jeans as a category are integral to a modern sense of dress,” Abloh said. “For me the idea is, you know, as long as it has two legs, they’re a pair of jeans. You can fit them. Male or female. They fit you.”
Abloh’s decision to focus first on the women’s market coincides with Levi’s business strategy. “Levi’s has always had a very, very strong men’s presence and reputation for men’s clothing. For women’s, that has been less of the case,” Cheung said. “As a brand, we’ve been putting a lot of energy into the women’s business and our women’s product.”
Cheung estimates that Levi’s fields requests at least once a week from brands that want to work together. It turns many down. Its tie-up with Junya Watanabe is one of its longest, running for almost a decade.
That Levi’s is releasing collections with Off-White, Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy, who form the new wave of luxury streetwear, around the same time is not random. Cheung said the 163-year-old company had been observing the three brands for a while. “We view them as the new, young frontier,” he said, adding that Vetements and Rubchinskiy’s designs are actually for Levi’s Red Tab.
The way the deals transpired also reflected a new way of doing business. The Levi’s team sent a message to Rubchinskiy via his Instagram account. Abloh is a master of the instant pace, authentic attitude and multimedia mash-up that eludes some older marketers. “It’s a mix of paper and text messages and words and sending reference photos by instant messaging,” Cheung said. “It’s a three-dimensional way of working.”
Once Cheung texted him that Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab had an opening to make 100 pieces in August, Abloh didn’t hesitate to create a one-off collection that spliced panels from Nineties-era 501s in the front and segments of contemporary Made & Crafted jeans in the back. Those reworked vintage styles sold for $350, exclusively at Ssense.com.
Abloh’s main collection to be released Oct. 20 was designed and prototyped in Eureka but made in Levi’s factories in Europe. The construction of the jeans reflected the ambition of his creative process. In lieu of the diagonal stripes printed on his designs that serve as a calling card for Off-White fans, he mixed different panels. For example, white sheets guard the calves on a skinny style shaded a pale blue that Kurt Cobain could have worn in the Nineties. Each panel bears a different standard of shrinkage, and Levi’s engineered the final fit with that in mind.
“He was very humble coming in. He came to learn,” Cheung said. “Technically, some of his jeans are really challenging.”
Abloh couldn’t have imagined a better place to create than in the Eureka studio. “It’s a microwave,” he said of the experience of cooking up fashion with Levi’s. “In the traditional sense, you send it to a supplier and it takes a month before you see your idea. From working in that environment [at Eureka], you can realize in a day your idea. It just expedited the whole process.” Besides, he said the ethos behind the collaboration was “to offer up some new silhouettes of denim that complement the history but also lead to a new direction forward.”
Scheduled to meet again in November, Abloh is playing with black vintage washes for his next women’s grouping with Made & Crafted. He is also floating ideas for the new men’s component expected in fall.
Abloh is a pro at collaborations. He hooks up often with his favorite brands, including Golden Goose, Moncler and Chrome Hearts. He is aware of his exact position in the fashion industry. “I’m clued into the streets, the trends the kids are identifying that are doing these record sales and making these categories in fashion,” he said. “We hit this moment where fashion cried for an update. The fashion industry has been looking for something new. Ironically, it has come from the bottom up and not the top down.”
The lesson for fashion companies that yearn to steal some of the sizzle from Off-White: listen to the intern.