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Maurizio Donadi: Levi’s Do-it-yourself Denim

A touch of the vintage for the product and stores in which it's sold.

Maurizio Donadi

In 2009, Levi Strauss & Co. established a new premium division in Amsterdam, called Levi’s XX, and recruited Maurizio Donadi from Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. to oversee the effort. Within the business, Donadi oversees two brands: Levi’s Vintage Clothing and Levi’s Made & Crafted, which replaced the Levi’s Capital E label.

“Levi’s Vintage Clothing is about reproduction of pieces we have in the archive. There are about 150 objects we do every six months,” explained Donadi. “Some are very Levi’s relevant pieces from the archive, and others are relevant from the vintage industry — whether it’s army and navy, workwear, hunting and fishing. It’s not the most fashionable product in the marketplace and we don’t want to be that. We want to make great, simple American product.”

Ironically, the U.S. has not been receptive to Levi’s Vintage Clothing product, while Japan has been a particularly strong market for the range of authentic reproduction pieces.

The U.S. is a better market for the Levi’s Made & Crafted label, which consists of a modern approach to premium denim for the company. “We are loyal to Levi’s history, but we’re taking the most fundamental details in the construction and utilizing new fabrics and new technology and bringing into that line innovation — which is something that Levi’s has not been very successful at until now,” said Donadi.

With Japan the largest market for Levi’s Vintage Clothing, a key project last year for Donadi was the transformation of an existing Levi’s concept store in the exclusive Aoyama district of Tokyo to showcase the vintage line. “We had this store which we were not happy with. There was only one word for it: demolition,” said Donadi.

Rather than hiring an outside architect and crew to reimagine and renovate the store, Donadi and a small team from his division flew from Amsterdam to Tokyo to undertake the redesign — and construction — themselves.

“There is nothing better in retail than doing it yourself. Experimenting, testing, changing, pushing, thinking out of the box and changing it every day. If the business is not going, you change it,” said Donadi.

“We needed to make the big name Levi’s, with all the heaviness that comes with it, and make a very simple project. We asked ourselves, ‘What happens if Levi’s was starting today and we don’t have money? But we only have one thing: gray matter,’” said Donadi, tapping his head.

The team used oak wood to transform the store, a material Donadi said is equivalent to denim in the way it beautifies as it ages. Display cases were acquired at flea markets for a mere 25 euros, or approximately $36 at current exchange, each. The total cost for the 1,600-square-foot store, not including an outside demolition team for some of the more complex work, was just $25,000.

“We wanted an American way of being, an attitude that is American,” said Donadi of the finished space, which is open, rustic and minimal. “Half of the store has merchandise made in America. The other half is from Turkey and Italy. And we mixed in real vintage merchandise, like T-shirts from the Sixties and Seventies. There are no mannequins in the store. It’s very simple and humble.”

“The environmental impact was zero,” added Donadi. “A lot of the stuff was recycled, like the piping and wood. No chemicals were used. Everything is natural and we would love to see it age the way our jeans age.”

For someone in the business of selling jeans, Donadi was critical of today’s consumer culture and the hyper-materialistic aspects of the fashion system. “I still struggle with that world. I fight really hard because I don’t want fashion to be about superficiality.”

Donadi remembered his first job as a steelworker — he used to come home and blow out soot and dust from his nose — and having to save up to buy a pair of jeans. “Nobody is saving for anything now. People buy a pair of jeans every month or a pair of shoes every two weeks.”

To Donadi, product that is very durable and of the highest quality represents the true essence of luxury. “The essence of every luxury brand is extraordinary quality, that it is extremely well made, difficult to get and very expensive. And that there isn’t enough of it — it’s very limited and special product,” said Donadi. “That is the essence of luxury that intrigues me very much: making less product. We need to pay our bills and deliver profits, I know that — but how can we do that in a better way? That’s the key and that’s what our journey should be.”