The primary, hand-crafted denim work of Levi Strauss & Co. hasn’t changed much in more than a century. But a new breakthrough is about to bring the brand and its signature jeanswear further into the high-tech era.
In searching for a way to ditch potassium permanganate, an oxidizing chemical that lightens cotton, the company wound up reinventing its production pipeline.
“We are utilizing laser technology in ways that have never been used before,” said Bart Sights, vice president of technical innovation and head of Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab. “We have reordered steps in our manufacturing to rely on a digital file … we can [use that to] pivot back to product creation, design, development of finishes, and then using that same digital file, we can pivot forward to the manufacturer.” The innovative use of lasers and the new digital patterning essentially streamlines Levi’s jeanswear production.
The discovery was born out of Eureka, the company’s San Francisco-based testing ground established in 2013. The apparel and tech industries might know it as the birthplace of the Project Jacquard Commuter Jacket, a Google collaboration that fused smart notifications into a denim jacket. This time, the lab took on the production of its jeans and figured out how to use lasers and digital technology to create the same effect as its manual finishing process.
Traditionally, the process begins with a vintage sample as the inspiration. Factory workers aim to recreate the unique tears and washes, with sandpaper scrubbing or even by ripping the fabric by hand and sending the jeans into a chemical wash, which casts the material in the desired shade. The laborious manual process can take multiple cycles and, magnified at scale, the steps can create repetitive stress injuries and leave an environmental impact.
The Eureka Lab took some lessons from its partnership with Google in thinking through a new process. Now a designer creates a look — complete with “whiskers,” or wrinkles, and rips or tears — in a digital file using a stylus, tablet and custom software. The file loads into a production machine outfitted with a laser, which finishes the garment, reproducing the exact design and shade by essentially carving the details into the material.
“We go from two to three pairs per hour with hand finishing, to 90 seconds with the lasers,” Sights said.
Think of it as denim on demand, which is a powerful proposition for a company that creates thousands of designs.
Amber McCasland, a Levi Strauss & Co. spokewoman, pointed out that roughly 30 years ago, jeans were only available in three shades: rinsed, stonewashed, and bleached. Today, the options come in endless variations that required labor-intensive production and a long list of chemical formulations.
McCasland said that the “existing operating model is challenged with long manufacturing lead times, which pushes product creation too far away from being able to accurately design authentic, quality product to meet market and consumer needs.”
The new workflow allows the company to rearrange and shorten steps in its production, shrinking production and distribution cycles from six months to three or less. Ultimately, this leap in efficiency means Levi’s can make more responsive fashion decisions according to fast-moving trends or even geographic preferences. So instead of trying to sell what they make, McCasland said, the company can “make what you sell.” The change represents a fundamental shift in thinking, which is no small affair for an established brand.
With a quicker time-to-market and a shortened list of chemicals — going from thousands to dozens — Levi’s can’t wait to implement the new process. The company has been evaluating the process in a pilot program, but is ready to pull the trigger and roll it out this year across its five-pocket denim business. The launch should be complete by 2020.