The apparel business is used to seeing trends come and go. But innovation is no flash in the pan, certainly not for Levi Strauss & Co., whose new approach to denim made an impression at Wired’s 25th anniversary tech summit and festival this weekend.
After 165 years, Levi’s denim proposition went through a radical reinvention, with the introduction of its laser-finishing tech — FLX (short for “future-led execution”) — in February. Wired25 attendees got to see the lasering action close up at its Eureka Innovation Lab in San Francisco this weekend, thanks to a short demo that yielded beautifully finished jeans — designed with artfully designed and placed rips, tears and whiskers — within seconds.
Bart Sights, Levi’s vice president of technical innovation and leader of the Eureka Innovation Lab, also collaborated with John Plunkett, Wired’s founding creative director, on customized denim jackets for the event’s speakers.
The design took its cues from the magazine’s special anniversary issue. “Wired had the lucky, good timing to launch in 1993 — so, the beginning of what we call the digital revolution,” said Plunkett. Thoughts of the current moment and the feeling of moving fast into the future, or the theme of fast-forward, emerged to inform the magazine’s cover and spine.
“Technically, we adapted those elements into a simpler form, so that they would read when burned into denim,” he said.
As part of the anniversary celebration, Levi’s gave attendees a peek behind the curtain with tours of its Eureka lab.
In the Bay Area, Eureka is perhaps best known for its Google partnership on a connected tech jacket that shakes with notifications. But within the company, the Lab stands out as a physical representation of the brand’s focus on innovation. The building itself is a stand-alone facility that’s a short walk from the corporate office. Physically, and spiritually, the two remain separate, but connected.
“We like to say we work in the intersection of art and science,” Sights said. “Most of us come from a manufacturing background. But we do work closely with our design partners up the street.” Some 30 people fill out the Lab’s talent pool, and not all of them are denim experts. Some have traditional denim production experience, but others come from Silicon Valley and bring different talents to the table.
“It’s a very diverse group,” he said. “Obviously, this is a very old business, a very old industry. It hasn’t changed a lot in 165 years — how you sew a jean together and wash it. But we didn’t want to fill it with traditional people who had a lot of experience…we sprinkled in a lot of people from the Valley who came at it from a different direction.”
For instance, the company already owned lasers and had been using them for 15 years — before the idea of laser finishing dawned on anyone. Then two years ago, a sustainability conversation about reducing the load of chemicals used in production turned into “an agility play,” explained Sights, and that led to a new platform. Some Eureka staffers had coding experience, so they wrote the software and gave the hardware a new raison d’être.
“The real magic happens here when we’re able to chain together a few advancements that are happening in this room that, when you look at them one by one, they’re OK. But they’re not world-changing,” Sights added. “The beauty of this is the team trying to find those non-obvious connections between these advancements that really turns into something radical.”
There was no turning back. The team took all the manual tools out of the building and removed the chemicals, to remove the temptation to revert back at every challenge. “We literally took that opportunity away from ourselves and took it out of the building,” Sights explained.
The old process used a combination of manual labor, often with actual sandpaper, and thousands of chemicals. The lasers chopped the list down to a matter of dozens. Even better, the tech is fast and flexible enough to go off-site. Finishing work can move out of the production facility to distribution centers and even pop-up events capable of crafting personalized styles — from whiskering to custom distressing — on demand.
In August, Levi’s put its tech to the test by bringing FLX to Los Angeles. The event, which ended Oct. 15, turns tricked-out shipping containers into Customization Studios for jeans, where select guests and influencers can create their own designs.
Now the plan is to dive further into consumer-facing applications and bring these Customization Studios to stores. Beyond that, the team wants to open-source the technology, so other denim companies can reduce their chemical load and mitigate their environmental impact.
And if things don’t go as planned, Eureka is prepared to take it in stride, thanks to the company’s support and culture.
Sights echoes the tech sector’s “fail fast and break things” mantra: “We fail quickly. From a cultural standpoint, we’ve been given a lot of entrepreneurial liberty from our leadership,” he said. “That culture is very important to me.…When you fail quickly, you have to feel like the person next to you has your back.”