At the Vetements spring show in Paris this month, designer Demna Gvasalia offered his unique take on some of America’s oldest and most familiar brand names — among them Levi’s, Champion and Dickies.
Although the overalls, denim jackets and sweatshirts were severely oversize and probably not in the spring lineup in the brands’ showrooms, these reinterpretations of some of their best-known looks will no doubt catapult the labels firmly into the red-hot, directional streetwear arena.
But Gvasalia isn’t the only designer reinterpreting the classics. Indeed, as designers aim to build their own labels, it seems collaborating with a heritage brand has become almost de rigueur in order to boost not only that brand’s profile but also the designer’s or collaborator’s.
Take Gvasalia’s fellow Paris-based designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, who has created a following by reinterpreting well-known labels from his youth in Russia in the Eighties and Nineties. In June, at Pitti Uomo in Florence, Rubchinskiy put his spin on classic looks from brands such as Fila and Kappa while also unveiling a collaboration of his own with Levi’s for the American label’s 505 jeans and Type III Trucker jacket.
“In 1873, Levi Strauss invented the 501 jean,” said James Curleigh, president of the Levi’s brand. “It’s been worn by gold miners, Hollywood actors, rock ‘n’ rollers — it’s never not been relevant.”
He said the notion of becoming “iconic is not bestowed upon you by fans, but it’s earned over time. Levi’s has earned its status by continuing to stay relevant and not chasing trends.”
In order to make sure the brand maintains its authenticity, Curleigh said the company “keeps connecting Levi’s to the center of culture — where they expect to see us.” It was the jean of choice at Woodstock in the Sixties, and at the most recent Coachella music festival, the 501 cutoff short was the “uniform” for the young girls, he said.
And Levi’s connected with the guys during Super Bowl 50, which was played at Levi’s Stadium last year, by offering a cobranded collection with the NFL.
“It’s not about brand sponsorship, but delivering authenticity in moments that matter,” Curleigh said. “Levi’s is synonymous with Americana.”
Curleigh said that there are a lot of “contrived collaborations” in the market, but they generally don’t last. Although the brand has been approached by a lot of companies to produce cobranded capsules, it is picky about whom it chooses to work with.
Among the brand’s most successful collaborations are Off-White and Supreme. “For us, it’s a two-way street,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot from them.”
For Todd Snyder, to transform from a heritage brand into an icon starts with longevity. “It’s got to have been around a long time and stand the test of time,” he said, singling out Red Wing, Levi’s, Champion and Timex as examples.
The brand must also remain true to its core message and evolve with the times to stay relevant — a trick that these firms have mastered. “Levi’s is the best at it,” he said, “and Champion is now moving into that.”
He said Champion was the “gold standard of sweatshirts” when he was in college. “I wore them everywhere, from the gym to going out at night. But if you look on the streets today, kids are wearing them, and that makes it relevant and puts a different spin on it.”
So when he was searching for a collaboration, he approached the company and was introduced to Ned Munroe, Champion’s chief global design officer. “He made it happen,” Snyder said. “I got them comfortable with me, and they put the brand in my hands.”
Champion has also partnered with Vetements, Supreme and A Bathing Ape to “customize” some of its signature products. But Munroe stresses that like Levi’s, Champion is very particular about whom it will work with.
Champion has also created special collections for Urban Outfitters and has a separate line specifically for the Japanese market, which skews much more to streetwear.
“It’s so easy to follow shiny objects and trends,” Munroe said. “But Champion is a brand for everyone, and it means something. We’ve got to be trend-right but stay true to our DNA.”
Carla Mota, design director of Champion, said the young generation “wants something real, something that has value and a story behind it. They’re looking for an experience.”
She said Levi’s, the “originators of denim,” is the “perfect example” of a brand that is successful in “every tier of business.” And when a heritage brand collaborates with other hot labels, “it drives the halo and creates the buzz.”
Ann Richardson, general manager of Dickies 1922, a vintage-inspired collection that launched in 2010, has helped the company achieve that status, too.
“The first products we made were exact replicas in terms of fabrics, trim and fit,” she said. Since then, the line has been updated to fit more comfortably, but the original designs have remained.
“A lot of people talk about heritage, but we really have it,” she said. Williamson-Dickie Mfg. Co. was founded as a bib-overall company in 1922 and is the largest workwear manufacturer in the world.
“Our customer appreciates the vintage details,” she said, “from the selvage fabric to the chain stitching to the triangle on the side seam.” Prices are also significantly higher for the 1922 collection — $150 for pants, $175 for shirts, as compared to around $25 for a regular work pant and $30 for a shirt — but there’s no pushback.
Richardson said that as Dickies approaches its 100th anniversary, the brand will continue to push the heritage envelope. “Workwear itself evolves and becomes more technical all the time,” she said. “So there’s a lot of opportunity for great new developments.”
Ken Taylor, heritage marketing manager for Red Wing Shoe, which was founded in 1905 as a work-boot manufacturer, said that while the company remains focused primarily on its core product, a more fashion-forward heritage collection has gained in importance. “We haven’t changed who we are, but as the trend started growing, we’re putting more of a spotlight on that.”
He added that while the line has attracted a different demographic, Red Wing continues to stay true to its mission. “We continue to talk about who we are, and that our product is made to last.”
Vans, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has had a lock on the Southern California skateboarding market for decades. “That’s our secret sauce,” said April Vitkus, senior director of global marketing. “We’re rooted in skateboarding and that has not gone away, but it has given us a rich culture to branch out from, without losing our identity.” This includes surf, BMX, art, music and fashion, she said.
Vans works to develop “deep consumer connectivity,” she added. “We really listen and develop product that is relevant to our customers.”
Experiential marketing is also key, she said. The company opened its first House of Vans location, in Brooklyn, five years ago, where “art installations, workshops and concert stages inspire every person who runs, rolls or stomps through the door.” There is a second, in Waterloo, London, and pop-ups around the world, where customers can interact with the brand.
The same holds true for events such as the Pitchfork music festival in Chicago and the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, where the brand has a big presence.
Vitkus said Vans, which has been owned by VF Corp. since 2004, also creates partnerships with select companies and individuals it believes will raise its cool quotient, including Marc Jacobs, Nintendo, Disney and Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami.
Last week, Opening Ceremony unveiled Club USA, a new in-store shop in its men’s store that features a sneaker cave for special exclusive Vans products.
“In our community, there’s not a single person who doesn’t wear Vans,” said Opening Ceremony’s cofounder Humberto Leon. “We’ve been known to partner with a lot of heritage brands since we opened, in 2002, and we only work with brands that have a rich history. Vans holds true to that. It’s an authentic story that keeps you wanting more.”