Admit it: If you’re not wearing jeans right now, you wish you were. Loved by everyone from ranch hands to runway models, blue jeans are a unique clothing hybrid, living simultaneously in the worlds of high fashion and hard labor. But it’s no accident that companies like Levi’s are looking backwards for inspiration, emphasizing the product’s American workwear heritage (even if they are now largely produced overseas). More than most fabrics, denim owes its seductive appeal to its storied past.
No brand is more aligned with denim history than Levi Strauss & Co., the business that first patented blue jeans almost 150 years ago. After the brand’s initial success catering to miners and ranchers in the wake of the California Gold Rush, Levi’s popularity skyrocketed during the 1950s, as life on the frontier was re-imagined in Western genre films. As Lynn Downey, the official historian at Levi’s, explains, “Jeans reinforced the myth of the cowboy, an important American trope for individuality against conformity.”
Hollywood also costumed its leading bad boys in denim, making jeans not only the attire of rugged frontier individualists, but juvenile delinquents, too. Parents and authority figures quickly rallied against blue jeans, fighting to keep them out of schools and the workplace, lest their children and employees turn into legions of sneering, wanna-be Marlon Brandos. Ultimately, this controversy gave the pants an even sexier allure, and Levi’s made serious bank on its association with rebel-chic.
Unfortunately, the company relied too much on the style of its goods, giving short shrift to their substance. By the 1960s, “branding had become more important than the quality of Levi’s products,” says Thomas Bojer of the fashion website Denim Hunters. This decline in product value continued until 2003, when Levi’s closed the last of its U.S. factories to relocate them abroad in Asia or Latin America.
To correct this drift, Levi’s has recently taken a few small steps to refocus on craftsmanship, including the hiring of Jay Carroll as part of its creative concept team. Carroll initially caught the company’s eye with a curated pop-up shop in New York, the product of his cross-country thrifting adventures documented on his blog, One Trip Pass. In particular, Carroll’s passion for vintage and handmade objects has helped push Levi’s back towards its hand-crafted, high-quality roots: It’s Carroll’s job to unearth and repackage Levi’s legends, which he finds both in history books and the creases of vintage jeans.
“Denim breaks down unlike any other fabric; it becomes your second skin.”
Today, much of the company’s output is vintage-inspired, from the small-batch goods sourced for its “Made Here” program to a line explicitly called Levi’s Vintage Clothing, which reissues updated versions of the company’s classic designs. And though the vast majority of its products are made overseas, in 2011, Levi’s debuted a limited-edition Made in the U.S.A. collection, produced at the Cone Mills plant in North Carolina.
Carroll spoke to us about his globe-trotting, thrift-shopping gig for Levi’s, and how the company attempts to maintain its relevance nearly a century and a half after its founding.
Collectors Weekly: How did you get to Levi’s?
Jay Carroll: Before I came to Levi’s, I worked for a small, independent menswear brand based out of Portland, Maine called Rogues Gallery. We had our own workshop, and the first two seasons were all reclaimed vintage. So we would go to Goodwills and garment dye T-shirts and screen-print over them and re-craft old hoodies and flannels and outerwear into new items, and we would find old surplus bolts of fabric and make bags out of sail cloth and military fabric. After two years of that, we continued the domestic production with an in-house workshop, and also made a lot of things in Portugal.
“We started looking back to an era when things were made well in America.”
Rogues Gallery was hit pretty hard by the economic crisis of the winter of ’09, and my friend Ned Martel was working as an editor at Men’s Vogue, which folded. So rather than look for new work right away, we went on this road trip on the West Coast. We went to L.A. and bought an old VW sports car and went all around the California high desert—Joshua Tree, Wonder Valley—and then headed back to the East Coast.
But we were going to all these vintage stores in our small sports car, and the question was, what are we going to do with all this stuff? So we started shopping on a very specific theme, as if it were our own collection, with the idea of looking back to the past to depict an era and a time when things were made in America and made well.
We curated based on this theme of the high desert during the summer of 1976, the bicentennial, and tied in other feelings of what was happening then, during this time of economic crisis, the gas crisis, and also a time of renewed American patriotism with the bicentennial and a lot of cultural things happening around that. We tied it to current times in the winter of ’09 when similarly there was an economic recession but a renewed feeling of patriotism with Obama recently taking office.
So we took that style point of view and brought it back to New York City, where we opened a pop-up shop at Billy Reid. It was a mix of things we found on the road—vintage items, art objects, framed old bandanas, great old American flags, sun-faded stuff from the thrift stores of Wonder Valley—and we made this moment.
A guy from Levi’s saw the pop-up and asked me to do a similar road trip project for them from Portland, Maine, to San Francisco. The theme that time was “Stars and Stripes.” It was a physical representation of their “Go Forth” campaign, installed at the San Francisco Levi’s store in Union Square. And again, it was a mix of vintage clothes, art objects, ephemera, all connected to the ways different subcultures have adapted the design of the American flag.
Eventually I came on full-time and started to work with a concept team at Levi’s. And that role has evolved over the past couple of years, but essentially it’s two parts. I work with a small team, four of us, who travel and make these seasonal stories that we seed out to the whole company to inspire and provide aesthetic and presentational direction for how each season will look. We go out and meet craftspeople and artists and whatever the scene may be for that season, we create a story around that. We build what we call rigs with a mix of samples and art, prototypes we make, ideas for color.
The other part of my job is a program called “Made Here” where I find people who are making things, small operation craft-made goods, to celebrate what they do and sell their stuff in our four best U.S. stores. A lot of the old things we find or collect are rooted in vintage textiles and vintage garments, some of which are denim, some of which aren’t. We look to those to get inspired.
Collectors Weekly: What was the thematic storyline for this past season?
Carroll: The broader storylines were centered around the idea of “tailored and refined.” We went to different oceanic, craft-based regions like Maine and Ireland and Scotland, not so much for the maritime aesthetic, but more to look at how historically people have communicated through the ocean and how processes were similar or different for making functional things around the ocean, and also what’s still being made there today. We look to those regions for color palette and denim washes and things like that.
Collectors Weekly: Do you ever work with the Levi’s archive?
Carroll: Yes, for any given season we’ll go down and hang out with Lynn [Downey] and look through the historical collection because there’s so much to pull from and it’s always a surprise what we find. The first thing Lynn usually shows us is the oldest jean in the collection. It’s always inspiring to handle with gloves and get a little history lesson. But there’s a whole world of interesting things that Levi’s has made over the years, from sportswear to hunt wear to work wear to white Levi’s to a bunch of crazy garments trying to appeal to the current day. I’ve been at it for years and I feel like I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg as far as what’s down there.
Collectors Weekly: Why does Levi’s play up this history so much?
Carroll: Because we’ve got it. It’s the reason I came to work here: I didn’t intend to work for such a big clothing company. I’m attached personally to this brand because I grew up with it. There’s this instinctual nostalgia that appeals to me and so many people because it’s embedded in our culture. Also, in the past couple of years, there’s been this wider resurgence of interest in traditional American culture and craft.
Collectors Weekly: Why do you think we’re witnessing a return to well-made clothing, particularly based on workwear or outdoor gear?
Carroll: I think because again it’s looking back to a time, historically, when America made things really well and made them to last. I think, in the past 20 years, that had mostly disappeared with the way competition and other economic pressures led to increased outsourcing. Now, given labor costs, something made in the U.S. is going to be more expensive. But we can understand the real value of these products by looking at how they are made, what they’re made from, how they hold up, and the other factors that make them unique.
Collectors Weekly: Do you collect anything personally?
Carroll: Yes. Growing up where I did, I have a big affinity for maritime antiques, from scrimshaw to old anchors to oil paintings of the sea. But when I left Maine, I wanted a fresh start and so I moved to California with a clean palette, if you will. In the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the world more than before, and wherever I go I bring home a few things from that culture.
I recently got this great rug in Marrakech, and it looks like a bunch of Berber tattoos. It’s this wonderful faded blue color, and was the best thing I could take home. When I went to India, we saw these people that make indigo and use these cheap pots that are made for carrying water. But they had gotten all banged up and had turned these beautiful shades of blue. They were some of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen, but they were just these simple, cheap tin buckets. I brought one of those home, and it’s one of my favorite things.
A couple of years ago, I went down to Alabama for a project and I got to meet the folk artist Butch Anthony. I bought three pieces by him, one of which is in my kitchen. He calls them potheads but he basically makes a face out of a big pan. I also buy a lot of textiles.
Collectors Weekly: Does this affinity for textiles come from somewhere specific?
Carroll: Well, working with clothing companies definitely keeps my interest there, especially with regard to how things are woven or stitched or embroidered or made. Also, my mom does interiors, so fabric was always all around me. Growing up she had her own office in the house with a thousand swatch books for different fabrics. So I think even if it wasn’t something I obsessed over then, it was always present.
In the past year, I’ve been to every market in the universe from the medinas of Marakech to the indigo factories of Japan to the grand bazaar in Istanbul and the market of Jaipur in India, and they all start to seem like they’re the same, but slightly different. Like the rug markets, the way they present everything, the way that they bring you their culture’s version of tea, the way they start throwing stuff on the floor, it’s like, “Where are we again?”
About a year ago, we went on a road trip through India for Levi’s. And at one point in Rajasthan we went to the Calico Museum and got this funny tour from the woman who runs the place who kind of hustled us along. Probably the most impactful object was this white, two-toned, hand-embroidered tapestry hanging on one wall. Our guide went around back and turned on a light that shone through the fabric, and you could see that there were years of work done there. Every square inch was a different story on some piece of history. It was mind-blowing. It brought people to tears, it was so good.
Collectors Weekly: How does the “Made Here” project work?
Carroll: While I’m traveling for the concept trips, I’ll research and meet with people that make small operation craft-made goods, like Colt and Logan of Cobra Rock Boots, or Tim Whitten in Maine who does jewelry with beach stones, or a Maura Ambrose in Austin who makes Gee’s Bend-inspired modernist quilts, all one of a kind and hand-stitched. Lots of bag makers, people who make belts, or just kids in their garage in Portland, Oregon who want to make things well.
Their products are then sold in what we call “neighborhood stores.” There’s one here in our plaza in San Francisco, but we also have one in Malibu, one in New York City in the Meatpacking District, and one on Newbury Street in Boston. We’re also expanding the program globally, and actually this week the first store with “Made Here” products opens in Japan. Levi’s has given me the opportunity to work with these people and talk about what they do and sell their goods and support and sustain crafts.
It’s opened up that conversation about how things are produced and the time and thought and energy that goes into creating such a quality-made good. Showcasing locally made products also helps people understand what things are worth and why you might be paying 200 bucks for a jean but it’s going to last so much longer. Maybe you’ve heard that study that shopping at Wal-Mart can actually be more expensive because you end up buying the same thing nine times over? I think it’s about educating people on the quality and value of goods.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have a favorite item of denim clothing?
Carroll: One of my favorite pieces is this classic big-E trucker jacket that I have. It’s probably mid-’60s, beautifully worn down quality denim. It’s blanket lined. My friend Eric Schrader, who does Junkyard Jeans in Boise, Idaho, he’s a vintage dealer who also collects vintage embroidery machines and has a business doing one-off art on the back of jackets and jeans and different garments. He did a custom buffalo for me, and that’s probably my favorite.
Collectors Weekly: So why do you think everyone wears jeans today?
Carroll: I think one reason is simply because they’re a staple that has been around for so long people have this natural tie to it. I also love how each jean can seem the same but be slightly different: If you take 10 pairs of jeans and give them to 10 different people to wear, they will become 10 different things. It’s the inherent nature of the cloth. The way it breaks down is unlike any other fabric; it’s really special. If I had to guess the psychological reason why people have such a tie to this fabric, it’s that denim is so unique in the way it changes and becomes your second skin.