We speak to head designer of Levi’s Vintage, Paul O’Neill, about its psychedelic new Summer of Love collection
Levi’s is a brand known for its rich heritage. Since its inception in the 1800’s, the California based brand has adapted itself to a whole host of styles, whether it was 1950’s cut-off shorts or 1970’s bell-bottoms.
Dublin-born Paul O’Neill heads up the design team for Levi’s Vintage in San Francisco, where the brand has an archive that includes 20,000 pieces. This archive enables the team to recreate iconic pieces from decades-gone-by and offers up the opportunity for Levi’s-lovers to wear near-identical iconic re-creations from past collections.
The brand’s latest offering is a tribute to the Summer of Love – celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017. Expect bold prints and outlandish designs as this collection transports you back to San Fran festivals in the midst of summer; one of our favourite pieces is the Crazy Legs range, which sees fun, playful prints set against light-weight trousers.
We grabbed a moment with designer Paul O’Neill to talk about the psychedelic new collection.
Tell us about the aims of Levi’s Vintage.
We’re trying to do things as accurately as possible, we’re trying to use the same methods of manufacturing, the same printing methods, the same amount of stitches per inch on the garment, so we’re really trying to forge the pieces. This story is all about the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. We created this look book, which we do every six months and it’s about these three kids who are leaving small town Texas and hitchhiking across the country through the desert to get to San Francisco for the Summer of Love. It’s a nice story…
And how much influence do you have with the look book?
So I work with the photographer, he’s actually from London, he’s great and we meet up every six months and travel around to the location where we’re gonna shoot the look book and we street cast all the people, so we hang around bars, petrol stations or universities, whatever right? So there’s no models in any of the books, it’s all just people we find on the street. Then we go on set and I dress everyone and direct the shoots, the photographers.
Do you style every look yourself?
Yeah! So everything’s done with me and the photographer and we have another couple people but it’s a very small team and we do it all ourselves, there’s no big production.
Tell us a bit more about what you roler involves.
I’m the head designer for Levi’s Vintage Clothing; we have a very small team, it’s me and one other girl – my assistant – and that’s the only design people involved. The collection is around 100 pieces in total between men’s and women’s. Men’s makes up about 80 percent of the collection. My role is to come up with the concept for the collection, so this time the Summer of Love, and then to curate the pieces we want to reproduce in the collection and then to physically design and work with the product team we have to create the collection. So basically the concept right through to the photo-shoot, ’cause then I’m also casting the models for the shoot, coming up with the creative ideas, how to display the collection, dressing the models, the sets. So it’s really from concept right through.
What’s it like working with a small team, do you find it productive?
I think it works really well. I mean, I worked in Amsterdam for six years with Levi’s Vintage Clothing before I moved to San Francisco and we had a slightly bigger team there, which worked really well, but now it’s just me, my colleague. It’s great to have the freedom to curate the whole collection myself.
You probably have a lot of artistic license?
Yeah definitely, which I think is really good, we’re telling great stories and there’s a lot of great history in Levi’s – we’ve been going since the 1850’s and producing garments since 1873 – so there’s nearly 150 years to work with so it’s great to have the freedom to pick what feels relevant at the time and what we wanna talk about.
“We’ve been going since the 1850’s and producing garments since 1873 – so there’s nearly 150 years to work with so it’s great to have the freedom to pick what feels relevant at the time and what we wanna talk about.”
Looking back on the collections, which one have you been most proud of?
I might pick a different one every day; I really liked Fall ’16, the artists collection, the 9th Street one, I feel that one was very strong. I like the one I’m working on now.
Can you tell why you decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary?
Yeah, so 2017 is going to be the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and San Francisco was right at the epicentre in 1967. Levi’s were based in San Francisco and were very much a big part of the Summer of Love, so I really wanted to talk about it, I think it’s really important for our brand to be involved in that.
So did you do a lot of research outside of the archive, around the Summer of Love more generally?
Yeah definitely, I mean this collection particularly is very close to me ’cause I’ve always been fascinated with this time period, so I’d kind of been doing the research for this since I was 15 years old, for about 25 years, so I was ready for it when it came around. I mean I’ve been holding back some of the products, I’ve had some of the products for over six years waiting for the right time to do it.
In regards to pieces like the Crazy Legs range, are you ever concerned that the styles you’re reproducing will have lost their relevance?
I think there’s certain things that people will like and certain people won’t and I think that’s always the case, but what we’re trying to pull out of the archive are things that feel relevant, that feel current. We’re not very focused on trends. I might see something in the archive, I might see it 20 times across eight years and I might ignore it all those times but one time it might be right for that moment so that’s when it’ll come out, that’s when we’ll make it. So it’s not like everything’s current all the time or everything feels right all the time, but some thing’s shine at certain times.
Can you tell us a bit more about the influences for this collection?
Yeah, so I think once you start looking at the Summer of Love, the first thing that comes to mind is the music. If you look through 1967 and think of all the records that were produced in 1967, you’ve got the first Velvet Underground record, you’ve got Sergeant Pepper’s, you’ve got the first Doors record, the first David Bowie record. I mean there’s so much happening in music at that time. Then you look at San Francisco and what’s happening there, then you look at what the guys, what the people in bands were wearing. Monterey Pop was one of the first big rock festivals and that was in Monterey, California which is close to San Francisco. All these kids came from all over the country to get to the city to be part of this movement and pretty much by the time they got there it was nearly over. That’s what kind of led us to the story [in the look-book] of these kids travelling across the dessert to get here, cause when you start reading books about it and you start digging deeper, you find out that a lot of these kids weren’t from San Francisco.
In terms of the archive, how do you go about selecting items?
I guess there were things that Levi’s was producing at that time, but even in the sixties, the kids then were wearing vintage. So in San Francisco they were wearing like vintage jackets and a lot of military stuff, so we looked into that and we looked into some slightly older Levi’s pieces that could have been relevant for the kids wearing vintage and I think that kind of started people wearing vintage clothes. They’re all dressed like Edwardian dandies and all sorts of stuff was going on. But once you find something like the Crazy Legs, which was produced in 1967, that’s kind of the epitome of the Summer of Love for me; it’s interesting to see that they’re still straight leg or slightly tapered. So Levi’s weren’t producing bellbottoms in 1967, they were more of a straight leg, but there were kids on the street creating their own bellbottoms and customising so we did that as well as part of the collection.
Tell us about reproducing the garments.
We really try to replicate the garment as close as possible to the archive garment, so I mean, if the garment is in the archive, the first thing I’ll do is have a pattern maker go in and they can copy the pattern. We want it to be identical, we don’t want to turn it into a modern piece, we wanna keep it as accurate as possible to the original piece. So the first thing we’ll do is take the pattern, we’ll study the fabric, I mean that’s why it’s great as well to be find pieces in markets and on the streets as well, I can send them off to be analysed. For example, we’ll take a pair of jeans from the 1800’s and we’ll take it to the denim manufacturer and we’ll sit with them and we’ll study the art and we’ll study how the cotton’s been twisted: we go into detail as much as we can. We’ll study the composition of the metal, we’ll count how many stitches are per inch on the different parts of the garment, we’ll do everything as close as we can.
Do you have a favourite piece from the archive, or one that especially fascinates you?
There were these jello spikes, I don’t know if you’ve seen them, we reproduced them in 2014. They were a series of really tapered, chino style pants in fluorescent colours, so there’s a fluorescent orange, yellow, green, and they were based, apparently, on jello. And these were produced in the 1950s which, for me, I found hard to believe – it was quite forward and seemed like something you might find today. It was interesting that Levi’s were doing this is in the 50’s, before any of this Summer of Love stuff.
Why do you think it’s important for Levi’s to explore its heritage?
I think we’ve got so much great history and the company’s been going since 1853 – it’s been very important for true design innovation, creating the first riveted jean – and I think that some of the jeans Levi’s has produced are a template for a lot of modern brands, so I think that’s very relevant. I also think that Levi’s are very culturally relevant, if you look at the history of the people that are wearing Levi’s, that’s why we’re so lucky, we can look at any part of time and we can pull a collection and we can find people that are wearing Levi’s, no matter if it’s the 1880’s or the 1960’s.
So going forward, what are your plans for Levi’s Vintage?
My main ambition would be to continue to find really rich stories to tell; I’m not sure if the aim for Levi’s Vintage Clothing is ever to be a huge producer, I think we’re happy with the size of the company and how it’s growing naturally, but I also think the most important thing for us is to keep the quality right, to keep the really rich storytelling, and to keep the brand feeling special,