Meet Jonathan Cheung

Creating the Future: Inside Levi’s® Design

Waist overalls, the original name for blue jeans, were patented by Levi Strauss & Co. in 1873. The tough riveted work pants stood up to hard wear and the blue denim hid dirt and other stains.  Fast-forward 145 years, and the blue jean is arguably the most culturally relevant piece of clothing in modern times. Levi’s® is having a moment—100% cotton, button fly jeans and washed down denim Trucker jackets are cool (again). It wasn’t always this way; nostalgia for the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s has propelled staple denim forward on a trajectory that was unfathomable ten years ago. Once loved almost exclusively by the denim head and lifelong consumer, Levi’s® is finding itself in the center of culture and has made their way back into the closets of thousands of fans.

 

How does a brand, older than eighteen US states, stick around and continue to remain relevant? Jonathan Cheung, SVP of Levi’s® Design and a firm believer in Darwinian evolutionary principals, says, “You have to have the mentality that you must adapt, and that staying still, even if you’re successful, will lead to irrelevance and eventually a decline. Hubris and complacency are your worst enemies. It’s not the strongest, or even the most intelligent that survive, but the ones that are most adaptable to change. Our history, and our flagship product, the Levi’s® 501®, is an example of that. It has changed in its design, probably upwards of thirty times in its lifetime… but also in its end use. Its actual purpose has changed from being a pure, blue collar working overall, something that was meant to be worn over your existing pants, to a fashion item that transcends age, gender, and social status. It’s that adaptability that’s allowed the 501® to thrive. But, we mustn’t rest on that, and we must continue to innovate and create the future.”

 

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.

These are loaded words, but those the company continues to act upon. In the world of fashion, trends can be a brand’s worst enemy or it’s most positive catalyst. Beauty is desired, cultivated, and traded across all cultures and people, and documents who we are as a species. Brands must meet, match, and anticipate the needs of the consumer who wants to express their own version of beauty. To create a great product and remain relevant is not taken lightly, and in order to update, reinvent, and repurpose the most classic denim silhouette, the best talent must be tapped and inspiration taken from everywhere.

 

Cheung, who loves cultivating creative minds almost as much as he loves denim, quoted Ed Catmull, the current president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, while discussing the future of Levi’s®. If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.” The evolution of the 501® into multiple silhouettes is an example of the power of strong minds put to the task of keeping a 164-year-old pant relevant in a market inundated with denim.

 

While no one can truly see what is coming, the mantra when planning every new season at Levi’s® is clear: the best way to predict the future is to create it.

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