It’s nice to see something come together from the start. A few years ago I got to look at the brand new Levi’s Made & Crafted collection and I’ve been a fan ever since. It was then that I met its design lead Miles Johnson, one of the most talented and knowledge people I have had the pleasure of knowing the in business of clothing. Over the past several seasons Levi’s Made & Crafted has come to represent the perfect marriage of the history of Levi’s and modern style. The collection is rich with interesting details, special fabrics and historical Levi’s influences that play out in often unexpected ways. As menswear has evolved over recent years, Levi’s Made & Crafted has come to embody everything good about what a modern clothing label should be: it’s authentic, has a strong point of view and it nicely considers both the old and the new.
While in Amsterdam this summer, I spent some time with Miles to talk about where Levi’s Made & Crafted comes from, and where it is going.
ACL: How long have you worked for Levi’s in general?
Miles Johnson: 13 years.
ACL: And where did you grow up?
MJ: In England, in the Midlands.
ACL: Were you always interested in denim? Was it always a thing for you, or no?
MJ: I grew up in denim…we wore all denim. I think I had my first pair of Levi’s when I was about seven years old and they were possibly Orange Tab. I didn’t really come across denim until I went back to school to study fashion when I was about 28 and I had worked in costume so I had to know the periods in costume and learn to break down clothes, and that’s where my interest in the manipulation of clothing (and I liked clothing) came from. I learned about how to distress and age pieces that we made specially for principle actors. So that is when I really got into denim.
ACL: With the name “Made & Crafted,” that obviously puts the emphasis on how the clothes are made. Does that inform everything that happens with the collection…about the details in collection?
MJ: We started off by wanting to call the collection “Levi’s Make,” because it was one of the labels that we used in the twenties. And then we moved on to “Levi’s Made.” And the reason why we wanted to just stick with that was “Make” was a name that symbolized quality. Because quality never goes out of style. And so anything that had to do with Levi’s, the quality was always associated. And then, the word “crafted” was being used quite a lot at that time around our design offices — so we just put the words together.
ACL: So what are some of the details that go into the product that make it unique for what it is?
MJ: Well much of what we have within the line based on the 140 years of garment construction we have at Levi’s. So we will look back before entrusting Levi’s details and constructions that we can re-appropriate and modernize for the Made & Crafted line. That’s where we were lucky, because we’re very rich in history of garment construction. We’ve got a lot to choose from.
ACL: Just from knowing the collection myself, I know that there’s a lot of very nice fabrics – fabric seems to get a lot of consideration and it’s a big factor in the collection. There is a lot of construction detailing that seems to go above and beyond any other collection that the company makes too. It seems like there’s a lot of emphasis on making a better garment. When you buy a piece from Made & Crafted, it’s held to a higher standard almost. Is that something you guys think about?
MJ: Yeah, constantly. It’s quite an obsession. We did go to great lengths to make sure that we’ve got as much exclusivity on fabrics that we use. And I’m thinking…on a category like shirting for instance, it’s quite important for us to try and develop our own interesting fabrics. And we try and do some interesting combinations of compositions of fabric, so that’s using different kinds of yarns to get different kinds of feels. And then the fits are obviously different, so they were considered different fabrics with different fittings, and garments as well. We’re very comfort driven — people like “soft.” People like something that feels good next to their skin. So we’ll try and push towards that direction more than something harsh or itchy or scratchy or stiff.
ACL: It’s very much like that modern interpretation of a collection, where you want a certain aesthetic, but then you want modern…it’s like having a car. You want the best of both worlds, in a sense, right? You want a certain way, but you want all the functionality. Sort of like how vintage cars are great, but they don’t have keyless entry…you know?
MJ: Well and you always have to be very careful, because obviously like LVC does a very good job at doing the best of our history in so many ways. So if you take something simple like a trucker jacket, a type III jacket, which has been a symbol for a Levi’s top since 1967, if you’re going to do that in Levi’s Made & Crafted, how are you going to do it? So I don’t know, we would be thinking: nylon might be interesting for making a trucker jacket. And then instantly, you’ve got something extremely modern. Or, what you could do, is look at a very basic denim shirting but you’re going to do it with a style very kind of more unusual to the Levi’s image. You have to try to find sort of a pin point where it finds some balance between the two.
ACL: Yeah, Made & Crafted seems like a collection that understands history – and its like knowing the rules of style and so you can break them. It’s like understanding where Levi’s came from, but also be comfortable enough to play around with that.
MJ: Yeah exactly. But I think the most confident thing that we do, is that we have full understanding of the Levi’s identity because Levi’s has such a strong identity and that is in our heads all the time. And we love that. So whatever you do for any part of the Levi’s business, whether it’s Red Tab or Levi’s Made & Crafted or Levi’s Red, it’s important that there’s familiarity and a strong association to the brand that you know so well.
ACL: What would you say, if you were to explain to someone that didn’t know the difference between the three brands? What would you say or between Levi’s in general, LVC, and Levi’s Made & Crafted? How does Made & Crafted differentiate itself?
MJ: LVC is catered to quite a purist consumer – people who are knowledgeable about the history of the brand. And Red Tab is the part of the business that is for everybody – it’s very accessible, and easy and it’s very straightforward. Levi’s Made & Crafted might challenge some of the preconceptions to what Levi’s is capable of doing. and I’m not going to say that the Levi’s Made & Crafted quality is so much more superior than anything else that we do, because that’s not necessarily the case, but it’s having an opportunity to do something that is pushing the limits slightly more and pushing things to stand out a little bit, and perhaps a bit extra attention to detail.
ACL: I think to your point about Levi’s Made & Crafted, it says something that your design team is based in Amsterdam. It says that they want you to have some freedom to play around and express Levi’s in a different way…
MJ: It’s great. I mean it doesn’t really matter where you are in the world, I think, because we know Levi’s. We love Levi’s. We’re very proud to be part of a big American company and we travel all the time. I mean I spend most of my time in Amsterdam, but I spend a hell of a lot of my time in the U.S. and also in Japan, because we work so much with those markets too. So we’re an international business that happens to be separate from San Francisco. But, what we have is a very close relationship to our contractors and there’s a lot familiar because they specialize in a good level of quality that we need, especially for Levi’s Made & Crafted.
ACL: What is the significance of the tab on the back of the Levi’s Made & Crafted jeans, navy?
MJ: Indigo. We just picked an indigo shade. We were looking at some old classic Levi’s Indigo shades and we just found one that was in between and we just decided we were going to give its tab color. And you see it throughout.
ACL: That’s a big way of differentiating collections…
MJ: Yeah – there’s a concealed arcuate in the Levi’s Made & Crafted garments but you don’t see them.
ACL: It’s hidden…
MJ: …and it reveals itself.
ACL: …and it wears through and you see it…
MJ: So in LVC you’ve got those red tabs, orange tabs, and the white tabs. But in Levi’s Made & Crafted, you’ve got that blue tab.
ACL: …And it was something you found in the archives that you referenced earlier?
MJ: There was a blue tab used in the 1970′s…and it looked a bit different than this one. It was a brighter blue, and the letters were a bit bigger. So we kept it neat, and a bit smaller in the classic typeface. But it’s a nice quality. Doesn’t stand out a lot too much.
ACL: Yeah I like the navy a lot. It’s subtle, not jarring in a way. And when you think about premium, better clothes, you don’t think of them as being overly branded.
MJ: But especially on women’s as well; when you put anything on a woman’s butt, and it gets sensitive. So you go for a blue on blue, and it’s easy.
ACL: It’s kind of great, because for me, I want the branding for Levi’s. I actually think about the tags in the garment that I wear because I know that in the shirt, is the tag of the brand that I like and it means something more to me…in a weird way. So I would want the jeans to be branded because I like the brand. But it’s also a subtle way to approach that. It’s well thought out.
ACL: You talked about being an American company, being international, being based internationally but traveling and being part of a big American company. There is a part of the collection that is made in the U.S. — a certain segment of it. What does that mean to the brand?
MJ: A great deal, and we’d like it to be a lot bigger. We’ll produce as much as we possibly can in the U.S. because it’s really important that they are made where they were made originally. Of course we’ve got the capability of taking our patterns and our American fabrics to other parts of the world to have the garments made. And sometimes, you know, that makes a lot of sense. And it’s a logistical thing. But, our American made product is something that we’re extremely proud of. So when we talk about a line, we talk about that product first.
ACL: One more question: I see Made & Crafted as more of a collection, rather than a line of jeans. Is that how you approach each season? Do you think of it as a collection? Because historically, Levi’s has been famous for its jeans and the trucker jacket, and the Type II jacket…
MJ: I think we will always be more famous for our jeans and it’s why people come to the brand in the first place. But we do think about the collection…
ACL: Levi’s Made & Crafted specifically?
MJ: …yes..well for everything. It’s a given of course, and we’re always going to have those jeans. And we’re building a reputation and standing behind, you know, with the men’s we have five bottom’s fits. And women’s we have five also. So the tops are the part of the collection which we’ll change seasonally, and the bottoms will stay. But the finishes and fabrics will change. But of course, our priority is our denim, because that’s our responsibility and our duty, really, to the market and to the consumer – they want the jeans.
ACL: Yeah, there are several pieces in the collection that have become the new classics – like the one pocket shirt – you know, Levi’s Made & Crafted is forming this really strong group of core products that come back every season. And they get played with.
MJ: That just takes a lot longer though, of course you know. We’ve got so much history in denim and five pocket jeans and, and if you want a reputation in something else, you’ve got to stay really short-footed and stick behind what you really believe. And even if it starts out by not selling that well, go on believing in it because you’re not going to get reputation in something if you just are affected by the lack of sales. So if it’s a good product and you really believe in it, and it’s a right kind of product that’s right for Levi’s, then you just need to go on with it.
ACL: That’s great, cool. Thank you for your time.
Top portrait photo of Miles Johnson by Gabe Sullivan. All other photos courtesy of Levi’s Made & Crafted.