One of my life's biggest sartorial dilemmas (and one I don't think I'm alone in) has been my desire for perfect vintage Levi's but lack of patience/energy to go to flea markets at 5 a.m. and rifle through smelly racks every weekend to search for them. Finding the size, cut, wash and level of distressing you want can feel like an impossible task, which is why companies like Re/done, Reformation, Denim Refinery and many vintage boutiques have found success with up-cycling and re-tailoring or curating vintage denim (and selling it at a very high markup).
For a while, as denim trends shifted from stretchy, skinny styles to the vintage 501/"mom jean" look, Levi's wasn't able to fully cash in on the popularity of its vintage styles because the company wasn't selling them. Today, however, reissued and vintage-inspired pieces like 501s and Wedgies — and even authentic vintage pieces — make up a significant portion of its offering. And now, the brand is doing more than just playing catch up: It's making it possible to create vintage-looking denim to one's more-or-less exact specifications in about an hour.
While the process won't be available to consumers until next spring, on Monday, Levi's opened the first public-facing iteration of its Customization Studio to media and influencers in Downtown Los Angeles; last Friday, I was invited to be one of the first people to try it. Bart Sights, vice president of technical innovation at Levi's Eureka Lab — a R&D space in San Francisco — began by showing me a pair of Levi's from 1971, next to a brand-new pair made in the Customization Studio (pictured above). They looked identical.
The new pair were designed using Project F.L.X., a technology that turns distressing patterns into digital files and programs lasers to place them on denim in a matter of seconds. "A couple years ago, we started to realize we could use laser technology in ways that it hadn’t been used before and completely get away from all the manual applications and a lot of the chemistry that was involved in creating finishes like this," explained Sights. Distressing a pair of jeans manually is a pretty difficult process involving sanding and spraying chemicals that is both laborious and not-so-great for the environment. By capturing vintage wear patterns, like the one on the jeans from 1971 on display, into digital files, Sights said, "We're able to unlock a whole different operating model."
At the production level, it means that Levi's can turn around new styles much more quickly by manufacturing the "bases" — raw denim jeans with no finishing — and doing all the finishing at the last minute based on what buyers ask for. A year and a half ago, the company built this capability into its Nevada distribution center. "We had this 'Oh, shit!' moment where we were like, we could do this anywhere: We could do it on a cruise ship, we could do it in a parking lot, because it's super self-contained. You take a base, you mark it with a laser, you wash it for 52 minutes, dry it, and it's done."
The Project F.L.X. technology also has noteworthy implications for sustainability: Through the app, Levi's can render images of new jean styles to exact specifications without actually producing them, and the significant reduction in chemicals used means a significantly smaller environmental impact.
Laser devices and washing machines like the ones used in the Customization Studio are usually only found in massive, industrial, dingy denim "laundries" (kind of like this one), so it was interesting to see how Levi's cleaned up that experience. The Customization Studio was basically set up from scratch in the middle of a parking lot; it had an outdoor hangout area filled with cacti and light wood finishings, surrounded by narrow little rooms designated for design, lasering and washing.
In the design room, with Sights, I designed my ideal jeans using an iPad app: First, I selected an authentic-looking wear pattern from several options, then I chose from a number of hole and rip shapes and sizes which I could place wherever I wanted using my finger, and then I determined the level of tint I wanted. My finished design was immediately sent to the adjacent laser room, where I watched as my specifications were entered into a computer and then lasered directly onto my jeans right in front of me. Again, it took only a few seconds, and is almost impossible to describe, but check out the mesmerizing video below.
After that, they were washed (using recycled water to reduce waste), dried and sent to my apartment. I now have a new favorite pair of jeans.
From now through Oct. 10, the Customization Studio is open for invite-only appointments, similar to the brand's Levi's Haus in West Hollywood, where it holds fitting and gifting appointments with celebrities, musicians and influencers, as well as events. To incorporate consumers into the mix, Levi's is holding giveaways of custom designs by Karla Welch, Victor Cruz, Kelly Slater and more every week starting on Thursday, Aug. 16.
It likely won't be easy or cheap to replicate the experience in stores, but the brand confirms it's happening sometime in spring of 2019, and the Customization Studio proves that it's feasible. For Levi's and Sights, this is the future of denim customization — a follow up to the brand's Tailor Shops, which can be found in a number of its stores as well as Nordstrom's new men's store in New York, and offer personalization services like alterations, pins, patches, chain stitching, heat press, and air brushing.
For customers who don't want those bells and whistles, but want something authentic-looking to their exact specifications, or something totally one-of-a-kind, the Customization Studio is a pretty exciting idea. For Levi's, scaling it in a way that makes it accessible and affordable to consumers will be an interesting challenge to observe come spring.