As it turns out, like your late night Saturday plans, some of Levi’s most high-profile recent business initiatives go down in the DM. Take, for instance, the denim giant's Spring 2017 collaboration with designer-of-the-moment Gosha Rubchinskiy. “The collaboration came about quite unexpectedly, through an Instagram message sent by one of my colleagues,” Levi’s head of design Jonathan Cheung tells Complex. “Gosha gave us a thumbs up emoji, and it started from there.”
In taking that informal stance, it helps, of course, that Levi’s is one of the most recognizable brands in the world, with tens of thousands of employees, billions of dollars in revenue, and a proven track record of wildly successful fashion partnerships. It’s frankly surprising that Rubchinskiy had the restraint to respond with only a thumbs up emoji, and not a string of prayer hands, crying smiley faces, and an eggplant. Not only is there, as Off-White designer Virgil Abloh told us about his collaboration with Levi’s this season, “no better luxury than working with the best,” but a co-sign from the denim masters vaults you into elevated company. In the latter part of 2016 alone, Levi’s unveiled collaborations with a powerhouse highlights reel of cool: Rubchinsky and Off-White, and also Supreme and Vetements.
“It feels great that the vanguard of fashion design has embraced Levi’s, and we’re getting a buzz out of seeing our jeans on the catwalks,” Cheung says. “There’s this quote from David Bowie that goes, ‘If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just at the right place to do something exciting.’ I think we can say we succeeded.”
Here, Cheung gives us some behind-the-scenes details on Levi’s most recent work with Rubchinskiy, Supreme, and Vetements. For more on Levi’s project with Off-White and Virgil Abloh, see our Fall 2016 collaboration round-up.
Demna Gvasalia of Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy both share some of the same creative partners. Is that how these collaborations came about in the same timeframe?
We definitely couldn’t have anticipated that these two collaborations would happen within a month of each other, so there's an element of coincidence. Creativity is like that. Like the origins of our collaboration with Virgil, both of these partnerships came about just from being curious. We felt like we had a link to Gosha, ever since he shot photos of our Winter 2015 collaboration with Supreme. With Vetements, Bart Sights, our Vice President of Technical Innovation for LS&Co and denim Yoda, sent me a note last summer, saying, “We should work with these guys." As it turns out, Vetements had been trying to contact us with the same thought in mind.
Let's talk about Gosha first. At first glance, the Levi's denim looks fairly straightforward, especially when compared to Vetements. What special features or unique details mark the collaboration?
Yes, our work with Gosha is relatively simple. He’s taken our 505 jean and Trucker Jacket and put them in corduroy. Four strong colors, with a black Gosha x Levi’s label and tonal Cyrillic embroidery.
Many of Gosha's designs reference '80s and '90s Russia, when the U.S. and Russia were in very different places, culturally. How does the all-American aesthetic of Levi's mesh with Gosha's specific frame of reference?
Levi’s just seems to work with pretty much everything. Even this season when Gosha’s influence was Italian 80’s sportswear, Levi’s managed to be the non-Italian collaboration and still work.
Moving on to Vetements, how did the collaborative process with Demna and his team work?
Demna gave us a shopping list of jeans, shirts, and jackets, which we compiled and sent to Paris for him to play around with. Then it was emails, sketches and a lot texts with his brother, Guram.
Was there anything about the Vetements design process that was new to you?
What was new was their mindset. The approach Demna and Guram have to their business—changing the calendar, the multiple collaborations, Guram’s business strategy. They’re not bound by the status quo, so they are really changing things. You can feel the new generation rising, and we love that.
Supreme and Levi's have been prolific collaborators. How do you manage to keep the partnership feeling fresh?
Supreme—along with Junya Watanabe—have been our longest collaborative partnership. I think the freshness comes from not doing too much, and not being afraid to push the envelope a bit with Supreme—like the animal prints and florals of recent seasons. In this case, scarcity, plus being different, equals fresh. Everyone has their own barometer of what’s cool, and Supreme are, well, supreme at that.
Do you ever feel like there could be a time when you might say, "OK, we've done it all. No more collaborations?"
It’s been quite a year for us with collabs! But, the answer is nope. And there’s definitely more things in the pipeline. However, we are choosy about our collaborations and have to turn down offers all the time. Often we can’t do any more, even if we’d like to, simply because we don’t have the bandwidth. So right now, we’re very happy with the ones we have and would never think that we’ve done it all.
Related: Best Fashion Collabs of 2017