FashioNZ exclusive: Two powerhouses, one transcript

Karen Walker in conversation with Levi’s global design director, Paul O’Neill

In 2023, Levi’s – arguably the most well-known fashion brand in the world – celebrates the 150th birthday of its most iconic design, the 501 jean. A milestone that speaks not only to the enduring appeal of the 501, but the marketing genius that has seen its cultural significance grow exponentially for one and a half centuries, the anniversary was marked at Levi’s’ San Francisco headquarters in May. 

In attendance was New Zealand’s foremost internationally-successful fashion designer, Karen Walker, who was invited to sit down with the design, innovation, business and history leaders at Levi’s over a five-day immersive experience, and dissect the moment from these multiple points of view.

Tasked with understanding what has made the brand so great, and what its future holds, she shares her conversation with Levi’s global design director Paul O’Neill, exclusively for FashioNZ.

Karen Walker talks with Levi’s global design director, Paul O’Neill, while seated in a studio.

Karen Walker: What’s your own push off point with denim?
Paul O’Neill: I’ve been fascinated with denim since I was a kid, and I’ve been collecting Levi’s jeans since I was 15 years old. When I joined the team in 2009, I was especially into Levi’s vintage clothing which was, luckily enough, what I got working on straight away. I knew a few small things about the 501 – like, look out for the back tabs when you’re trying to buy vintage – but getting in there and seeing the company’s support for this whole vintage arm of the business, and how they would create all these beautiful garments that celebrated the history of the 501, that just blew me away.

I never wanted to change the 501. I feel like the 501 is something that’s been perfected – I believe it’s been perfect since the late 1940s. So for me, it was all about being a guardian, protecting it and guiding it through to its next place. I just love it. I also think being around the 501 educates you as a designer. To have this garment that doesn’t really change, on a pedestal in the middle of this company that’s built around it, it’s a reminder that when the cake is baked, you leave it alone. It’s very hard in the fashion world where everyone wants to add something, right? They don’t want to give up. But me, I want to appreciate it. I mean, fashion can happen all around it, but the 501 should stay strong.  

KW: And you see that with the brand. The 501 is on a pedestal and it’s protected, but also played with.
P O’N: In the 1960s, Levi’s started to look into fashion. We had the orange tab line that was doing super skinny bell bottoms, like flares, but the 501 always remained the classic red tab and straight leg blue jean. I really respect the brand for that. For me, it’s always about building classic products. I’m not really interested in trends or what’s happening in fashion. At Levi’s we’ve got so much history and so much beautiful product to be inspired by and to look at…I love looking within, as opposed to looking outside. 

Karen Walker with Levis team member at a design table looking at and designing jeans

KW: So do you consider Levi’s a fashion product, or does that happen after it leaves the store?
P O’N: If we’re talking about Levi’s on the whole, there’s certainly fashion products in there. But if we’re talking about the 501, no, I don’t consider the 501 a fashion product and yes, I do believe that ‘fashion’ is something that happens when it leaves the store. And it’s how people interact with the 501 that makes it so interesting as well, because it’s the ultimate blank canvas. You can look back through history and see how the hippie movement in the ’60s inserted panels into their 501s to create flares; how the punks tapered and bleached it; how the hip-hop generation wore it oversized and stacked. And if you line all these people up, they look completely different, but they’re all wearing the 501. 

KW: It’s so democratic, isn’t it?
P O’N: It is. I mean, it’s for everybody, from the working man to the president and everyone in between. The archive’s amazing. I can look at the archive on my phone. I can be in there everyday if I want to and I know exactly what’s in there.  

KW: How many pieces are in the archive?
P O’N: I’m not sure. Thousands. 

KW: And it’s still being added to?
P O’N: Oh yeah, it’s still being added to. There’s an off-site location. There’s a lot of fantastic stuff in there. 

Karen Walker looks at a pair of jeans with a Levi's team member.

KW: So the archivists are out here scouring secondhand stores, buying things they think might be relevant to designers in years to come?
P O’N: Exactly, yes. And there are people who are contacting the archive, ‘Oh, I’ve got this, I found this jean, I think it’s an old jean.’ Or, ‘It’s my father’s’, and there’s lots of beautiful stories and we love to try and find these stories, because they just hammer home that the 501 is for everybody. You know, nobody else, no other brand has the 501.

KW: And you’re the custodian of it right now.
P O’N: Exactly. And that’s why we want to educate the next generation of designers to respect it, as they’ll be the next custodians.

KW: Levi’s has probably got more history than all of your competitors put together…
P O’N: We’ve certainly got a lot of history. I mean, 150 years is a long time. For one product as well, right?

KW: Do you deal with reproductions? There’s a movie being made about John Lennon and they want to reproduce his…whatever. Is that you?
P O’N: We have done things like that before. I manage Levi’s vintage clothing and we reproduce all the historical pieces from the brand dating from the 1870s, right up until today. So, I’ve reproduced Albert Einstein’s leather jacket from the 1930s. I got to study that, and remake that. 

KW: So the original is owned by the company?
P O’N: Yeah, so in 2016 or 2017, I believe Christies auction house in London announced that they had Albert Einstein’s leather jacket from the 1930s and it was a Levi’s leather jacket. Immediately our ears pricked up. I can remember sending an email directly to the president of the company, and to the archive saying we need to get this. So, our historian Tracey Panek flew to London, and luckily enough she won the auction. As soon as the jacket got back to headquarters we reproduced it. When it was auctioned off, they mentioned that it still had the scent of tobacco from Einstein’s pipe smoke, and sure enough, when it arrived you could still smell this kind of musty tobacco on the fabric. Amazing.  

Karen Walker hand dyes Levi’s jeans with a team member.

KW: What was your first pair of Levi’s? Saved up your milk run, or paper run money?
P O’N: I was 12 years old. I can remember going into the store. I can still visualise the jeans on the rack. I had a friend who lived up the street from me called Barry Ryan, and his parents always wore 501s, and they always had real Coca-Cola in their house. Whereas I had, like…I don’t know what jeans I had. So, I always thought 501s were really cool. I remember Barry, we were good friends, and we were going to shows together. Even when we were 12, we were going to these, like, trash metal shows in Dublin, and I can remember asking my mum, could I go into town with Barry and get 501s. It was Christmas, and we used to get Christmas clothes in Dublin every year which was kind of fun. So I went in with Barry, to Arnott’s department store in the city and we both got a pair. I actually have a photo of us standing in my front room in our 501s. Twelve years old and wearing them with some heavy metal T-shirt or other, and a black leather jacket. 

KW: And then there was no going back.
P O’N: I think once you start to wear 501s, well, at least for me, once I discovered them I didn’t really care about anything else. They were the jeans I liked. My dad had given me his record collection when I was 12 years old – ’60s stuff – and they were all wearing denim and flight jackets or corduroy blazers. That whole kind of ’60s look which always fascinated me when I was a kid. Me and my friend would head off trying to find 501s and vintage cord jackets, and we’d be strolling around in suede flares while all the other kids would be wearing rubber jackets and going to raves. Life was just beginning, you know?

What’s FashioNZ’s take on Karen Walker’s latest jewellery collection, Girl With a Pearl? Find out here.