Jonathan Cheung bears a strong heritage as the Head of Global Design for Levi’s – which he has done successfully for a decade. We talked about what Denim means to him personally, unisex clothing, the approach to the Levi’s Engineered Jeans and why he loves spending his work breaks in the archives.
Interview: The classic Levi’s styles like the 501 have been adapted numerous times over the years. How do you ensure that the new adaptation doesn’t stray too far from the original look and feel?
Jonathan Cheung: You have to keep some recognizable DNA in the new designs. There’s a special kind of magic when you put something familiar with something new. It often works better than if you make something 100% new, as the familiar DNA gives some kind of soul that you can hold onto. For the 501, it’s so iconic, so there’s lots of DNA to play with – the pockets, the back patch label, and the red tab. But I think the thing that’s subliminal, almost unconsciously special is the fabric. 501 uses a special type of denim and it gives the jeans that authentic, ‘for real’ look.
Interview: You once said, that the best way of predicting the future is to create it. Where do you soak up inspiration in order to be state of the art?
JC: I borrowed that quote from the business philosopher, Peter Drucker! Inspiration comes from being very curious and open minded. Both those things make you seek out new experiences and new ways of looking at the world which then you can apply in the context of your work. I think travel and reading (which is really mind traveling) are the best sources of inspiration, so I try and do both as much as possible. The other important thing is to seek out interesting people and spend time observing them and listening to them. Especially youth, as they are the best signals of culture change. I’m lucky to have a team of inspiring people all around me.
Interview: Do you spend much time in the Levi’s archives during the design process?
– what can you find there?
JC: I’m always popping into our archives. It’s an amazing resource for all our design team. Sometimes we go looking for stories, sometimes for inspiration for graphics or label artwork. There’s so much. Often it is just good to go with no set idea of what to look for and just look through old catalogs. I believe in taking ‘random walks’ because it’s a good way to create inspirational lucky breaks. For example, spending 20 minutes in the archive means at the very worst case, I can lose 20 minutes of my day, but the chances of stumbling across a good idea, or an epiphany, is pretty high.
Interview: Denim has played a vital part within your whole career as a designer. What does the fabric mean to you? Why did you turn to become a specialist in this certain sector?
JC: I love denim. I love its history and its place in culture. I think if you find a job that has meaning, then you’re very lucky and denim is more than a job for me. I don’t know if I’m a denim specialist though, as I’m always trying to learn all aspects of my profession – from economics to behavioral psychology.
Interview: If you weren’t a designer. What would you have become?
JC: A writer? A chef? Something creative. I loved biology at school, so maybe something to do with biology and exercise, as I’m fascinated by the human body. However, if not a fashion designer, then it’s much more likely that I’d be some other type of designer – industrial design, architecture – I’m not sure, and who knows what the future might bring!
Interview: How did your British educational background help you succeed in design globally?
JC: The first, most obvious thing that a British education gave me was the English language (Cantonese is my mother language, and the language I would use talking to my parents). English gave me so much access to knowledge and culture through books, music and film, as well as being a global language that helps you communicate internationally. Learning different languages and cultures is so useful for a designer because it helps you understand human nature and different societies. With more understanding, you can design better things. I wish I could speak more languages! Britain has an excellent education system and its design schools are amongst the very best in the world. Kingston, the fashion school I attended, set very high standards and made me mentally tough and hard working. The foundational process of design thinking – research, putting the ideas together, prototyping and getting feedback – are the first principals I still use every day.
Interview: You are responsible for both, men’s and women’s wear. What comes to you more naturally?
JC: I trained as a women’s wear designer and spent the first half of my career mainly designing women’s fashion. So I think I have an inbuilt ‘muscle’ for women’s clothing. It’s just a natural reaction, a reflex, to pay attention to women’s fashion. The design team at Levi’s is full of very strong women’s wear designers so there’s no shortage of ideas – quite the opposite. Menswear does come naturally though, particularly as I started to design menswear around a decade ago.
Interview: Gender in design has been a big topic. How did a unisex approach influence Levi’s latest work?- Were the silhouettes more male/feminine a couple of years ago still?
JC: We are lucky that much of the Levi’s product has been worn in a unisex way. Our 501 and Trucker jackets – the absolute core of the Levi’s identity – are essentially unisex. You see women wear vintage Levi’s, the jeans and the Truckers, all the time and they are almost always originally ‘Men’s Levi’s’. As gender fluidity is becoming a part of the regular culture, that we have many products in our mainline are being considered as gender neutral. I think, especially with the rise of social media, people are becoming more and more confident to express their identities. So there’s confidence for people to pick whatever they want and wear it however they want. That’s great.
Interview: How would you describe the evolution of Levi’s Engineered Jeans since they were first introduced in 1999?
JC: When we were working on LEJ, we wanted to keep the spirit, the philosophy of the original, but we didn’t want just to make a copy of the past, but to move forward. So the two main ingredients we have updated are the fabrics and the fits. Firstly the denim : we are using a modern, 2-way stretch denim that gives comfort and movement. This denim was not available in 1999. Secondly, we updated the fits. We have a range of fits for men, from a baggy taper to slim taper and for women a wide leg culotte style and slouchy taper. We also added a red patch as a nod to the Levi’s RED collection, which was the sibling of LEJ. Then on top of all that, we’ve introduced a new generation of LEJ – in Engineered 3D knit. I think the original LEJ was an exploration into what a future pair of jeans might looks like. The 3D knit continues that line of questioning – It’s an exploration of a different way to make jeans.
Interview: Does the concept ‘Freedom To Move’ behind Levi’s Engineered Jeans mean more to you than just the description of a fit?
JC: Yes it’s more of a principal or design philosophy than just a fit. With the ‘Freedom to move’ principal in mind, we wanted to design versatile, comfortable clothing – which resulted in the 2-way stretch, and when extending that thinking further, we applied it to our Engineered Knit.
Find more information on the Levi’s Engineered Jeans here.
Interview JULIA DEUTSCH