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146 years and counting: life at Levi’s

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Paul O’Neill, head designer for Levi’s Vintage Clothing, takes us through his life working for the denim giant.

Paul O’Neill, head designer for Levi’s Vintage Clothing

Paul O’Neill, head designer for Levi’s Vintage Clothing

Levi’s is a denim force to be reckoned with. With 146 years of history behind the brand, the Levi’s Vintage Clothing division celebrates the history of the brand by reviving cuts and styles from bygone collections.

For autumn 19, the brand launched two limited-edition pieces made from six different selvedge denim fabrics, recreations of fabrics used in iconic denim styles including the 1955 501 jeans and the 1953 Type II Trucker jacket. The collection celebrates Levi’s longstanding partnership with the Cone Mills fabric manufacturer in North Carolina in the US.

Head designer for Levi’s Vintage Clothing Paul O’Neill talks us through his life at Levi’s and his love for its rich heritage.

What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?

Pass my two-year-old son a bottle of warm milk and put some coffee on.

What was your first job?

When I finished university [at Manchester Metropolitan University, graduating in 2001] I got a job making patterns for a goth brand in Manchester producing velvet capes and corsets.

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How would you describe Levi’s Vintage Clothing in one sentence?

Levi’s Vintage Clothing is the heart and soul of the Levi’s brand and a platform to celebrate Levi’s place at the centre of culture for the last 146 years.

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What’s your coffee (or tea) order?

Black coffee at home, once a day.

Where are your favourite place to shop?

I love digging through the vintage stores in Koenji, Tokyo. It’s a fantastic area full of top vintage shops. Always treasures to be found.

Last fashion purchase?

I bought a beautiful hand-embroidered vest at a Creative Growth fashion show recently. Creative Growth is a non-profit art studio for artists with disabilities. They produce some incredible work, and this piece stood out to me.

Emails or phone calls?

I tend to write a lot of emails – however, I prefer phone calls as you can cut to the chase a lot quicker and hash things out.

Most important lesson you’ve learned during your career?

Not to accept mediocrity, and to always strive to make things better.

What would be your ideal office/meeting space?

A large open space with plenty of books and music.

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What’s your favourite part of the creative process?

I love the whole process. I create the concept, design the collection and direct and style the look-books. It’s very rewarding to see it all the way through from an initial idea to finished book.

What has been your proudest moment since you joined the brand?

For autumn 15 we celebrated 100 years working with [textile manufacturer] Cone Mills and I travelled to Greensboro [North Carolina] to photograph the workers at the plant. It was a humbling experience going to the White Oak plant.

Since its closure [in 2017], I treasure these memories and all the beautiful fabrics we worked on together. We’ve just created a very limited product combining six fabrics from our shared history on one garment and this is something that makes me feel proud.

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What’s the last book you read?

Wrote for Luck: Selected Lyrics by Shaun Ryder. I love that it was suggested he was “on par with WB Yeats as a poet” by his record-label boss Tony Wilson.

Last holiday?

Apart from visiting family in Ireland, the last real holiday I had was traveling through Kyrgyzstan on horseback with my wife and two friends. We were fishing and camping every night and completely cut off from outside communication. It was amazing.

Who in the fashion/retail industry inspires you?

I don’t pay too much attention to what is happening in the fashion world. I’m much more interested in people who have natural style.

I was really inspired by an older lady on a bus a few months ago and how she had put herself together, especially the colours she was wearing. She really inspired the colour palette for a collection I’m working on now.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the fashion industry today?

Waste is always a big concern, so it’s great to see recycled products on the market. Levi’s Authorized Vintage is a programme we’re running repurposing vintage US made Levi’s from the 1980s and 1990s.

One piece of advice would you give your younger self?

Travel as much as you can, keep an open mind and stay true to yourself.

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Who do you turn to when you need advice?

My father or my wife depending on the situation – both are very level-headed and incredibly supportive.

What would we find you doing at the weekend?

Playing 1960s soul records and dancing with my two little boys.

What are you looking forward to most in the year ahead?

Playing more 1960s soul records and dancing with my two little boys!

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