Interview: LEVI’S Chef-Designer Jonathan Cheung über die 501 und seine Neuinterpretation des Klassikers

Vor einigen Tagen bin ich nach London gereist, um dort mit LEVI’S-Designer Jonathan Cheung über den Jeansklassiker 501 zu sprechen – und darüber, wie er den Klassiker modernisiert und die neue 501CT, eine an den Hüften lockerere, nach unten hin enger werdende 501-Variante, geschaffen hat.

Cheung wuchs im englischen Grantham, etwa eine Stunde nördlich von London auf. Mittlerweile wohnt er am LEVI’S Firmensitz in San Francisco. Bevor er 2009 dorthin wechselte, arbeitete der Designer in Mailand für MOSCHINO und später für ARMANI JEANS. Seit 2013 ist Cheung Chefdesigner bei LEVI’S – und damit auch für das wichtigste Produkt des Hauses verantwortlich: die 501.

How did you come up with the idea of changing the 501?

We met our colleagues from LA from the “House of Strauss” and they take the 501s they had to the tailor. A big stack. And they’re waiting to be tapered. Everyone is asking for it. We then went to the store and the alteration is a stack of 501 waiting to be tapered. You know we’re reading blogs and tumblrs and so do the people. This is almost like a new brain up. We should have been doing this already. I would say it’s almost not a LEVI’S design, it’s like a people design. We are just copying grassroots, crowd source design. Just making things easier for people. And now we have the 501CT.

What’s the name about?

The letters stand for customized and tapered. We also talked about naming it different. But the 502 for example already exist in Japan, I think it’s like a 501 with a zipper. Originally my design team had thought about calling it a 105 just like to flip it. But essentially it’s a 501 and that’s what people love about it. People love the name as well and they have an emotional connection with those numbers, that’s why we kept the 501 name and then we added these CT.  Now you can understand the difference between that and the regular 501. It also feels like when sometimes you get a car and its coded D or I or XL or you know, that kind, that type of philosophy I suppose.

We compared the 501 to the 501CT and laid two of them onto each other. The difference is really small. How much work did you put into making this small changes?

It took months. I mean it’s the 501, right? It is a very important part of LEVI’S, the most important part of LEVI’S, so you have to handle it with a lot of respect and a lot of care. It took more than six months and then we had to make many different variances: bigger, smaller, longer, longer rise, shorter rise. We had to try on many different people and all different body types, different kind of people from different places around the world and then try wearing it a bit looser, a bit tighter. It took a long long time to prototype. I wish it was quicker and easier, but yes it took time.

Why didn’t you then just change the 501 and don’t name it differently?

That was a tricky decision and its a good question. The 501 has a lot of fans. They like the straight leg.

The path we chose was to give our customers two choices. And it is interesting, now that we started selling it, one hasn’t eaten the other. So what’s happening is we sell the 501CT for the people that really like the idea of the 501 but want to fit slightly different – but we’re selling more classic 501s now as well. So it kind of raised everybody’s appreciation of the 501.

The 501 is still the biggest seller for us.

Is it like more than 50 percent?

That it is not, definitely. We have a 511 that is a very very big selling fit for us in men’s and then the 505. The 511 is a narrow straight leg and the 505 is a regular straight leg but with a zip, it’s almost like a zip version of the 501. Those are very big volume sellers. The 511 is popular around the world and the 505 sells a lot in the USA, big big numbers. So I would say those are the three big quantity selling things. The 501 is still the number one, but those two others are very big too.

You have about 50 designers in your design office – how many actually worked on the new CT?

On the CT essentially, two people. Not including myself and my bud Karen. Oh hang on, two in design and then we have like pattern cutters, a few people that do the sewing and the wash testing. Then its a lot more, it’s probably another 20 people on that one. Its definitely a group effort for sure. And thats just the men side, you know the women’s you can do another mirror and copy of the amount of people.

Where do you see the 501CT?  What’s the costumer you had a mind wearing the 501CT compared to the 501?

We noticed women were starting to wear vintage 501s, a kind of fashion journalists and bloggers outside fashion shows and things. That was a big thing. They wear them with sneakers and they wear them with heels. And then the other one would be a younger generation of people who have nostalgia for Levis, but were not wearing the 501.

Now, we see 20 year olds get back into the 501CT and then actually pick up the 501 as well. What is great about the 501 is, that it just looks good on so many people and thats why it’s being successful that long. It always strikes me as something fantastic, when I see a teenager skateboarding in pair of 501s and then I see some kind of grandfather who is in his 70s and he is wearing a 501 and he looks really cool. I think the reason for that is the way it doesn’t fit on your bum. You know, if it fits right up your bum and it looks like you try to hard, then that wouldn’t be cool. I think the reason for that popularity and the reason it looks good on so many body shapes and so many ages and so many different people around the world is, that it has that kind of don’t careness about it.

You put the 501CT for women out the same time?

Yeah, its mens and womens and I think its the first time, its suddenly the first time that anybody can remember that Levis is done one product idea from mens and women’s together at the same time. Thats nice. Its exciting to see a lot of women embracing that kind of boy-friendy fetching. We are now selling the 501CT to women in places we never sold the 501.

And what do you think, how long will the 501CT last and when will you change the cut the next time?

I wish I knew, I wish I could predict the future that would make my life and everybody’s life much easier, you know. I think its gonna be around a few years, definitely. I don’t think at the front page news and it shouldn’t be for three years down the line and I think it may become just a stable part, a regular part of our folio. What I do think is with the 501, it has to be continued to involve and it always has involved.

So right from it’s real beginnings in 1873 if you look to a 1873 pair of reverted overalls it has changed a lot. The original ones had no belt loops, they only had 4 pockets, they didn’t have this back pocket, they had extra buttons to suspend, they have rivets in the front, rivets on the back pockets and the shape has changed. Originally the jeans were meant to be put on top of another pair of trousers. I’m safe to know in Levis history that the 501 has continually changed.

The 501 from the 1950s is different to the ’60s, to ’70s, to ’80s, to ’90s so we must continue to make that development. It’s like any clothing, if you go to Savile Row and buy a suit it will look very different to one that you got from the same tailor in 1980. It should, because clothing should reflect the world around one person. 

Category: Special

Von: Carl Jakob Haupt