Oi Polloi

Interview: Paul O'Neill, Levi's Vintage Clothing Designer

Published: Thu Mar 02 2017

Levi’s Vintage Clothing is a special department of Levi’s which painstakingly recreates classic garments from their ultra-extensive back-catalogue.

The designer behind all this is an Irish man named Paul O’Neill — a man from Dublin who now works a couple of minutes away from the Levi’s archive in San Francisco.

Seeing as we’ve just got our hands on some mental, mirror image 1976 501s from LVC, we thought now was as good a time as any for a bit of a chinwag…

First things first, what’s going on with those mirrored jeans? What’s the story with them? 

The mirror jeans came about when we got a small roll of 1970s dead stock denim from Cone Mills and were exited to make 501s from actual 70s denim for the first time. When it arrived we realized it was left hand twill which traditionally Levis doesn't use, so we were scratching our heads. 

In desperation to use this beautiful 40 year old denim we figured the only way to stay true to our heritage would be to mirror every single detail on the garment — from construction to packaging, right down to the writing embossed on the rivets. Then when held in front of a mirror they would appear to be regular right hand twill 501s. We liked the result so much that we had Cone Mills remake our 1970s denim in a left hand twill so we could produce a limited run of the mirror jeans as part of our SS17 collection. 

Was it hard to make these? I imagine the reversed rivets were pretty difficult.

Once we had the idea for the jeans it was pretty straight forward, but it was costly and time consuming as we had to have new metal molds set up to make the mirrored rivets, make new screens for the mirrored patch and set up embroidery for label. Then it was all about double and triple checking everything to make sure there were no mistakes. 

The last thing we had to do was hand-write the limited edition tags in mirrored handwriting, which took a bit of getting used to. 

On a different subject, how did you wind up working for Levi’s Vintage Clothing? And for people who don’t know… what is Levi’s Vintage Clothing? 

I've been collecting vintage clothing and records since I was a kid, so I’ve always been fascinated with Levi’s and American pop culture. While working in Dublin in 2008 I got introduced to someone who was setting up the LVC office in Amsterdam and I convinced them to give me an interview to be part of LVC design team. 

Levis Vintage Clothing is a small collection focusing on reproducing garments from the history of the brand which dates back to 1873 when we first started producing garments. We build collections around events or periods of American history and try to tell stories through the product and our seasonal lookbooks. 

You grew up in Ireland didn’t you? What sort of stuff were you into as a kid? What clothes did you wear?

Yes, I grew up in Dublin and was into everything growing up. When I was 12 I was going to thrash metal shows in the city wearing skin tight black jeans and Hi-Tech Leagues (shock resistant), then I got into The Doors and The Velvet Underground when I was about 15 and was buying vintage suede flares and old Levi’s jackets.

A few raves thrown in for good measure and then I went to uni in Manchester in the 90s and was big into the 60s mod and soul scene, wearing cropped 501 jeans or Sta-Prest and Clarks Desert Boots with Gabbici sweaters and Harrington jackets.  

This might be a sweeping generalisation, but how come Irish people love bootcut jeans? 

Haha — yes that is pretty spot on. I remember growing up people getting very angry that the tongue of their trainers were sticking out from their jeans and the way to combat this was boot cut jeans that were too long so you could keep that tongue under wraps and mop up puddles while you were at it. 

Going back to Levi’s… where do you find the source material? Does most of it come from the Levi’s archive? 

We're very lucky having the Levis archive. I remember taking a 10 hour flight just to go there and now it's just a few minutes’ walk away. We use this as a great resource but also I'm constantly scanning markets and turning rocks over to try and find new pieces to reproduce and we're still discovering lots of pieces we've not seen before. 

Do you ever recreate stuff that wasn’t made by Levi’s? Surely you must see stuff from other brands you want to do stuff with sometimes? 

We try to focus on Levis pieces but of course you're always tempted when you see amazing pieces by other companies and would love to see more brands reproduce their history so I could get my hands on some of it.  

Do you tweak the designs much? Or are they exactly the same? 

We always try to keep things exactly as they are. We're even counting how many stitches per inch and thread thicknesses to try to get things as close as possible to originals. Sometimes the only reference we might have is a very small or very large garment so we need to grade them accordingly and tweak it to get to the right fit.

Is it hard to make stuff that’s new and fresh using designs from nearly 100 years ago? Is there ever a worry that stuff gets a bit ‘dress up’? 

I think if you pull things out at the right time there's a way to keep it fresh. We might be looking at something for years with not much interest and suddenly it feels like the right time to pull it out and it becomes a really exiting piece. There can be an element of dress up depending how people wear it. 

Not everyone wants to be a cowboy or a miner, but you can wear the 501s from the 1890s with some sneakers and a sweatshirt and create a very contemporary look.

What’s your favourite thing you've done with LVC? 

I'm really happy with the Mirror 501s and how they came about. It's not something we would have done if our back wasn't against the wall. We just showed them at a trade show last week where we had identical twins wearing the regular and mirror 501s — hair brushed left... hair brushed right... yada yada yada… it was fun. 

Another great part of my job is coming up with seasonal concepts and seeing them through to the lookbook. I'm very lucky to be able to create the lookbooks every season as it's not something designers are generally in charge of but to be able to have one vision from concept to lookbook is fantastic. 

It's a lot of work but also a lot of fun. I work very closely with the photographer and we scout for locations and street cast all models a month before the shoot. No big production team — it's just a handful of people so all hands on deck. It's hectic but we always get great results. 

I remember you saying that a big part of your job is researching the stuff that goes around the clothes… going to record shops and things like that. Where has this taken you? Do you ever get out on the road to search bits down? 

Yes, it's great to go on research trips and I've been all over the states — driving Route 66, a psych fest in Austin, Motown records in Detroit and Sun Studios in Memphis. Once I got lost in the woods on my own in Mississippi looking for Tommy Johnson’s grave and when the sun started to go down I thought I might be sleeping with him.  

What was the story about ending up in some mad druid’s house watching some ritual or something? What was going on there? 

Oh yeah, while researching the underbelly of San Francisco for the Forever Changes collection we found ourselves in all sorts of strange situations, but this time we were invited to a Church of Creativity and we're at some crazy ceremony in this amazing huge black house with these far out dudes singing and preaching from an alter covered in microphones. 

I think you had to be there, but the guy who owned the house was planning to sell it to build a church and was recruiting disciples. He had about 50 suits all identical and 50 pairs of white leather loafers all identical as well. And he wore a top hat. 

Going on from that… why are there so many strange cats in and around San Francisco? 

I think there's a lot of haze left over from the 60s. San Francisco has always been very liberal and attracted the outcasts and misfits from the beats in the 40s and 50s to the 60s counterculture and beyond. 

I know you’re big into collecting records and stuff. What sort of stuff are you into? And does this help with the Levi’s stuff much? 

I collect girl group 45s from the 60s but I'm into buying everything — early blues 78s, soul, ska and rocksteady 45s and psyche and punk albums. I think I've got all The Smiths and Happy Monday's 12 inches from my time in Manchester.  

This definitely helps with work and can influence collections like the Fall ’13 Boomtown one we did on Detroit soul or the SS17 Forever Changes collection that's out now.  

The new stuff is inspired by Love's album Forever Changes. Top album, but what's the reason for this?  

The collection is really just named after the Love album as it’s such a classic from that year and has a nice ring to it. Personally I'm much more into the sounds coming from LA Texas and New York in ‘67 than the San Fran sound.

Bands like Love, the Elevators and the Velvets were certainly less hippy and a bit tougher than the San Francisco bands so I wanted to give the collection a name that wasn't ‘the summer of love’ and tried to stay away from the flowery side of ‘67 when putting the collection together.

Why do you think Levi's are tied up so much with music and culture? To a lot of people a pair of Levi's is more than a pair of jeans.

Levi’s have been right in the center of music and pop culture since the 40s and 50s when they went from being worn strictly as work wear to being worn as casual wear. This was started by misfits and movie stars and was adopted by nearly every youth culture since as a statement of rebellion. Over the years we’ve seen so many cool cats wearing Levis and the brand has become just as iconic as the people who wore it.

What do you think Levi’s Vintage Clothing will be making in fifty years? Will those Twisted jeans from the late '90s ever be classed as vintage? 

Yes, it would be great to see the Twisted collection being reproduced in the future. And I'm sure there are products being created by the main line now that will become classic and worth digging out if we're still wearing clothes in 50 years. 

Okay, I think that’s all I’ve got for now… you got any wise words you’d like to add? 

"In the morning we arise and
Start the day the same old way
As yesterday the day before and
All in all it's just a day like..."

Arthur Lee - 1967.

See those Levi's Vintage Clothing Mirrored Jeans here.

Black and white photos by Immo Klink. Colour photo by Fiona Clarke.