I met William a couple of years back and have had many conversations with him about branding, sustainability and everything denim and packaging related. He works for Avery Dennison which is a company that’s little known outside the industry, yet actually huge.

William Bernard shot by Ryan Lopez

When I say huge I mean 25,000 employees huge (Levi’s employs 15,000 to give you an idea) What they do involves so much of the apparel industry such as swing tags, internal labels, garment size stickers and innovative branding but the company also make things like food labels, car signage and stickers, display branding for stores and businesses, labelling for the healthcare sector, heck, even road sign lettering!  Just to bring it back to denim though… they make the Levi’s red tab. BOOM.

Avery Dennison’s Levis Red Tab

William has worked at Avery Dennison for 4 years, at first heading up the creative team of the apparel division for the West Coast, but 10 months ago he was made global head of denim. Having spent 20 years as a graphic designer within the industry (Abercrombie, Hollister, Ben Sherman and Ellesse to name a few) he’s now taking on the new challenge of not only deciding what the Avery Dennison should be looking at but then identifying the gap and giving it a denim slant.

A lot of his role involves networking, been seen at the right events and getting out there and going to see those brands in person and talk to them about his findings, which means a lot of travel. In the Last 6 months he’s been to Amsterdam, Greensboro, New York, Bordeaux, London, Mexico and multiple trips to San Francisco.

Ahead of our Los Angeles event last week, we sat down to discuss the integral relationship between denim and branding, where he sees the future of the market and what’s getting his team excited right now.

William Bernard shot by Ryan Lopez

So William, you are a graphic designer by profession. What’s your most iconic memory as far as denim graphics are concerned?

I’ve always been inspired by fashion as a kid growing up in London in the 80s and 90s. The branding and iconic pieces from that era have resonated with me ever since I was rocking my electric blue Lois jumbo cords with the iconic bull or the must have accessory of a Pepe key ring, I love seeing these brands come around again along with all the iconic pieces from that era; Farrah/Gabbici/Pierre Cardin and Ellesse.

And is a jean a jean without the branding?

Well…. Despite working in labeling and branding, I think it is. You can tell a good pair of jeans by the cut or the use of fabric; the subtle details that make it stand out. But brands need to communicate their identity and name to the consumer; how can they make this product different from everything else but without emblazoning it with graphics? That’s the question that everyone is asking us right now, because everyone wants to do something a little bit different, they want to stand aside from the rest and yet be subtle and understated. And the minute someone does something different, everyone else jumps on it.

It’s interesting because the ultimate example of that is the Levi’s red tab, it’s funny how everyone wants to emulate that one iconic piece of branding and yet it is so simple.

I think a lot of it comes from the history of a brand. A lot of the places I’ve worked in the past have come from an amazing history, something the brand can tie back to, such as Ben Sherman and the mods. A lot of brands struggle to create something iconic nowadays. For instance North Face putting the logo on the back of their jackets. It’s been around forever but its iconic for them. I think it’s so difficult now for a brand to find something that hasn’t been done.

Levi’s Vintage Clothing Mirror Jean, Image from the lovely guys at Heddels

And is there someone out there who’s a newcomer to the scene who you have responded to? Or someone you think is killing it?

Levi’s have always been an ever present in my research and the recent super limited release of the 1976 501 crafted from left hand twill fabric was a great piece of marketing, simply producing all the branding in mirror image all the way down to the buttons and rivets was just a very cool subtle branding concept (image above)

But as far as younger companies are concerned, I love working with the guys at Lot, Stock and Barrel. The graphic style we used at Coachella and other events looks so fresh and the messaging is always spot on.

Lot Stock And Barrel

So tell me more about your work with Lot Stock and Barrel. You created iron-on patches so people could customize denim jackets at the festival and people went bananas for it!

Customization is not a new trend but nor is it going away. It is now an expectation from the consumer, with fast fashion and legacy brands alike, that the ability to tailor an item to express oneself is the key to a consumer’s heart. They are wearing their heart on their sleeves, literally.

It reminds me of the days of when you go to get a suit made and they put little details in the suit such as your initials to make it more personal you, as apposed to just generic customization.

For the consumer, this is all about “Tell me what I want, now!” 39% of Millennials will go out of their way to use a customized offer compared to 32% in other age groups.1

They understand that this costs, more and are willing to pay for it. 20% of consumers who expressed interest in personalized products were willing to pay a 20% premium.2

But it is not only for Millennials. Customization also speaks so well to a broader audience, giving those who are more traditional lovers of denim the chance to express themselves in a way that is relevant to their own identity.

So with the Coachella concept, that was about exploring customization and making a statement in the denim industry and learning from it too.

Avery Dennison x LS&B for Coachella

What does customization mean for retail?

Retail is evolving as consumer expectations change. Pop-up stores and new retail experiences go hand in hand with easy online ordering and new methods of delivery systems.  Brand identity, shareability, honesty and a transparent supply chain are becoming more important to the customer than ever. 

So aside from looking at newness in design, what other trends are Avery Dennison currently exploring?

Sustainability. So everyone knows that the jean isn’t the most sustainable garment that you can wear. Everyone’s seen the figures about the amount of water it takes to wash a jean and the images of blue water pouring out of factories. It is now a basic expectation that brands look for ways to less negatively impact the environment. Companies are taking on new initiatives like transparency in the supply chain, and creating a positive dialogue, a step in the right direction.

I am continually inspired by the denim industries sustainable efforts and looking for new innovations in this area, it’s a subject that keeps my mind racing how can we help tell a story and sell that story to the consumer with new products that could potentially change the industry. I’m continually researching all industries sustainable initiatives to see how they can be applied in the denim world.

Avery Dennison’s Digitally printed white label on 94% PCW Kraft

But I think these days every brand needs a flag bearer for sustainability. And not every company has that. You need someone who’s passionate about it working full time in-house. Not everyone’s buying into it yet but definitely over the next 3-4 years we’re going to see people becoming more conscious and willing to pay a bit more for sustainability. We’ve run facts and figures and people are willing to pay a bit more on a product if its sustainable then people are a bit more interested in the story. Especially with the new generation coming up, as it’s been drilled into them.

People really want to see the chain: so they know exactly where it’s come from and who’s involved. And branding has a big part to play in that because we’re the communicator.

Brands are also looking at the supply chain more closely, so cutting out the middle man to make the denim cheaper, or exploring online only business models or no packaging, no branding…

What do you think about the whole ‘no branding’ trend?

It’s dreadful. Hahaha. But seriously, in my role focused on Denim branding I should probably be wary of them as they have no branding, but the story telling and styling of DSTLD, the simplicity and ease of use of online filters down to the ease of wearing any of their garments is really impressive.

What other areas are Avery Dennison looking at?

We’re always trying to look at material alternatives, but the most innovative and relevant to denim is leather alternatives to the humble back patch. We have explored a variety of options, that look like leather, but are more sustainable, and still visually and tactually appealing to the most discerning customer.

Avery Dennison: Printed Recycled Polyester Yarn Back Patches

And what about technologies? What are you guys thinking about or working with at the moment?

We’re always looking at the technical side of branding such as RFID. RFID tells you where the product’s been inventoried, how many items you have in store, where it’s come from, etc etc. That’s all moving into where the food market has been going; the traceability.

You’re constantly working on a lot of ideas and researching new concepts. Where’s the best place for you to go for research?

Definitely Tokyo, just because of the use of all the graphics there and of course the amount of denim. We’re always looking to Japan and actually  the US as well. America are big graphic users, ever since day one: everything uses a graphic or a character or something around the story. You only have to look at the sporting world to see that: the team letters, the numbers, the mascots….  The USA is very similar to Japan in that way.

Where do you see denim in 5 years?

We are seeing denim as an area of growth and that’s why I’ve been assigned this new role. People have made noise about the industry struggling but we’re hearing differently and of course we work with a huge cross section of the industry, both globally and here in LA. All the new brands who have been popping up lately have now been going for a few years, like Railcar Fine Goods, Grlfrnd Denim, RE/DONE. We’re seeing a very positive future!

William Bernard shot by Ryan Lopez
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Trend forecaster, denim designer, industry journalist and author of Denim Dudes.