Levi’s RED collection marks one of the most unique turning points in modern denim design, spearheading innovation within both the Levi’s corporation and in the greater world of denim. People loved it, bought it, wore it to death and still obsess over it on forums today. It not only inspired the design community but also resonated with consumers, who were hungry for something different from the traditional 5 pocket jean.

The year was 1999 when the indigo stars aligned. RED would come to represent the pinnacle of denim design for the following decades, championing a loose anti-fit and ergonomic silhouette. The initial collection was an entirely fresh take on the 5 pocket jean we’d come to know; entirely deconstructed and re-designed. Working behind the scenes was a small bubble of dedicated innovators that happened to be at one of the world’s most commercial brands at the same time. Effectively given free reign to develop a new, premium line for Levi’s, the end product would form a foothold in the market, the imprint of which can still be clearly seen over twenty years later. 

"A laboratory for denim innovation, Levi's RED has stimulated denimwear since 1999, breathing new life into accepted forms and functions and setting industry standards alight through radical design. Levi's RED is unequivocal and unapologetically subversive. With the spotlight on denim craftsmanship, Levi's RED is buoyed by the strong evolutionary nature of Levi's, with unambiguous allusions to Levi's unique heritage. Invigorating and independent, however, Levi's RED designs denimwear with a difference, branded with a compelling identity and personality of its very own. Independent from the dictates of fashion, Levi's RED creates new forms with enhanced fit and finish"

— Levi’s RED lookbook, 2007

Notably, it wasn’t just the design of RED garments which was groundbreaking, but also the components. Long before ‘sustainability’ was a buzz word within the industry and environmental impact was a standing item on each brand’s agenda, RED used 100% hemp in its debut collection. And at least a decade before ‘heritage’ hit the market as the latest and greatest denim trend, RED developed a natural indigo Japanese green-cast selvedge at the turn of the millennium, the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. 

Fold-out poster from the 1999 Levi’s RED press book

RED was also responsible for influencing and shaping later Levi’s collections which would significantly impact the evolution of jeanswear. A precursor to the famous ‘twisted’ jeans and engineered lines, RED was the blueprint from which inspiration was drawn. As Amanda Jakubik from Trendland noted, “the seminal collection paved the way for interesting denim innovations throughout the last decade” and indeed beyond, to the present day. Similarly, Jian Deleon of Nordstrom acknowledges the forward thinking nature of RED and mused that it was “half-experimental, half-art, with the resulting pieces having become popular collector’s items due to their rareness and the challenge that manufacturing them presents”. 

It’s the collectability of RED that has brought us here. On a recent trip to Maurizio Donadi’s LA archive to check out his latest project ‘Transnomadica’, Amy Leverton of Denim Dudes unearthed a box labelled ‘RED’. Opening that box set off a chain of events which ultimately led to this article. We wanted to get to the heart of this iconic line and find out the truth behind all the rumours. So, we hit up some old friends and denim contacts to find out more. After a couple of RED-related posts on our feed, several conversations in the DM’s and a few e-mail chains later, all roads pointed to one person: Rikke Korff.

Levi’s RED – 2nd Signature Jean – ‘The Paper Jean’ – A very rare Levi’s RED jean made from canvas using 100% paper yarn that wears like hemp. To illustrate the raw material they added lines drawn, hinting at the iconic red margin and blue lined paper.

Levi’s RED ‘The 501 Blueprint’ This blue line treatment was run once on two styles in the spring of 2000

“Rikke Korff is an enigma in the world of denim. Her name is brought up whenever Levi’s RED or Twisted is mentioned, yet it has taken me about fifteen years to meet her. She likes to stay out of the limelight and hates attention, a refreshing antidote to the hype/clout frenzy that social media has ushered in over the last ten years.”

- Amy Leverton

We wanted to cut through the rumours and go straight to the source to understand how RED unfolded all those years back. Korff understands the value of what she designed all those years ago yet she would much rather focus on the product and the story than promote herself. We’ll be diving deeper into the later collections of RED (check out our article on the 2021 RED collection here) but we felt it was only right to set the record straight from the start. In the following interview with Rikke – the first in-depth interview of its kind on the subject – we focused on the events leading up to the debut collection and the 7 pieces of denim design that formed the basis of the RED DNA: the 1st Standard, 1st Comfort, 1st Giant, 1st Slim, 1st Loose, 1st Coat and 1st Shirt.

Left: Levi’s RED 1st Standard – ‘The 501 Blueprint’ The construction lines of the inspiration were drawn in blue. Lines of the Original Levi’s 501 Blueprint. Right: Levi’s RED – 3rd Signature Jean – ‘Becoming Levi’s RED’ 1st Standard Blueprint lines sketched on the original and most iconic 1947 version of the 501

Having spent hours with Rikke at her DTLA studio, Amy and Shannon poured over early samples, fabric yardage, final garments, sketches and blueprints which we’re so grateful that Rikke had the foresight to hold onto for 20+ years. A true treasure trove of denim artifacts, this provided us with a holistic view as to the inception and development of RED. Ever humble and modest, it was clear from our discussions with Rikke that one key ingredient to the RED recipe was the ‘perfect storm’ of talent and timing. From the synergy of the design team and the openness of the brand to the consumer pulse and need for newness, it was these factors and more, which led to the creation of RED. The story starts here, so saddle up and get comfortable. 

With sincere thanks to Thomas Cawson, Maurizio Donadi, Rikke Korff and Nick Williams for their invaluable insight which made this article possible.

One of Rikke’s Tokyo sketches of the 1st Giant with it’s busted 3D side seams, raised coin pocket and dropped front pockets. Note the legal stamp for patent purposes bottom left

Denim Dudes (DD): RED is considered a significant turning point in both denim design and the evolution of jeans-wear during the last two decades. Can you set the scene for us – what was the denim industry and jeans market like at the time?

Rikke Korff (RK): Everything – and I mean everything – was five pocket. The 90’s Americana vintage market was still going strong and Japan in particular was cooking up vintage inspired brands. Which were all basically some version of Levi’s. Overall it was not that inventive, maybe with one exception; G-Star’s Elwood had been in the market for some years and was an interesting take on where denim could go, but its 3D shape was accomplished with lots of seams like motorcycle gear. It didn’t have the simplicity of jeans. The more exciting conversations we had were around organic cotton. And you would get excited about subtle differences or small improvements. It was normal, and what we all expected. 

The 501 was still king, but it was dwindling and had been for some years. Levi’s Red Tab drove the business and in Europe we had been pushing a dressier look via Sta-Prest denim. The real enthusiasm came from a handful of Levi’s Vintage Clothing products each division would get from the US. These running products were chosen by a small global group, who once a year would come together to review garments from the archives.

A 1947, 501 (right) sits next to a Levi’s RED first standard (left) These jeans were sold in limited numbers with the seam details of one printed onto the other, showing the evolution of design

Changes in hem and seam detailing, as seen on this comparison between a 1st ‘Standard’ and a classic 501

DD: What were the behind the scenes conversations that led to RED materializing? Why did it take place in the beginning?

RK: We would shop high fashion and came to realize that anything resembling denim in the high fashion retail landscape was ludicrously basic, using extremely bad denim. Colette in Paris had just opened, and denim brands had little to offer them. There was nothing but potential for more sophisticated denim, product that could really show-off our knowhow.

In late ‘97 we kicked off a premium denim mini-capsule called ‘Collectibles’. Once we presented the idea, the team got behind it and with the second capsule we had already opened better doors. The industry noticed and the fashion crowd was starting to buy. The third capsule was going to be ergonomic pattern making in sustainable materials; modern interpretations of archival icons made in hemp narrow loom fabric from Japan. The hemp denim that was to become the iconic Levi’s RED fabric.

By early fall ‘98 we had a new president and he was all for change and innovation. He wanted to establish a global premium subdivision and managed to get Levi’s Vintage Clothing moved to Europe. We were prepared for this and had lots of ideas and plans for the potential of this sub-brand. Early on, I was asked to find a way to create and develop seasons and stories for historically correct product. It was clear that Europe was best equipped to take on the initiatives and I took charge of Premium Design and chose one designer to help Levi’s Vintage Clothing, while I developed a fastforward modern angle. From February to April ‘99 we had to get the new concept done, so we could launch both premium lines by August 99. The brief was clear but daring, and an awesome challenge: 

"Reverse the denim category decline and through innovation and craftsmanship, awaken the immortalized and mythical love for denim and Levi’s”.

DD: RED was a future focused concept with the aim of reinventing the classic five pocket jean. How did you initially set out to achieve this goal?

RK: Management already liked where Collectibles was heading. I don’t think they realized how new and different it actually would be, but they were behind it. So, I worked with the core ideas, removed all overtly obvious vintage references and kept simplifying. Then modernized again and chose every element very carefully and with integrity to the big idea. 

The simplifying stretched to the branding. At first, I tried to push for a single arcuate, but the Legal Department couldn’t allow it, so we worked on a compromise. A narrow double arcuate, handmade of two single needle lock stitches and no diamond point. Branding overall was derived from the connection that Levi’s has with the color red and the Levi’s Red Tab itself. It was obvious and a minimal version of all known elements. 

Tokyo was the perfect place to explore all the ideas and nail the concept down. The city constantly reminded me of how modern this sub-brand needed to be, in order to have the desired effect. At the same time Tokyo has soul and tells a story of time and history. That balance between fastforwarding to the future while respecting the past became the touchstones and intention of Levi’s RED. 

An early ‘Giant’ RED sample, with Rikke’s single stitch arcuate sits next to a production ‘Giant’ using the two single needle arcuate

DD: Aside from the denim world and history of the brand, what else inspired the initial RED collections? Did art and design influence the design process in any way?

RK: I find that art and design is in everything, so I guess the answer should be yes, they were direct or indirect sources of inspiration. Yet, every collection was a little different and I believe direct art and design inspiration at times got too conceptual. It could interfere with the effortlessness of the product and render it irrelevant. The intention for RED was to suggest and explore both aesthetic and social value for the future. To push boundaries and perspectives, but keep the ease and strength of a pair of jeans. The form and the function.  The first generation of Levi’s RED merged silhouettes from the archive with silhouettes from the modern street. Considered, sustainable and ergonomic ideas living in an apparel product. It changed the perspective of what indigo could look like.

DD: The first collection included a cotton / hemp blend fabric and green cast selvage, both of which were way ahead of their time in terms of innovation and sustainability. What role(s) did fabric play in those early collections, and where were they sourced from?

RK: Our fabrics were always developed from scratch, exclusively for Levi’s RED. If you are aiming to lead the market with denim innovation and you are Levi’s, the denim fabric should be new, innovative and unique. So, fabric innovation was as important as the idea itself. The first Levi’s RED generation came in two different shuttle loom denims; a very small batch in matte natural indigo, hand dyed in the mountains of Japan with a solid green ID line and a rich green casted chemical indigo with a single green ID line. They were both 100% cotton warp and 100% natural hemp weft. It was based on developments we had started for Collectibles with our most innovative and capable mills at the time; Nisshinbo and Nihon Menpu (who both became our partner mills for Levi’s RED).

Two early selvedge fabric qualities in hemp denim with green ID lines

Two ‘1st Standard’ jeans side by side in two early hemp denim yardages

DD: RED sat alongside Levi’s Vintage Clothing at the beginning of the new millennium. How did these collections play off one another and how heavily did the archival aspect of the brand inspire RED?

RK: The years that I was in charge of Levi’s RED I implemented one non-negotiable criteria within the team: If you had not worked on Levi’s Vintage Clothing, you could not design Levi’s RED. It was all about innovation and experimentation – the place where almost anything was possible. The innovation has to come from something authentic, to have value. For Levi’s, that authenticity and truth is in the archive. It made sense to have the two sub-brands sit alongside each other. One captured the history, the other spearheaded the future. Both were positioned in the same realm and they could feed off each other. We never let Levi’s Vintage Clothing directly influence Levi’s RED, or Levi’s RED dictate Levi’s Vintage Clothing.  We created Levi’s Vintage Clothing with a very strict code of historical correctness, down to minute details, it had to stay pure to keep the integrity intact. Levi’s RED was different and could in principle have been inspired by Levi’s Vintage Clothing, but I believe Levi’s RED was best when the archive supplied a simple but unique Levi’s feature or concept that would fertilize a modern take on jeans or a big denim truth that could translate into the future and connect with the modern world.

DD: The ergonomic aesthetic of RED was a groundbreaking design. What inspired this and how was it approached during design?

RK: We were working hard to apply 3D in washing, using the high shrinkage to force dimension and vintage knee shape into wash treatments, reproducing the well-worn feel of a 501. The only way to achieve this in a rigid state would be to apply 3D in the pattern making. Knowing how to construct a two-piece shaped sleeve made it rather obvious. This could be a simple way to achieve the shape.

Around the same time, I found out that the biggest return issue Levi’s ever had was torqueing; the twisted legs that would appear post-wash. Unwashed Levi’s 501s were shrink-to-fit and had very high shrinkage, often causing extreme torque. You can’t see this before washing and for a lot of people it was a deal breaker. Now we look for the twist as a sign of authenticity and vintage charm. Back in 98 we had started to love this feature, but no one had ever constructed it deliberately. Knowing pattern making, it was obvious, but the challenge was where to place the seams for them to have proper function, while being aesthetically pleasing.

Front of the 1st Standard with it’s signature 3D side seam and dropped pockets

Back view of the 1st Standard: The narrow hip 1/2 riser (dart) replaces the back yoke and the 3D inside seams curve backwards

DD: Can you tell us about some of the key silhouettes and garments within those early collections? (Giant, Standard Jeans etc.) And did they inspire the creation and evolution of the Engineered line that came later?

RK: Everything that was Levi’s RED, inspired Levi’s Engineered. It was part of the plan from the moment we got the final brief, to introduce more accessible versions of the unique blueprints coming from Levi’s RED.

The blueprints and each product have their own story – so this could go on forever – but The Standard is to me, the iconic Levi’s RED jean. It epitomizes the first blueprint and spells out all the unique features. The lean modern male silhouette, with a contemporary lower crotch and perfect 3D shape. The selvage showing and the raised back hem. The pointed fly shape, the simplified back rise. The watch pocket, enlarged, coming out of the front pocket. The back pocket with simplified closure.  The modern take on ‘yellow’ or ‘red orange’ contrast thread and the white brass hardware on a beautiful blue; it is one of the most unique looking denims in history. The Giant was also a personal favorite. It was the street silhouette of the time. Everybody wore combat pants, and The Giant was a way to accomplish that more extreme and comfortable contemporary silhouette that celebrated anti-fit and denimonly features. 

An early ‘Giant’ RED from Rikke’s archives with a single stitch arcuate

An amazing, well-worn example of Levi’s RED Giant, belonging to Rikke’s brother

DD: What was the global distribution for RED? Were the collections region specific, or global? 

RK: Levi’s RED was a European initiative and from ‘99 was distributed globally along with Levi’s Vintage Clothing. It was prioritized and powerful. It remained intact until 2003 when some of us had moved locations. Within a season, Levi’s RED was split up and depending on the personalities in charge, it would change back and forth from that moment on. It was never really the same again, but there are a few very nice ideas and collections after that point from each of the three most forward divisions the US, Europe and Japan. 

DD: The line was sold through a handful of the best denim stores at the time and was marketed as a premium offering from Levi’s. What did the premium denim market look like at the time? 

RK: It didn’t really exist. Specialty denim stores had denim in nice qualities, they might have a special item or two that you would consider ‘premium and maybe a few Levis Vintage Clothing items or a special from Diesel. High fashion stores didn’t have denim, apart from the odd, ugly five pocket designer jean. Concept stores like Colette and Corso Como 10 were new, and the concept idea was spreading to better highend stores and some department stores. That environment made sense for premium denim products. We launched Levi’s RED with Jones in London and it was like a wildfire. Word spread fast and people started talking about it immediately. Shortly after the launch in London, we got Levi’s RED placed in the best concept stores in the world, and soon after opened the first Levi’s premium door, CINCH in London.

The infamous ‘Culotte’ 1st Loose worn with lesser known kimono from the small 2D (Flat) capsule in the 2nd release. Kimono curtesy of Maurizio Donadi’s archive

DD: What were some of the price points for RED? And what quantities were the garments made in?

RK: The first Levi’s RED generation was sold at $120 – $150 retail, and I have been told we made 5000 – 7000 units globally. I don’t recall the price or the units for the natural indigo version, but I’m sure it was underpriced and just a few hundred units total. Levi’s RED was extremely limited and we intended to create unique and special products in small and numbered quantities. 

DD: Twenty years later and the legacy of RED is firmly rooted in the history of modern denim. How does it feel to look back and reflect on the collections now?

RK: I still look at the first Levi’s RED blueprint as a turning point and a benchmark for revolution in the denim and apparel market. It was a shock to the system and so many changes came together and pushed through at the same time. It’s a difficult thing to do and timing is essential, but I do think it can happen again. 

DD: Any final thoughts or parting words?

RK: I find that the initiatives in the denim industry lately have been lackluster and while busy re-issuing history and letting one highfashion collaboration make the next obsolete, the industry sits back, without participating in pushing the needle forward with design innovation or a street revolution. It’s high time for denim to properly showoff again and I think now is a good moment to start thinking about it. Consider it a challenge to anyone reading out there!

Levi’s RED 1st Coat. Modern interpretation of the 18th Century Levi’s Sack Coats

The Levi’s RED 1st Slim, note the 1/2 riser (dart) at side seam, accentuating a curvy shape in contrast to the narrow hip 1/2 riser on the 1st Standard

The Levi’s RED 1st Slim, note the 1/2 riser (dart) at side seam, accentuating a curvy shape in contrast to the narrow hip 1/2 riser on the 1st Standard

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Trend forecaster, denim designer, industry journalist and author of Denim Dudes.

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