It’s always great when we get time to sit down and talk with cultural tastemakers and true Denim Dudes so we were particularly excited when got an email through offering us the chance to chat with Paul O’Neill, Head of Design at Levi’s Vintage Clothing.

If you’re familiar with the LVC imprint, then you’ll know how hard Paul and his team work to faithfully capture the spirit and heritage of Levi’s storied archive. And let us tell you its no easy task keeping the world’s oldest denim brand feeling fresh. After all, how do you breathe new life into something that is, by it‚Äôs very nature, old? Each season, Paul pours through the archives, uncovering the secrets of the past and then bringing them back into the world through faithful reproductions that are as fresh now as they were back then. And with over 150 years‚Äô of denim heritage and 20,000 rare and unique artefacts at his disposal, there aren‚Äôt many people who better understand how to reinvent a classic.

Its been 19 years since LVC began in 1999. Thats 14 seasonal collections that have spanned everything from the Summer of Love in 69, to bowling culture of the 50s, turn-of-the-century workwear and jeans of the old west. And if you think about that number in terms of eras and sub-cultural references that make up Levi’s treasured history since its inception back in 1873, you’d think there would be no stone unturned in the archive by now, right? But hard diligence and natural shifts in the cultural zeitgeist mean that there’s also something new to be discovered or a fresh perspective to take on familiar items.

Take for example LVC’s latest offering “Rockers”, a homage to the reggae and dancehall culture of Jamaica. Its an unlikely theme for a brand built on hardwearing workwear from the United States. But just as the hippies and renegades of¬†Haight-Ashbury re-appropriated denim for their groovy generation, it was the same for curious Jamaican’s who would travel to the States through the 50s and 60s in search of American R&B and the slick fashions that the performers were wearing. These pioneers who returned to Jamaica with fresh records were the ones who helped pioneer the the sounds of ska, rocksteady and eventually reggae in the 70s. This period was also marked by a distinct emergence of style. Musicians and fans created a look uniquely on their own, one that blended vintage workwear, sportswear and tailored clothing. Within this collection Paul explores and celebrates how American culture was absorbed, reflected and reinterpreted by these rockers and rude boys.

Rockers is one of my personal favourite films for style so I was eager to speak to Paul and find out how the collection came together and how the experience was shooting the lookbook over in Kingston, Jamaica.

How did the narrative for Jamaican reggae culture inspire the A/W 18 collection?

I’ve been trying to do a collection about Jamaica for a long time, but in LVC we’re normally tied in to keeping everything in the US and being US centric, which makes sense because of the company. But looking at Jamaica and how Jamaican’s were influenced by American culture and then spun it back in their own unique way was an interesting approach for LVC. We’re starting to think differently and think about how people perceive the US as opposed to just having to be from the US.

So this is the first time that LVC have had the ability to look beyond Levi’s US roots?

We’re still looking at the old archival product. But when I first went to Kingston I was talking people who worked in the clothing business and they told me that in the 60s, the Caribbean’s that had gone to New York would go to thrift stores and vintage stores and just fill barrels with old clothes and ship it back to Kingston. There would be guys in Kingston waiting to rip open the barrels and they’d be fighting over the clothes and they’d wear them to parties in the city that night. I guess for them the US clothing was quite exotic and they’d probably seen a lot of the US movies. So to get clothes from America was cool.

How were the guys reinterpreting American style back then?

The 60s is all about the rude boys, which was a slicker look. Slim tapered trousers, pork pie hats and suits. They would’ve been influenced by Motown and things like that. In the¬†50s and 60s, the Jamaican’s would go to America and they’d be buying rhythm and blues records and bringing them back to Kingston. Then they created Scar from rhythm and blues and they created Rocksteady from Soul music. Even in the late 60s early 70s, you have people like U-Roy who was playing old records and just singing over them. That was almost the origins of Hip-Hop in a way because it was the first kind of DJ music right now.

What attracts me the most to the style in Rockers the movie is the vibrant colours the characters would wear and how that would compliment the colours of the scenic shots in Jamiaca. Was this something you tried to capture in the collection and lookbook? 

The first time I went to Jamaica is was just an explosion of the senses when you arrive. I originally went there alone. This was when I was thinking about doing the collection on Jamaica and I was scoping out whether I could do the photoshoot there. As Head Designer of LVC, I’m responsible for everything from the concept of the collection through to creating the lookbook. So I didn’t want to do the concept on Jamaica if I had to do the shoot in Miami and pretend it to be Jamaica. So went to Jamaica to see if it was all going to happen.¬† I went over on my own for a week and met up with loads of people; went to all the old like haunts and the old record studios.

Did you have connects there to take you around?

I found some guy that took me to some certain spots that he said I probably shouldn’t be going to on my own. He was great and knew everybody in the city so he was introducing me to some of the original cast from the Rockers. We got to go to Studio One Records¬†and he’s like beeping his horn outside and it wasn’t open but he was like “I know¬†Clement “Coxsone” Dodd so don’t worry we’ll get in.”¬†We definitely got the special treatment and got taken in to all these crazy places and he’s just banging on the door in trench town and some guy opens the door and lets us in through the back alley and they were like having lunch with the Rasta guys at the back. All sorts of crazy stuff happened.

So you actually got to meet some of the original rockers cast? 

Yeah we did. There’s the guy in the movie wearing a yellow tracksuit, dancing in a shop, which is quite a famous scene. His name is Bongo Herman. We met Leggo (Trevor Douglas), we went to Big Youth’s studio and we actually shot Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace who’s the main character. We took a portrait of him and had him wearing a Rockers tee which was a nice tribute. We got to meet lots of interesting people and it was just fantastic over there. So that was the first trip where I went on my own. After I went there for a week I realised that we could definitely come back and do the shoot. I didn’t tell anyone when I went originally that I was there from Levi’s. I was just cruising around and checking everything out. But towards the end of the trip I was speaking to my connect and said that we are hoping to come back to do a photoshoot and what do you think? And he was like yeah great, we should definitely do it.

And with some of the garments that feature in the collection. Did you source original pieces from the movie wardrobe or did you just work from images?

No, they were just tribute from the movie. The first thing we did once we realised we wanted to go ahead with this collection was to go through the stuff I had in my office and also in the Levi’s archive. So I flicked through that and came across pieces like the 1970s Orange Tab Trucker jacket with cordoroy yokes that resonated with this story. Even the patchwork cordoroy jacket and just switched up the colours to suit the theme more.

What I’ve found interesting with this collection is that it doesn’t feel like a typical LVC heritage collection and that it has a broader appeal. I’ve seen streetwear kids wearing as well as more classic vintage heads. Was this something you did intentionally?

I don’t purposely try to make something that the skate kids are going to wear or the urban kids. But you have to consider your surroundings and what feels right for now. I mean 10 years ago when I started at LVC, everything was about heritage, cinch straps and everything was dirtied and ripped. Everyone wanted to look like a miner or a railroad worker. That trend has gone away, and not that we’re trying to follow trends at all, but you know when something feels right for the period.

I guess thats the beauty in the breadth of the Levi’s archive. You can tap into certain subcultures that become relevant again.

Yeah I feel its about whatever feels current without trying to chase it. I’ve been going to the archive for 10 years now and there’s certain items that you’ll see and want to use but they won’t work in certain collections. For example the 1970s Safari Jacket is an item that I’ve been seeing for years, but it was only now that it was the right time to use it and put it in the collection. Not that it will be the most commercial jacket but there’s something that feels quite fresh about it right now. Thats the beauty of the archive is that you could see something for 5 years and not be interested in it and as soon as something feels right you just pull it out and all of the sudden it feels fresh and people respond to it.

Now that you’ve been going to the archive for 10 years you must be quite familiar with it. Do you still like to pour through it each season to discover new pieces or do you know where to get certain pieces?

Originally when I started to go to the archive it was all these catalogues with numbers written down on them and boxes out the back. It was a real treasure trove so we didn’t know what we were going to find. I remember going in and looking for a certain pair of jeans and we ended pulling out another box that had a deadstock pair of 606 from the early 60s that we didn’t even know existed because it had a different colour tab. There were still these treasures that were hidden there that even the archivist didn’t know was there because it was overwhelming the amount of stuff they had. I know a lot of it from that, but recently the archive has been digitalised so now I can sit on a flight and look through the archive through my computer or phone. Its amazing and a lot more convenient. Although you could say it takes away some of the mystery from it. But its definitely beneficial. A lot of the vintage pieces in the front of the lookbook were items I found myself. There’s benefits to having pieces like this to myself because I can bring them to the factory or fabric developers to study the fabric as opposed to the archive vintage pieces which are treated with white gloves. I couldn’t take the Einstein leather jacket and send it out to a tannery in Italy.

Did you buy any vintage when you were over in Jamaica?

When I was over there I was trying to find some interesting clothes. They have a salvation army store in downtown Kingston. It was very eclectic and there wasn’t really anything older than 5-10 years old. I don’t think they treasure vintage in the same way we would, unless it was something very special. I think its more desirable to have something brand new than to have an old beaten up shirt. For them its a slightly different culture in that way.

What would you say is so unique about the style in Jamaica?

I think its unpredictable and unexpected in the way they put themselves together. They might happen to have brown nylon/polyester pants like their granddads and then they’ll have a sportswear t-shirt from somewhere and they’ve got a hat. So its almost a happy accident. When we went to some of the dancehall parties at night that go on until 5 in the morning. The characters there and the way they dress is incredible. They take it very seriously.

Obviously music plays a big role in the story and you’re a big music head yourself. How did you incorporate¬†that into the collection?

Yeah we went to some record stores in the downtown area, but they connected me to some warehouse where they just had piles of records all over the floor and wall to wall. There was some good stuff there.

After my first trip, I returned again with my photographer from London and we spent a week streetcasting. We only use local people in all out lookbooks. And we only use real people. Thats always been the way for LVC. A lot of the guys we used in this lookbook are up-and-coming or local Jamaican musicians. We went over to the trench town which is the neighbourhood Bob Marley grew up in.¬†We got some shots inside Randy’s Records. People were so nice and allowed us into their villages and let us shoot on the porches of their houses. The locals were all just standing around laughing and watching it all happen. It was great fun and people were excited about it. There was a good energy around the city. We weren’t too interfering as it wasn’t a big production team. It was literally just me, the photographer and my assistant. The rest were local people in Jamaica who were helping us out.

For one part of the shoot we wanted to include a scooter scene like the movie and we were trying to find a 70s motorbike. The connect who was taking us around knew this guy called Stereo who had a vintage motorbike. He lived on the outskirts of Kingston in this small village. When we arrived he came out of his house and looked really suspicious of us and was just staring over at us as he wheeled over his motorbike. They were all whispering amongst each other and then all of a sudden he says “take my photograph” and we like, uh ok, we kind of just wanted the bike. And he’s like “yeah but you want me also. And we said yeah maybe. So he’s sitting on his bike posing doing all these moves as we’re photographed him. Then this other guy comes over called Kevin and he’s like “hey do you need anyone else to be in your ting? Im a really decent man. So all of sudden we have all these guys suddenly wanting to be in it. Anyway we said that we’d take their number and try and figure something out. But as the shoot got closer we were starting to get a bit nervous as we thought that these guys could be disruptive or maybe not play ball with us. They were originally going to be in the background, but as soon as we got them dressed up and we put the hats on their heads they suddenly morphed into these incredible characters and they became the centre of everything. We couldn’t direct them but we just chased them around photographing them.

What are some of your favourite items from the collection?

The corduroy jacket turned out really nice. And I really like the green knit. This wasn’t a Levi’s original unfortunately. We don’t have a huge history with knitwear at Levi’s. Anything pre 70s is very difficult to find. We do have some that we’ve already reproduced. Most of the rest of the collection is vintage Levi’s but we needed to add in pieces like this to round the story out.

With the closure of Cone’s White Oak Plant. How is that impacting the LVC line?

We had an amazing relationship with Cone (White Oak) who have been producing denim for us for over 100 years and its been fantastic. We’re sad to see the closure of it and its an end of an era. But LVC is still going to have to continue and we’re busy reproducing all of our fabrics again. We’re getting some fantastic results which you’ll get to see soon. This F/W 18 collection is the last one that will all be made from Cone. Next season, they’ll still be some Cone but it will just be select pieces. There’s going to be something nice and special coming next season, so keep you’re eyes peeled.


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Denim trend consultant, owner of @samutaro

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