By Bob Davis and Kathy Chu
A half century ago, teens would slide into their cardboard stiff new Levi jeans, squat again and again, shake them out and toss them into washing machines to get them comfortable enough to wear. Then they’d wear them until they fell apart and (sometimes) sew patches over the holes in the denim.
Now Levi Strauss & Co. uses an awful lot of design and technology to produce similar effects. The beat-up pants command higher prices and margins. Technology is not only replacing ever-more-expensive labor but ever-more-busy consumers who don’t have the time to break in their jeans.
In a sprawling factory in Southern China that makes Levi jeans, a metal contraption called a bladder holds a pair of blue jeans upright while tiny lasers burn off the top layer to give the denim a distressed look. The more tatters and tears on the jean, the more complex it is to make.
A pair of jeans with tears on both knees and patches throughout would be rated G5 by Levi in its internal system, indicating that it’s the most complicated to manufacture, while a basic pair of blue jeans would be rated G1, for simplest.
On the other side of the world, in a converted grain mill next to Levi’s brick San Francisco headquarters, dubbed the Eureka Center, about 25 designers and technicians figure out new ways to batter jeans.
Instead of washing the pants in washers packed with pumice stones or chemicals to soften and bleach them, as has been done for years, Levi is experimenting with tumbling jeans in machines filled with ozone. The gas also bleaches the denim, but without having to use water, an important consideration for Levi, which operates in countries like Mexico or China where water is either scarce or polluted.
Producing a stylish look is a “blend of art and science,” said Bart Sights, the intense 50-year-old Eureka boss, who wears black T-shirts and polishes his fingernails black.
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