Standing in a room with the Jeanologia laser machine feels like being in a sci-fi film. The technician lays a pair of jeans in an open box to get ready for the treatment that transforms the Levi’s 501s by way of custom designs that incorporate vintage styling or patterns. All happening at Levi’s Customization Studio in downtown LA (currently by invitation only), this is the testing ground for eventually setting up F.L.X. (future-led execution) design studios in several Levi’s stores.
Here’s how it works so far. One room offers examples of vintage jeans. Tablets are set up to choose custom wear, rips, distressing and finishes. Several size options for rips and holes are based on natural wear-and-tear shapes. They can be included in conjunction with each other—add shred on the pocket or replicate a slice on the knee that might normally happen from natural aging. Another digital section of the design options offers patterns—stripes, flowers and more—and multiple Levi’s logos, from classic to ’70s bubble letters.
In the next room sits a giant grey box with a shelf to lay down jeans under the Jeanologia laser. A technician inputs the specifications and sets the process in motion. The laser moves back and forth, from the hem up through the waistband, embedding the embellishments to the jeans. An indigo-colored smoke rises up from spot the laser hits the denim and wafts into the ventilation like a cartoon magic trick. For shreds and tears, the machine pinpoints the spot on the jeans and lights a tiny flame to destroy the fabric. For jeans, they laser-alter one leg then the other. For a trucker jacket, a logo or pattern can be added onto the back-panel from left to right in 90 seconds. Next, they take the jeans to the washroom to finish off the customization process.
The project—from technology to process to the finished products—is exciting. Imagine emulating jeans worn by a favorite musicians from the ’60s, or an obscure fashion shoot from the ’80s, or recreating your favorite jacket from childhood. The possibilities are endless. and the Levi’s team believes it’s is the future of denim customization.
The idea was developed in-house at Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab by a group of engineers, designers, developers and chemists, along with Jeanologia. Previously, the Levi’s made-to-order Tailor Shop included alteration, embroidery, airbrushing and other embellishments; now Project F.L.X. offers so much more—countless finishes, fades, rips, distressing and patterns.
More than just offer customization, Levi’s wanted to meet the needs of the consumer who cares about ecological practices. This laser-based technology helps balance efficiency and sustainability without sacrificing their standards of quality and craftsmanship. Project F.L.X. stores custom designs as digital files, which are then translated for automated bulk-manufacturing, effectively eliminating traditional labor-intensive work and dramatically shrinking the environmental footprint by reducing chemical finishing formulations from thousands to dozens.
To create the designs, the Levi’s team photographed jeans and created illustrations of the finishes that the laser can interpret. This helps make replicas of the whisker pattern, unevenness, crackle, rips and tears in well-worn and vintage jeans. The laser file and a post-wash system reduce the time that they had previously developed in manufacturing.
Bart Sights, VP of technical innovation at Levi’s Eureka Lab, explains that this process started as a manufacturing tool. “We have used lasers for 15 years, but always augmented by manual applications like hand-sanding, sandblast, spraying chemicals, razor blades, thermo tools… caveman-ish activities all in the name of creating these authentic finishes that there is such a demand for,” he says.
“Most of our inspiration for finishing comes from vintage jeans,” Sights continues, pointing to a pair hanging on the wall. “That jean is from 1971, and this one is from Wednesday. We are able to capture all of these attributes in a digital file. The wear pattern, the holes, the crack marks from where he probably tucked his jeans inside his boots and rode on his tractor.”
This customization design studio shows the process that the Levi’s designers can now turn to for manufacturing. They have been executing a complicated labor intensive process thousands of times every season and generally had to plan ahead and predict 14 months in advance. This new operating model is set up to scale—and the whole approach makes the brand more agile. The Customization Studio also recognizes that it’s a fun experience for customers to interact with and create their own custom designs.
“That is what is so beautiful,” continues Sights. “That canvas, for generations, has been the ultimate form of self-expression. Your jeans. You live in them and they become part of you.”
While Levi’s has built this space to preview how a studio would work with customer interaction, Levi’s Customization Studio with Project F.L.X. technology will be available in select Levi Stores starting Spring 2019.