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How Levi’s Uses Digital Methods to Preserve Historic Denim

It took the Levi Strauss archives team one month and 12,000 photos to bring Levi’s historic denim collection to the virtual world. The company’s “virtual vault” marked its first crossover into the digital space—an initiative that Tracey Panek, historian and director at Levi Strauss & Co. archives describes as a long time coming.

Levi’s “crossed the digital divide” in 2014 with the initiative, which showcased its entire physical portfolio of denim artifacts in virtual format, making the designs accessible to creatives around the world. During the “Documenting the History of Fashion in 3D” webinar organized by professional education hub Motif on Tuesday, Panek explained how the innovation has been a driving force in bringing time-tested Levi’s pieces to the modern day.

“Before the virtual vault, if you wanted to see the collection, you would have to be at the Levi’s headquarters in San Francisco, and you would have to either have the knowledge that the archive staff has or you would refer to our binders which, in many cases, were filled with handwritten notes,” she said. “It was a very manual process that was difficult to access.”

The virtual vault initiative required a painstaking process of photographing each garment—capturing the front, back and birds eye view—and categorizing them by bottoms, tops, denim and non-denim, and organizing by decade, beginning with the early 1800s.

From there, Levi’s iterated this digital migration. Last year, the company gave its virtual archive a 3D update. The archives team picked five of its oldest garments and photographed them on a mannequin positioned on a turntable. Products were shot in 20-degree increments using a laser scanning machine until it captured a 360-degree view. The end result was a 3D image of some of the brand’s oldest garments “modeled” by an invisible mannequin to showcase all of its unique details in a way that a flat lay image can’t.

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Levi’s initiative illustrates fashion’s enduring influence and relevance—an idea echoed by historians and fashion followers alike who look to the past to prepare for the future. During the wave of escapism culture in 2020 that elevated period pieces like “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Crown,” Netflix partnered with the Brooklyn Museum to showcase costumes from both shows in a virtual exhibition. Users could virtually navigate through the garments presented in the museum and see all of the details of each piece as if they were viewing them in-person.

Denim mills have already taken advantage of 3D capabilities to better showcase their offerings. Advance Denim, China’s oldest denim mill, debuted its 3D archive in 2020, allowing customers to see products on the website in 3D and download them into their own digital design systems. Fabric is presented on a 3D mannequin, incorporating all of the style’s technological testing data such as shrinkage and stretch, to give a more comprehensive view of the finished product. This type of feature not only shortens lead times, but also reduces the need for unnecessary sampling and shipping costs, which in turn lowers the carbon footprint of the design process.

Fashion will continue to adopt more digital methods, not only to showcase existing products, but to design them as well. 3D fashion design provider Browzwear is used by more than 650 organizations including PVH, VF Corporation and Columbia Sportswear, which rely on the service for more efficiency in fit development and sample approval processes.

In 2021, Pakistan-based denim mill Artistic Milliners partnered with the platform to implement 3D design and increase speed time-to-market while reducing its footprint. The mill’s newly acquired L.A.-based denim laundry Star Fades International also set out to digitize its vintage archive to increase convenience and efficiency in the design process.