Skip to main content

Q&A: Branding Guru Nick Williams on Unearthing Denim’s Hidden Gems

Imagine a visual encyclopedia of the most creative and impactful ways denim makers have branded their jeans.

That’s exactly what Nick Williams set out to create with his new book, Denim Branded: Jeanswear’s Evolving Design Details, a 272-page, photo-driven index of notable branding moments from denim’s storied past to present day.

The concept for the book was born from Williams’ own experience as a graphic designer. During his 20 years working in the denim industry, he had always hoped to find a book that was dedicated to graphics and branding for apparel. A few Japanese magazines would suffice, he said, but they were crammed with so much “good stuff” that the details were lost.

“When I started working at Levi’s in 1999, I wished that a book existed that broke down all the elements that go into branding a pair of jeans. I ended up picking up stories and information along the way,” Williams said. “A lot of branding reference that exists purely concentrates on vintage branding which I love. But, for this book, I wanted to include modern branding that took inspiration from the past.”

In Denim Branded, Williams and his wife, Jenny, who wrote the text, chronicles the branding history of the ‘Big 3’ (Levi’s, Wrangler and Lee) as well as the list of other heritage and modern denim brands like Diesel, Denham the Jeanmaker, Kings of Indigo and more.

The curation took Williams to Greensboro, N.C. to visit the Wrangler and Cone archives, to Kansas City, M.O. to photograph the Lee archives and to Levi’s archive in San Francisco.

“I didn’t want to produce a book that just contained an abundant amount of inspirational branding images from heritage and modern denim brands but I wanted to tell a little bit about the background behind their branding,” Williams said. “I was especially fascinated with the modern brands as there is so much heart, meaning, and personality behind their branding.”

Related Story

And that required research—a lot. And a lot of swaying brands to collaborate on the project. The book only features brands that had given their consent to ensure that all of the information was fact-checked by the companies and to have officially authorized photographs.

“We ended up with over 3,000 images which I edited down in order to fit the 272 pages. We wanted to show the detail of each piece featured so we ended up with just under 500 images,” he said. “It was so tough and there were a few images that I had to drop but really liked so maybe, if we are lucky enough to get a second book out or a second edition we can feature these.”

Here, Williams shares with Rivet some of the outstanding ways brands are enhancing their designs with one-of-a-kind trims, and why designers have a lot to gain by reinventing the past.

Rivet: What is the most interesting use of the rivet that you have come across in your research?

Nick Williams: I love the way Candiani adopted the rivet as a branding tool. Other mills have used a hang tag or woven label to inform the consumer about their fabric quality, but Candiani’s use of the ‘Golden Rivet’ takes this concept one step ahead.

Rivet: What is the most memorable patch you’ve seen?

NW: My favorite patch is the Lee hair on hide. It is such a classic piece of Americana with ties to the heydays of the ’40s and ’50s dude ranches and western culture. It now seems so indulgent to brand your name directly onto a cowhide patch. It took Lee six months to develop the process. It has been revisited by contemporary brands like One Jeans, who made 100 pairs of jeans all individually branded with their own unique number on a hair and hide patch.

Rivet: What is the biggest misconception or myth out there about denim design?

NW: There has been a long ongoing conversation about the original purpose of the fourth pocket, commonly known as the watch, cone or match pocket. No one really knows the true origin of this small pocket, which is traditionally placed inside the right-hand front pocket. I personally like to believe that it would have been used by early miners for carrying their matches or flint to light a candle or lantern.

Inside Denim Branded Courtesy

Rivet: How is technology changing the way denim brands approach branding?

NW: Of course, 3-D printing has been a game changer for button, rivet and zipper development as now designers can see a sample before committing to the end product. Sustainability has been a buzzword amongst the industry for years and is an ongoing process and development, but there is an abundant amount of opportunity for companies to shout about and showcase their efforts in the fight for sustainability through the use of branding.

Kings of Indigo were early instigators of sustainability and recycling. Every season they inject such freshness and on-trend styles that adhere to their ethos. They take their Triple-R Philosophy (Repair, Recycle, Re-use) very seriously. From their sourcing, to their workers, to the product and to the environment, they constantly make every effort to cover all of the sustainability bases.

Q&A: Branding Guru Nick Williams on Unearthing Denim's Hidden Gems
Denim Branded

Rivet: In regards to branding, what is the most underused component in denim?

NW: I love hidden details and think the back of buttons and rivets can be a surprising place to help tell your story. However, one component that I think is most overlooked is the zipper pull. When I was working on the Evisu and Puma collaboration with Mark Westmorland, he had the idea for a double option pull—one with the Puma cat and one with the Evisu seagull. We developed the jeans with both options and left it up to the consumer to decide which icon to use.

Rivet: Which brands are currently succeeding with their branding efforts?

NW: A lot of Ralph Lauren and RRL has always been held up as a gold standard. The design, execution and finish are always on point. I also think that Sugar Cane is very strong on design and finish. But I really like the way Rogue Territory, Left Field, and Tellason tell their stories through branding.

Rivet: Why are you drawn to denim?

NW: Denim is such an endless adventure and there is always so much to learn and discover. I get a real kick out of learning and discovering about new brands—where they are from, what they are about and who the people are behind them. I also love to find out as much as I can about all the elements of production, from their cotton source to weaving, finishing, construction, trims etc. The one element that really draws me in is the paper label. Graphically, it is the most expressive part of denim branding.

Inside Denim Branded Courtesy

NW: In my opinion, you can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been. The best design takes inspiration from the past and reinvents it. There is much to be achieved by delving into the rich past that denim has to offer. You don’t have to reproduce a heritage looking aesthetic. However, in order to develop a piece of denim or branding armed with a knowledge of what has existed previously, results in a well thought out and considered design that should match to your brand. All of the modern brands featured in the book have executed this perfectly and in their own individual style.

Rivet: How do you envision the denim industry in 2030?

NW: Earlier this month I attended the first U.K. Denim Hangs event at Clobbercalm in Sheffield. People traveled from all over the country to hang out together for the love of the same fabric and style. This was instigated on social media which I find really inspiring and encouraging for the denim community.

In a time where social media and the internet aren’t always receiving the most positive reviews for their effect on the high street, here is a platform whereby the denim community cannot only connect online but in person. They can get back in touch with the product first hand, in person and also meet the people behind the stores, the brands, and fellow denim enthusiasts.

Since then I have been invited to the New York Denim Hang which was again, an amazing opportunity to connect with people who I had only seen on my phone. The stores are inviting companies to talk about their brands, their ethos and their history. It gives the consumer a greater appreciation of the product that they are buying, where it comes from and no doubt reducing their expenditure on disposable fashion in exchange for a much better, in some cases, locally produced item. Hopefully, more brands will survive through the tough retail times through this education and community.