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How Patagonia’s Former Creative Director Found His Way Back to Denim

Miles Johnson’s obsession with apparel was born of his love for creative problem solving.

The Levi’s veteran and former creative director for Patagonia has always been captivated by the indispensable role that clothing plays in our society, and has spent his career trying to reconcile a love for beautiful things with a yearning to make them more functional and long-lasting.

At Isko’s “A Day in Denim” conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Johnson spoke to a room full of industry insiders about the events that charted his path through—and back to—the denim industry, as well as his newly launched line with Isko.

Beginning his career as a costume designer for television and film, Johnson enjoyed the process of building pieces around the colorful characters he thoroughly researched. Once the spark of enjoyment faded from those pursuits, he enrolled at Saint Martins School of Art to reset his intentions, and received a true schooling in design.

A whirlwind, real-world education proceeded that period, as Johnson was quickly tapped to lead Levi’s vintage clothing collection in Europe, Japan and the U.S.—a role he held for 11 years before ascending to  design director.

Two years later, Johnson was poached for an opportunity of a lifetime at Patagonia, where he became the sustainable stalwart’s creative director. Famed founder and mountaineer Yvon Chouinard was said to love Levi’s iconic 501 silhouette.

Having grappled with the dismaying dirtiness of the denim industry supply chain, Johnson found his time at Patagonia to be a breath of fresh air.

“People always ask, ‘What was it actually like to work there?’” he said, intimating that inquirers were hoping for dirt on the brand. There was none to be found, he insisted, and he was inspired by the company’s relentless commitment to quality. “When Patagonia offered me the job, it was like a bus door opening and someone saying, ‘Hop on kid, we’re going for an amazing ride,'” he added.

Of Patagonia’s design philosophy, Johnson explained that the objective in creating any piece was to “make sure that it was bullet and bombproof, and would last someone for the rest of their life—so then they could pass it on.”

That mantra resonated with Johnson as he led the team in establishing the first generation of its ReCollection program, which upcycled used Patagonia products into new, salable garments based on the brand’s well-loved vintage staples.

In 2015, Patagonia launched its Worn Wear mobile tour, which featured a fleet of tricked-out vans traveling the continental U.S. in search of garments to mend. Stopping into small towns and communities, the company’s expert sewers patched holes and reconstructed damaged pieces, returning them to their owners for years of further enjoyment.

Worn Wear still exists today, though it has evolved to include e-commerce channels and a Colorado popup, and the program’s van tour has expanded to Europe.

Johnson hadn’t necessarily planned on returning to denim after his time at Patagonia came to an end. But soon after he departed the outdoor brand, he heard its siren song calling in the form of former collaborators itching for a brain trust of sustainability knowledge.

“Even though I left denim, I think there were quite a few people curious to see what my perspective on denim would be after Patagonia,” he explained.

The experience of working with highly technical, science-based materials molded his perspective on innovative garment crafting—but moving back into denim felt like a homecoming for Johnson.

“I love how basic and raw and familiar it is as a fabric,” he said. “It feels like an old friend.”

He was also heartened by the slew of sustainable innovations that had infused the denim world during his absence. “There were an awful lot of good things happening in the industry while I was out of it,” he said, describing moves toward waterless dyeing techniques and cleaner, more advanced finishing processes.

Rather than shocking his system after years working for one of the fashion industry’s environmental leaders, the return to denim was like “jumping back into a pool where the water was still warm,” he said.

Light On The Land

As he embarked on his current collaboration with Isko, entitled “Light On The Land,” Johnson sought to incorporate the denim producer’s lowest impact fabrics into a capsule that would inspire and energize designers across the globe.

The collection, which launched in September, features 34 mostly unisex pieces made up of Isko’s R-TWO line of fabrics, which utilize a mixture of reused and recycled materials.

Miles Johnson's Light On The Land collection.

Johnson’s latest sustainable collection with ISKO.

Ten percent of cotton is typically lost during the yarn spinning process. With R-TWO, those recovered fibers are blended with recycled polyester derived from post-consumer plastic bottles to form the program’s various fabric formulations.

Johnson fine-tuned those materials to his own specifications, and creatively strove for modern yet enduring silhouettes that highlighted each fabric’s unique qualities. While some of the collection’s jackets, vests and trousers are made with a quintessential mid-weight blue denim, a handful of hoodies, waxed cotton pullovers and jackets showcase innovative performance materials. “They’re really interested in the reinvention of fabric,” Johnson said of Isko, which has debuted woven, stretch-forward, multi-use fabrics in recent seasons.

Opting for a mostly oversized look, Johnson borrowed inspiration from workwear styles currently trending in the market. He opted for shades of indigo that required minimal washing, and incorporated trims made from ecologically sourced metal, natural buttons and zipper flies all built for easy deconstruction at the end of the garment’s life.

Some pieces are embellished with eco-conscious embroideries, each design was conceptualized by Johnson and executed by an artist through an intricate chain-stitching method. With slogans like “Wear Out Your Clothes, Not the Planet,” Johnson said he’s attempting to send a message both through the composition of the garments as well as through their design.

He hopes that message will resonate within the industry, as the Light On The Land collection won’t be for sale to consumers. Johnson’s goal with the line is to highlight the most sustainable materials that the denim sector has to offer, and his hope is that designers buy in. “I want designers to appreciate what these fabrics might be good for,” he said. “It’s really about raising awareness.”

Johnson insisted that working with Isko on his eponymous line was a no-brainer. “When you come up with a crazy idea, they don’t say, ‘That’s not going to be possible.’ They say, ‘Let’s try,’” he said.

“That’s a dream for somebody like me.”

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