SVP of Levi’s design Jonathan Cheung is designing through an increasingly sustainable and innovation-led lens.
When you’re the head of design for the company that arguably wrote the playbook for good denim design, you might wonder what’s left to perfect. But Jonathan Cheung, SVP of Levi’s Design, is up for the challenge.
“I remember [Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh] challenging us about certain ‘rules’ and whether they were purely internal-facing and preventing us from adopting new technology,” Cheung said. “You get good answers by asking good questions, and we broke — or rather, added — to our tradition shortly afterwards by developing our first ever 501 in stretch.”
Cheung is designing through an increasingly sustainable and innovation-led lens. While he says his design process — or what’s often referred to as “design thinking” — remains largely the same, getting to the end result has changed. The process of discovery, ideation, problem-solving and prototyping, he noted, are still the fundamentals of design. “However, the tools we use are constantly evolving. For example, at the start of my career, visual inspiration came from pulling cuttings out of magazines, but now most of that has been replaced by gathering digital content.”
Alternatives to virgin cotton — from recycled, plant alternatives or bio-tech created yarns — and sustainable solutions for stretch and indigo are among the new concepts Cheung is eager to see take shape in the denim industry. New resources and opportunities to improve how denim is designed and made are part of what keeps him motivated.
“For denim, challenges like speed-to-market or sustainability are highly stimulating, because you have to design your way to solutions. You get into design because you want to create something new, so change is something all designers should have as part of their character,” he said. “Importantly, as well as the tools, a designer has to be conscious of the social and economic changes around us. What we’re influenced by, why and where we spend our hard-earned money has radically changed, so designers need to be highly aware of the shifts in values and expectations.”
Cheung is counting on the next generation to bring these ideas to fruition. “I think Gen Z will save the world. They know it’s not just about the money, it’s about principles and values too. That will be reflected in denim,” he said.
“I don’t think we have a right to freeze progress, so it’s our duty not to get hung up on the past, but to create the future,” he added. “Luckily, when looking towards the future, we get to stand on the shoulders of giants.”
What is your first denim memory?
"My first vivid denim memory was when I was at Art College and watching the Levi’s Laundrette ad coming on at the cinema. People—mainly girls—were screaming. I can’t remember the what film I was going to see, but I've been in love with the 501 ever since."
What is your favorite pair of jeans?
"It’s a pair of 501 jeans that I bought in the mid-90s whilst living in Milan. I wore them for years, and then my wife wore them during her first pregnancy. I rediscovered them when we moved to San Francisco. They now have little drawings done by both our children embroidered on them. Being at Levi’s, it feels like those jeans have come full circle [and] returned to their spiritual home."