Steven Burns has always been inspired by workwear and military uniforms, seeking to bring the functionality and durability of utilitarian garments to Levi’s men’s jeans and pants. He grew up with the desire to create garments that were accessible to all—that spoke to a consumer’s needs as well as their desire for style. Denim epitomizes “product with purpose,” he believes, and his designs, like the fabric itself, are built to last through trials, tribulations and changing trends.
Burns’ diverse career path began in activewear design, and was followed by a stint with a Savile Row tailor, pattern cutting and working with emerging denim lines that combined old-school tailoring techniques with contemporary denim styling. Sixteen years ago, he joined Levi’s as a men’s denim designer. Now, he leads the men’s bottoms category for the brand globally.
The designer continues to be inspired by the timeless appeal of denim, from “the beauty of indigo and how it wears in over time,” to the “beautiful blue hues” that evolve as the fabric is worn and washed. “It’s the only fabric I know that is alive—it ages just like we all do,” he added. “It can be with you for a lifetime if you look after it properly.”
What denim buzzword do you think is overused? And what would you replace it with?
Sustainability is a critical piece of the denim world, but the word “sustainable” is heavily overused and oftentimes misused with regard to products that aren’t really sustainable. I’d rather see a focus on useful or beloved. The most sustainable jeans are the ones you love the most and keep pulling out of your wardrobe time and time again. I have jeans I bought 10 to 15 years ago that I continue to love and wear, and I’ve gotten some recently that I know I’ll wear for the next 10 to 20 years.
What do you wish more consumers knew about the jeans they buy?
The benefits of 100 percent cotton. A lot of people equate comfort with stretch, but it would be great for more people to know how comfortable cotton can be. The more you wear it, it molds to your body. It becomes softer yet remains durable, its breathable and more comfortable than stretch. There is a real virtue in the way it was done. The jeans you would have bought 100 years ago, you could still buy now.
If you had one request for denim brands, what would that be?
Collaborate. Share knowledge and learnings so that everyone can evolve, particularly when it comes to sustainability. By working together, we can create change that we all can leverage and benefit from. For example, with the rise in demand for hemp, it is creating an eco-system which then helps to lower costs and increase the availability and scalability of the fiber.
Win with your style, not by trying to beat each other on sustainable. I like the bit at the start of Bruce Springsteen’s official video for ‘Born To Run’ where, just before he is about blast into one of the best songs of all time, he says, “Remember, in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins!” You can’t argue with The Boss, can you?
What can other apparel categories learn from the denim industry?
A great pair of jeans are forever. What if other clothing could be forever, beyond one or two seasons. Clothes that are meant to last for 10 to 15 years or even longer versus one season. There are existing standards for making circular jeans. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has led much of this work. We showed what it looked like when we released a circular version of our 501s last year. It would be great to have similar processes and guidelines for other categories.
What was your most recent denim purchase?
A pair of secondhand 501s overdyed black on indigo. They have a beautiful unevenness in color with a nice base character. I went up from my usual size for a more relaxed, looser fit and the inseam is 36” which is way long but makes great for extra stacking. I love them. Go big or go home, as they say. My favorite go to in Levi’s are 501, 568 Stay Loose and the 551z.
What is your first denim memory?
When I was a kid, probably 9 or 10 years old, I went with the Cub Scouts to the Lake District National Park. It is in a mountainous region in Northern England and is famous for its glacial ribbon lakes, forests and rugged fell mountains. One of our activities on this trip was to go gorge walking, which is basically making your way through a river, jumping or sliding either up the river or down it. You are walking submerged to your chest, or at very least waist deep in water most of the time.
For some reason I was wearing jeans. I think there were only a two of us wearing jeans—a telling sign.
Unsurprisingly, after hours chest deep in the rivers and pouring rain, when I got out my jeans were totally stuck to me like a second skin. They were the jean version of Olivia Newton-John’s pants in “Grease.” This became a problem when I got back to the dormitory. I couldn’t get my jeans off. I had to get help. It took three people to pull them off me. There needs to be a Cub Scout badge for this emergency activity.