One way or another, Jonathan Cheung has spent the majority of his professional life in denim. Previously, he worked at Armani Jeans, Moschino Couture and he also created the first jeans line for Iceberg. He then joined the Levi’s brand in 2009 as part of the Made & Crafted team, and since 2013 he is Levi’s Head of Global design. We spoke to him about how he got into denim culture, his plans for the future as well as his favourite jeans.
What is your first memory of denim or jeans in general?
I think my earliest recollection is my mum giving me a pair of hand-me-down jeans, they were from a Hong Kong clothing label called Apple. However, my first memory of actually being fashion conscious and buying jeans was when I was a teenager – a pair of Levi’s 501. I remember being with a group of girls in a cinema, and as I went to an all-boys school, I was rather desperate for female attention at that time but nobody would even look at me, it was awful.
I noticed the girls got really excited when a particular Levi’s advert came on, it was this good-looking guy that strips off and sits half-naked in the bath with them on. The girls next to me were going absolutely crazy about it, so I was thinking to myself that I wouldn’t mind some of that, so I went and got myself a pair of Levi’s. They upped my game (laughs). When I wore them, I felt very special and sexy, I don’t know if anyone else felt that way, but I certainly did (laughs). I was really happy with them because they had a button and it was the first time that I owned a pair of jeans with a button fly so there was something very interesting about that.
So before that you didn’t know what Levi’s were?
I was definitely conscious and aware of what Levi’s and the 501 were before that moment, but it didn’t have that absolute gravitational pull until I saw the reaction on other people. I think that most of our decisions and desires are based on social psychology and peer recognition. Everything we choose to wear – even if we think we’re super individual – is affected by the people around us, so that was my case too.
And how did your interest in Levi’s jeans develop since then?
Later on, when I started going to art college, I found a lot of my student artist friends loved the 501 as well. It was a cult pair of jeans amongst designers, it was like anybody that knew about design and art loved the 501, everyone from my fellow design students to my teachers were wearing them. Even today, when we work with people like Demna Gvasalia of Vetements or Virgil Abloh from Off-White, you can see the respect they have for Levi’s and the 501.
For me, the 501 is a pure design classic. The amount of pockets they have, the placements, where the rivets and belt loops are – everything is there that you need, nothing is there that you don’t need. To me, it’s a design classic like a Porsche 911 or a Rolex Submariner or a Hermes Birkin bag, but the thing I like about it is that it’s an “accessible” design classic. For all those others you have to be rich, so there was a division, a social economic wall – you could admire them but you couldn’t own them. I think Levi’s is a design classic that everyone can own, and it’s also one of the reasons why I’m particularly proud to work for this company.
Can you explain the importance of evolving what is considered to be a design classic?
The 501 was invented in 1873, but it was just called the “riveted overall” and in 1890 was finally dubbed the 501. It started as an overall that you wore over another pair of trousers or pants to protect the pair that you really cared about, so it was big and baggy with a really long rise. It had no belt loops as people weren’t wearing belts yet, so it had buttons for suspenders or braces. It also only had four pockets, so you had no back pocket on your left side. Its changed constantly over the years and evolved with society. It started as an overall for miners and it went on it become something for casual lifestyle. Throughout its history its really changed and the modern 501 really is kind of post-war, so 1947 onwards is really where the modern jean comes from and even then it has always changed all the time for every decade and continues to change to this day.
What have you and your team done to further the 501’s legacy?
We’ve already initiated some changes to the 501 in the 3 years that I’ve been in my current role. The first one was the 501CT, which is a tapered version of the 501, because that’s what we were doing to our own 501s and people were doing that to their own 501s, so we just made that process simpler. Also, we have recently developed a 501 skinny that we are releasing in the Spring of next year. We also will be putting stretch into 501s for the first time in their 140 plus year history. The development of the fabric took over a year and a half of work alone just to get it right.
We will continue to update the 501, but some people say that we shouldn’t touch it and just leave it as it was traditionally. So my question to that would be to which year of 501 should we stop at? Why should we be the generation that stops the evolution of the 501 when all the previous generations didn’t. I believe it’s my responsibility to carry on the evolution of the 501 and keep it relevant as we go into the middle of the 21st century.
What are the top three 501s in your collection?
Firstly, number one would be probably the cheapest 501s I bought, they were about 20 dollars and I bought them 20 years ago when I was living in Milan as a fashion designer. I bought them on a trip to New York, they were just regular 501s and I wore them like how I usually wear my 501s – until they got holes in them before moving onto another pair. So after wearing them in and putting them away, in 2001-2002 I was back in England and my girlfriend (who is now my wife) got pregnant. We were opening up storage boxes and we found my old 501s and she starts wearing them as her pregnancy jeans while carrying our first child. After the baby was born, we put the jeans away and here I am now in San Francisco working for Levi’s and we’re unpacking and we open the boxes and I find the same pair of 501s. I wear them to work, its like a big circle of life, so they’re my favorite pair of 501s ever.
My second favourite is a reproduction 1966 501 that I bought in Tokyo around 2008. They’re just beautiful and 1966 is a special model for me, its my birth year for a start and I just love that period of time. They have big back pockets and the paper waist patch, which is what I associate with my childhood
Finally, third pair would probably be the Lot 1, which is based on the 501 and made by our tailor at the Levi’s Flagship Store in San Francisco. It was the second pair made in that store and its hand made by one guy and he made the pattern to my body. It was the first pair of jeans that I bought at the new store, and yes, I do have to buy my own jeans! (laughs)
Big thanks to Levi’s Malaysia and Jonathan Cheung for the interview, for more coverage from our recent Levi’s San Francisco trip, do check out our features on the Levi’s World Headquarters, their denim archive room, the Eureka Innovation Lab and their music performance venue, the Levi’s Lounge.