Eco by design

Why Paul Dillinger’s approach to fashion design at Levi’s is the way of the future.

Coat hangers can sometimes do awful things to garments. Particularly T-shirts, and especially if they’re wet.

The resulting lumpy looking shoulders are not a good look which is why Paul Dillinger, Levi’s Strauss & Co. vice president of Global Product Innovation, is particularly proud of solving this issue for Levi’s T-shirts at least.

Levi’s Wellthread organic cotton T-shirts can now be safely hung up to dry, just as the garment care instructions suggest.

“Because that’s the best way to care for any garment,” says Dillinger. “But it’s all very well hanging out a wet T-shirt on a hanger to dry but you’re going to get those terrible little pointy lumps on the shoulders. So we solved this using the simple process of taking about two inches of new material and overlapping the shoulder. The shoulder has slope, which means that materials meet at an angle when you overlap them. When knits are layered and wet, they’re actually quite strong so we’ve created an opportunity for people to hang it up without having any little stretch marks happening.”

The applied design thinking exercise shows how thoughtful consideration of the consumer’s life and engagement with the garment, and what the consumer needs to have a sustainable lifestyle might mean to a different way of designing, Dilligner explains.

It’s this approach, using front end methods for applied sustainability in the design process, that lights him up and why he accepted a job at Levi’s.

“The best example [of this method] was about 11 or 12 years ago when a brilliant designer on the design team asked the question, ‘is there any way of washing jeans without water?’ That little puzzle led to the creation of the waterless finishing system that has saved many billions of litres of fresh water and that process change all came from a front-end design reconsideration,” he says.

Earlier this year Levi’s launched a version of its most iconic product, the 501 Original, made with organic cotton and post-consumer recycled denim, and designed to itself be recyclable. Produced in collaboration with multi-award-winning sustaintech Swedish company, Renewcell.

“The 501 is our key product and we don’t get to mess around with it very much so to create something that we know has the same product integrity profile, durability, look and assets that everyone really knows and loves is a win,” says Dillinger. “Not only will our circular 501 jeans stand the test of time, just as they always have been, they’ll also be able to find a second, third or fourth life as new garments.”

Innovations such as these are helping lessen the environmental impact of fashion though Dillinger owns there is still a long way to go.

Prior to working at Levi’s he worked as a fashion designer and brand development specialist at a variety of fashion houses in New York, including Calvin Klein and DKNY, and became so disillusioned with the fashion industry that he left it for teaching, hoping to create change as an educator.

Paul Dillinger, vice president of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s Strauss & Co.

“I spent the first 15 years of my career in New York, just trying to get ahead in an environment that was very fashion-driven. There was a particular moment of disillusion where I was seeing a particularly exploitive exchange happening between a major retailer and a brand I was working at, at the time and recognising that the only place that values be extracted in this case was the worker wage somewhere deep in Mexico and the environment around factory. Those were the only possible levers that were left to try to extract greater value and there was a drive to squeeze ever more blood from that particular stone. So I left the industry, went to teaching and it wasn’t until Levi’s called saying, ‘come out and do cool things’ that I found a company that aligned with my personal values and enable change to happen,” he says.

When Levi’s made that call, Dillinger questioned whether he wanted to jump back into another big company and realised that it was a real opportunity to make the most impact at scale.

“It’s only by incentivising change or creating change with the big players that we can actually move the needle,” he says. “Levi’s is a big company and if we can refine our practices here and steer this great big ship towards a more sustainable harbour, that’s the place the work needs to be done. I applaud all the small brands that are trying to start from scratch with progressive sustainably-minded values but it’s really hard for small companies to achieve things like the Re:newcell circular jean, and so the real need for change is in big companies.

“As a designer, I’ve got messes to clean up here and the bigger the mess, the more urgent the need for a clean-up and we’ve got big messes in the garment industry.”

What excites him most about the future of fashion and makes him hopeful is partnering with scientists and using data.

“We’ve had an industry that’s been bought on mood, temperament and emotion for so long that it doesn’t know how to read a report. It’s not good at accepting the truth of science into its work,” he says.

“What’s most valuable for me is when [Levi’s senior director global sustainability] Jennifer DuBuisson and colleagues in the sustainability function become active participants in the design dialogue, and we’ve had some pretty heated conversations about ideas that our colleagues have exposed to us. We really need to defer to the signs of impact. The more we do the better chance we have to really enable change.”

Levi’s Buy Better Wear Longer campaign is encouraging consumers to do just that and if Dillinger had his way, trend as a driver of excess consumption and as an influencer purchaser motivation will soon die peacefully and go to sleep somewhere.

He believes designers and brands should be focused on the consumer and relevance, and that trends rob consumers of agency and self-expression.

His suggested solution for helping solve the clothing crisis is for both designers and consumers to spend less time thinking about trends and more time thinking about what are the true fundamental design attributes of the things we love versus the things we bought and never wear.

“We all have our favourite garment. The one that we wear more than anything else. We all also have in our closet the thing that we had to have, that we’ve never worn. For me, it’s a beautiful, brilliant emerald green Shantung silk Paul Smith French cuff dress shirt. The colour is amazing. I have never worn that shirt. So, what are the values? What are the attributes, what’s the aesthetic of the thing that I had to buy and never wore? What are the attributes and values and aesthetics assigned to the thing that I wear the most because I love it so much? They each have different values and those values have different designable qualities,” he says.

“If you make a list, they’re distinct. And if we encourage our design culture and focus on the list of things, values, qualities associated with the things that are most loved, we would get a very different looking industry than the fast fashion industry.

“It wouldn’t change as often as perhaps some merchants might need but it would be a little more consistent and a little less flashy but it would be friendlier and more sustainable. Designing clothes that people are going love and hold onto, and that’s not the design motive of the fast fashion industry.”

What he’s most proud of to date though, is the T-shirt.

“I really am,” he laughs. “The quantity of fabric used in that T-shirt for the shoulder is exactly the same 17 and a half square inches that were used on the useless pocket that used to be on the front that created opportunities for rips and tears and had a no real value. So that’s the one that I’m most proud of.”

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