May 17, 2017 | By Samuel Trotman
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Apr 19, 2017
It’s been 50 years since 100,000 young people converged in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with flowers in their hair, spurring a countercultural movement known as the “Summer of Love” in 1967. It was an iconic time of fashion, music, art, and news ideas. Civil rights and the arts were in – Vietnam was not.
During this period, a generation emerged that began rejecting the conformist values of Cold War America and demanded cultural and social changes. Soon, the curious youth of America made the pilgrimage West to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” so they could enjoy the popular, psychedelic music that exploded during this highly creative period. The Summer of Love birthed debut albums from the likes of Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and The Velvet Underground.
The Human Be-In rally that touched off the Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967 was a psychedelic, hippy-dippy, drug-addled, free-love, damn-the-man love-fest where flower children flourished in the grooviest fashions.
Breaking with the confines of the past, the Summer of Love brought with it a new sartorial silhouette. Hair got longer, jeans got wider and the colour pallette took on a distinctly psychedelic feel as minds expanded and innocence was lost. Little did they know, these burgeoning rebels were setting the stage for decades to come – from their music to their style to their mission. The spirit of the ’60s remains alive and well today.
In honor of its 50th anniversary, Levi’s® Vintage Clothing (LVC) has launched a special collection for spring/summer 2017 around this concept entitled “Forever Changes,” after the 1967 seminal album by an L.A. band called Love. To find out more on the collection and discover some of Levi’s hidden stories from the era, we spoke with Paul O’Neill, LVC’s head designer:
The S/S 17 collection celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in 1967. Obviously with the movement exploding out of SF and Levi’s being based there, how was the brand embedded into the counter culture movement that was happening at the time?
Levi’s® was definitely embedded in the counter culture of 1967. Most of the kids at the time were wearing Levi’s® and we were working with bands like Jefferson Airplane, who were creating adverts for us which were totally way out and shows how relaxed the company must have been at the time. We were also putting out product like The Crazy Legs, which were right on point for this movement with slogans like “LOVE TRIP” printed in bold colors down the legs.
Levi’s Orange Tab is the signature label that people associate with the 70s era. How was denim style evolving in the late 60s and what were some of the key styles that Levi’s were releasing for this new generation in ’67?
Yes, Orange tab has become synonymous with youth culture of the time and was a line started in 1969 by Levi’s® to appeal to the youth market and emerging trends. Before this there were already products in the mid 1960s aimed at the younger generation like “White Levi’s®” and “Sta-Pres,t” which were a slimmer straight leg in non-denim fabrics, like bedford cord, canvas, and cavalry twill. For Denim in the 551z was launched, which was a slim straight leg fit and the first mens preshrunk jeans that would eventually be given a new lot number in 1967 and become the 505™. Another great jean from the mid 1960s are the 606 Super Slims, which were launched in 1965 and were the first true skinny fit by Levi’s® and aimed at the more fashion conscious consumer. The 606 was given an orange tab when Orange Tab launched in 1969, but originally it had a black tab with orange writing, which was essentially a reversed orange tab. The original 606 had no back patch and no arcuate on back pockets and had felled out seams, which was something new for Levi’s® Denim. In my opinion this jean was the originator or the precursor to the orange tab line.
Connecting with this new generation of teens was a major shift away from the rodeo-crowd that Levi’s had previously targeted. How did the brand adjust its marketing, ads and branding to tap into the psyche of this younger crowd?
In the mid 60s, especially with the “White Levi’s®” campaigns, you definitely see a change in the advertising. Now Levi’s® are trying to appeal to the college kids and promote the Ivy League look having products called Levis Mods, and Ivy Trims, etc. The adverts were illustrations that looked quite preppy and sometimes had a sports theme. Towards the late 60s they were linking things more to the evolving music scene in San Francisco and some of the adverts featured photos of college kids holding records by bands likes of “The crazy world of Arthur Brown” or “Buffalo Springfield.” All this along with bands like Jefferson Airplane making 30 second far out Levi’s® radio adverts was a sure sign that they were attempting to get into the psyche of the emerging counterculture.
Were there any particular bands/musicians known for wearing Levi’s at this time?
Most of the local S.F. bands like Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield were definitely known for wearing Levi’s® along with most of the LA bands like the Byrds. The Mod bands in the UK like The Who and the Small Faces were known for wearing 501®s and even George Harrison turned up to Haight and Ashbury in summer 67 wearing a Levi’s® type 3 Trucker Jacket
The summer of love era was an time of expression and saw people customising their Levi’s with hand paintings, patchworks and other unique embellishments. You’ve got items like the 1662 551Z Jean with Peace Print in the archive. What are some of the other unique items you’ve acquired from the era?
Yes the peace sign jeans are great. I bought them about 6 years ago and have been waiting for the right time to put them out. A lot of people associate the summer of love and the hippy movement with bell bottoms and flares although Levis didn’t put out flares until 1969 so its not something we were producing during the summer of love. I have come across a lot of customized 501®s or 505™s that have had pieces inserted into the bottom opening to creates a boot cut or a bell bottom. Also one pair of jeans we found were cut off at the knee and had the top part (thigh to knee) of another pair flipped upside down and sewn on the end to create a natural bell bottom which I thought was very clever. We took direct inspiration from some of these garments and added them into our collection.
There are always a couple of special standout items in the LVC collection. This season there’s the mirror jean and Crazy Legs collection. Could you tell us the story behind these pieces
The mirror jeans came about when we got a small roll of 1970s dead stock denim from Cone Mills and were exited to make 501®s from actual 70s denim for the first time. When it arrived we realized it was left hand twill which traditionally Levi’s® doesn’t use so we were scratching our heads. In desperation to use this beautiful 40 year old denim we figured the only way to stay true to our heritage would be to mirror every single detail on the garment from construction to packaging down to the writing embossed on the rivets. Then when held in front of a mirror they would appear to be regular right hand twill 501®s. We liked the result so much that we had Cone Mills remake our 1970s denim in a left hand twill so we could produce a limited run of the mirror jeans as part of our Spring 2017 collection.
For the crazy legs, these were products that Levi’s® put out in 1967 so what a perfect time for us to reproduce them. I’d first seen them when I started at Levi’s® in 2009 and always wanted to reproduce them, but needed to wait for the right moment and this was it as they were born in 1967, so it’s their 50th anniversary, too. We only had two different designs in our archives so I have been searching for more over the last few years and found two more. We’ve not seen any more than these four that are exact reproductions of the originals and part of our Spring 2017 collection in a very limited run of 100 of each design.
As well as designing the collection you also designed and directed the lookbook for the season. What is the story behind this one?
Yes, every season I direct the look books, which is an amazing part of my job as I can see the collection right through from initial concept to a visual representation of the collection with the look book. Its a very special project with only a very small team involved it’s not some big production so it’s all hands on deck. I work very closely with the photographer every season and we go and scout locations together and street cast all the characters in the shoot (we never use models; only real people we find ourselves). This seasons book tells the story of three kids leaving small town in Texas and hitching rides and jumping trains to get to San Francisco to be part of the summer of love. When they arrive they encounter all sorts of interesting people and scenes that will help shape their lives.
I heard you’re a big music head and an avid record collector. What are some of the records that you were listening to/inspired by when creating this collection?
Yes, I love music from this period so I’ve been very excited about this collection as I’ve been researching it since my dad gave me his 60s record collection when I was 15 years old. The collection is called “Forever Changes” after the ‘Love’ album from 1967, which has definitely been a big influence on me. Also albums like “Easter Everywhere” by ‘the 13th Floor Elvevators’ and “The Velvet Underground and Nico” are favorites from 67 and you may notice a nod and a wink to some of them records in the garments.
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