Though Levi's today epitomizes "effortless cool," as Levi Strauss & Co. states in its promotional materials, the brand was once associated more with effort than with cool. Levi Strauss made its name with a patented process for riveting the pockets of men's pants — a process that produced the most rugged, high-performance workwear of its time. Levi's overalls, made from the highest-quality denim, stood up to the demands of men who worked in the gold mines of 19th-century California and Nevada and roped cattle on the Western ranges.
So the company was, in a sense, returning to its roots when, last year, it introduced the Commuter Series — high-performance wear designed for office workers who commute by bicycle. Today's urban cowboys, of course, must look good — and smell good — in addition to arriving at work with their clothes intact, so the company's designers relied on an assortment of 21st-century technology as well as on Levi's traditional rugged fabrics and rivets.
JeWon Yu, who oversaw the design for Levi's, explains that the Commuter Series arose naturally from contemporary San Francisco culture: "Almost everyone I work with at the company rides their bikes as a mode of transportation. Also, riding through the streets of San Francisco, most commuters we see are wearing Levi's anyway, and we thought, why not offer them a little something extra?" In addition, she says, bicycle commuting is catching on worldwide, and, as a global company, Levi's is eager to support that trend.
Back to basics
The Commuter Series is built around the 511 Skinny Jean, one of Levi's best-selling styles, and the classic Levi's Trucker jacket, an iconic style first introduced in 1967. A work shirt and fleece jacket have also been added to the line. Yu says the 511 seemed to be the most popular choice for bicycle commuters already, so it made sense to start with that style and improve it to meet bikers' needs.
One of Yu's goals was to not improve these classic styles beyond all recognition — in other words, the Commuter Series should continue to look like street clothes, not like athletic wear. "You should be able to walk right into work or dinner without always carrying another set of clothes," she explains. That meant the improvements had to be made in "stealth" mode. Riders had to be comfortable and protected from the elements without looking as if they were training for the Tour de France.
To find out what mattered most to bike riders, Yu and her team interviewed bike messengers, tri-athletes, ordinary commuters and other kinds of riders. "Even though the use of the bike was different for all, the pain points were all the same," she says.
From all the ideas that emerged from these brainstorming sessions, the team selected those that addressed the most significant and common problems. First, they decided to use stretch fabrics in all styles to increase riders' mobility. Second, they made small but vital changes for better coverage, including a one-inch higher back rise for pants and drop tails and slightly longer cuffs for the tops. Other, nearly invisible, design changes made the styles more durable and comfortable — for example, reinforced fabric in the jeans' crotch, back pockets and belt loop and additional fabric in the jacket's sleeves for increased mobility. The jacket's pockets were made more accessible, and extra pockets were added (including one for that all-important commuting accessory, the iPod).
New tech for new needs
Some of these adjustments, of course, could have been made by Mr. Strauss 140 years ago. But to protect riders against commuting hazards, the design team turned to new technology.
*3M Scotchlite Reflective Tape integrates 300,000-candle-watt reflectivity into the jeans' interior cuffs and the jackets' waistband adjusters. Now, cyclists are very visible when they are riding, but the tape is concealed when they are off their bikes.
*NanoSphere technology from Swiss-based Schoeller Technologies is used to make the denim water-resistant, dirt-repellant, durable and protective. Levi's is the first company to introduce NanoSphere, a nanotech-based finishing technology, into denim fabrication. According to Schoeller, substances such as water, ketchup, honey, coffee and wine run off NanoSphere-treated fabric — and whatever doesn't run off of its own accord can be rinsed off with a little water. Treated textiles require less frequent washing and can be washed at lower temperatures.
*Antimicrobial finishes from SANITIZED AG, including the T20-19 hygienic finish for denim and the Sanitized Silver finish for non-denim fabrics, are used to keep odors at bay. These finishes, applied by padding or exhausting, act on the cell membranes of bacteria typically found on skin, preventing their growth and hindering their reproduction. (That post-workout odor is caused by bacteria metabolizing perspiration, not by perspiration itself.) According to Darrell Burnette, SANITIZED's business development manager for North America, the finishes typically retain their effectiveness through 25 to 30 launderings before starting to taper off. Of course, thanks to the SANITIZED and NanoSphere finishes, consumers don't need to launder Commuter Series clothing very often.
*New this season is moisture-resisting 3XDRY technology, also from Schoeller, which is used on the Commuter Series tops. Fabrics treated with 3XDRY finish absorb moisture and disperse it without bringing it to the surface. Yu says the finish works equally well to absorb perspiration coming from the rider's skin and to absorb water coming from the outside "in case you're caught in unexpected rain [which happens] so often here in San Francisco." She adds, "It's really quite amazing."
Once the products' design was finalized, Yu's team wear-tested them on the bicycle commuters who worked at Levi's headquarters. Designers, merchandisers and marketing staff all provided feedback based on their real-world experience and helped fine-tune the products.
The Commuter Series launched in April 2011 and immediately generated great enthusiasm — along with plenty of comments from bicycle commuters. Yu says the "loudest message" the company received was a request for additional fit offerings to address the diverse ranges of body types, which her team is now working on. Levi's also plans to expand the Commuter Series, she says, and it continues to wear-test new styles as they are designed. She notes, "The company is always looking to address the needs of our vast and diverse consumer base — but always making sure it's relevant to the brand as well, and our values."
Masha Zager is a New York-based Apparel contributing writer specializing in business and technology.