Interviews Men’s Fashion

Jonathan Cheung of Levi’s on the New 501 CT, the Nature of Authenticity and Newton’s Third Law of Physics: Q&A

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Image by Victoria Will

You know the Levi’s 501–the most classic jean in the history of jeans–and now it’s time to meet the 501 CT. The CT stands for custom tapered, a new fit which builds on the 501 and alters it only  slightly, but crucially.

We love it and think you will, too.

We learned all about the 501 CT on the phone with Jonathan Cheung, Senior Vice President of Apparel Design for Levi’s. He was reached at the company’s Innovation Lab in Eureka, CA–a place where new designs are created, displayed and fine-tuned. Cheung, in his dulcet English accent, described his environment as “a Large Hadron Collider.”

Besides the origin and story of the CT, we also talked with Cheung about Isaac Newton’s third law of physics, the future of denim and the 501’s unique “anti-fit,” among other topics.

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Shop: 501 CT | all Levi’s | The Rail 

Nordstrom blogs: We know your title. But what is your job, actually, in a nutshell?

Jonathan Cheung: It’s my responsibility to manage and direct the men’s and women’s apparel teams. Basically what you would see at any store or online: that’s the main body of my work. It’s like being a conductor in an orchestra, or head chef at a restaurant. You get a lot of ingredients and people who are virtuosos in their category–various aspects of design, mainly, for me–and you put it together. As you put all the ideas, say, on the floor of Eureka, things will start to begin to shine. And from there we can form a season. Then convey our inspiration to the rest of the organization, to merchandising and marketing.

How did Levis know its customers wanted the the 501 CT?

That was from our own awareness. It wasn’t survey-driven. We just knew that from talking to people and being close to our customers, personally. Except we did have one statistic: it was the second-most requested alteration in our stores that provide those services, after hemming, that we knew of. But that was a confirmation of what we had been seeing rather than the first mover in creating the CT. That was the cherry on top.

Why taper 501s and not just buy tapered jeans?

It’s because of the 501. Its status, its legends, the way it’s iconic. There’s a lot of nostalgia and affection for the 501 itself. And because of the button fly. And because it fits the way that it does, around your hips and around your bum. And the fabric. The shrink to fit fabric that has that kind of salt-and-pepper character which is unique to the 501. They wanted that, all those elements, but tapered at the ankles. So people were putting it upon themselves to do that. When we decided to do it, it was like, Oh, wow, that was a no-brainer.

That’s a great term, anti-fit.

That’s the magic of the 501. You’ll see teenagers wearing the 501. Middle-aged guys, pensioners. And they all look cool. And it’s because the pants have this anti-fit, and don’t look like they’re trying too hard. Don’t look like they’re trying to squeeze in to a guy’s bum. The definition of cool is being yourself and not looking like you’re contrived or trying too hard. And the 501 embodies that. You project your personality into the jeans. You don’t wear a dominant, heavily-branded thing. You have this association and symbiotic relationship with this iconic garment. It’s been on the Rolling Stones, Steve Jobs, Bruce Springtseen, Marlon Brando: iconic people in iconic situations. But at the same time, it doesn’t overpower the individual.

What does the CT do for a given outfit? It showcases the shoe. What else?

The shoe, for sure. If you roll it up, it also shows your ankle or fancy socks or whatever. What I love about the CT is it has the ability to make everything else look good. You could wear it with a sneaker or a pair of English brogues. Button-down or t-shirt. It goes with everything.

If I may quote you to yourself, you said this to the Business of Fashion: “The biggest shift in denim today is a swing back to authenticity. There’s a swing from alternatives to a regular pair of jeans, back to a regular pair of jeans. People want something with meaning.” Why do you think that? And I feel what you’re saying on an emotional level, but what does that look like: authenticity?

In nature, there are swings. It’s Isaac Newton’s third law of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So in the past 15-20 years, there’s been a lot of alternatives to Levi’s-type jeans. They’ve been fancier, louder, more decorative, more look-at-me. And so as a counter reaction to that, the pendulum swings back to the center. Back to authenticity. And that really means simplicity. A simple pair of five-pocket jeans. Something that the 501 is the father of, the template for. A jean you would recognize in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and this millennium. It’s also Levis in a unique position. In terms of jeans, it’s the number one and the first one. If any brand can claim to be authentic it’s Levis. There can only be one first. So it’s a good time for Levis. I also think people looking for something like Levis, something like a 501 or a 511, these days there is just a huge amount of choice out there. You’re bombarded by noise. You can buy them from your phone 24/7. So the choices you make define you. People are more and more looking for product with meaning so they can make those differentiations. That’s the same for a cup of coffee. Or milk.

Speaking of the 511, what do you think is the future of the slimmer fits? 511, 510, 513: are these new classics?

Absolutely. Over time, your eyes shift. So if you look at menswear, you can recognize a tailored suit that comes from Savile Row, from the ‘50s, ‘60s, even the ‘70s. Think about James Bond. Sean Connery’s got small lapels. Then comes the ‘60s and that changes a bit. Then comes Roger Moore. At that moment, all those proportions feel right. Because in their context they feel right. Over the last 15 years, the 511 was known as a skinny fit at the beginning, because it came out in a sea of looser fits. Now it’s become the new normal. Or a new normal, I should say.