When we met up with Levi’s Karyn Hillman, it was a beautiful, sunny San Francisco day. So we sat down outside at Levi’s Plaza, the company’s HQ, to chat. We wanted to know a few things: What did her role there, a big one, entail? (She had joined as chief product officer under a year ago.) What was her vision for the brand? (Just about everyone we’d met on our trip thus far had told us how amazing it was to work with her.) And, of course, we wanted to know the provenance of the perfect 501s she had on. Karyn, it turns out, had snagged them very recently at the Eureka Innovation Lab’s tailor shop. These Levi’s had been made in 1995, and the life (or lives, even) they’d had before they were sourced by the team at the Lab and re-shaped, was unknown. But no matter; they looked like they’d been Karyn’s forever.
And actually, we learned, that wouldn’t have been hard to believe. Karyn told us about how her love for Levi’s began in the ninth grade (when she pegged them), and continued through college at UC Berkeley – by then she was having them tailored and tapered. She went everywhere in her 501s, had them patched and re-patched. Things always change, she told us, but Levi’s place in her life was the one thing that didn’t – and still doesn’t – change for her. She knows them, literally, inside and out.
All this personal history with the brand is standing her in good stead when it comes to her job. Karyn is responsible for all of Levi’s product creation. She oversees all of design – men’s and women’s – and innovation in every division. She’s looking at technical things like pocket placement, rises, washes…every stitch and rivet. And she’s asking the big questions: what kind of sexy does a woman want to be in her Levi’s? How does the company stay true to its heritage while remaining relevant? We were lucky enough to try out some of what Karyn’s been working on in answer to these questions, and while we can’t spill the beans (gotta wait until spring), they are good – super exciting and just what we want to wear. As for our own questions, read on…
Tell us a little about how you’ve been approaching design at Levi’s…
It started by trying on every Levi’s jean style there is, around the world. There’s a lot of legacy here. I needed to understand what people like about it, so that we can reinterpret what that is going forward. I’m taking a holistic approach. I’m looking at everything. What is still the best? What is going to be brand new? So I’ve been going around the world, looking at all the different body types that wear our jeans, talking to women. In the next few years, we have to address what’s wonderful about the brand’s authentic roots, and what will work better for her in the future. Somewhere in between there is where the magic is.
And for you, personally, what do you need your jeans to be always?
They need to fit well. It’s so personal for me, they way jeans fit. I like them square on top. I’m not a nipped-in girl. And I’ve tailored a lot of jeans. If a jean doesn’t fit, I make it happen for myself. In the past I bought my 501s with a higher waist, but they were always square. If there’s a wash that’s stunning, but the jean doesn’t fit me, I won’t buy them. If the wash is bad, but the fit is great, I won’t buy them, either. They have to have great tone, great character. I’m picky. I can go jeans shopping and just hold a pair up and know if they’re going to fit me.
Tell us more about this tailoring that you do.
When I went to UC Berkeley I bought all my jeans at a secondhand shop right on Telegraph Avenue. I bought pocket tees and 501s. That’s all I ever bought. Weird, right? Because that’s what I’m wearing today! I had them taken in at Jim the Tailor on Bancroft. I think he’d been around for about 60 years (they closed their shop in 2012) and had changed hands several times. But it was always called Jim the Tailor.
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What do you love most about the ones you’re wearing?
I love the way they fit. When I put on this vintage pair I knew I could get them to the perfect place. And I love, love, love the tone, the color. I love the color, and I love the character they have. They have all the classic markings. It’s like someone doctored them up to be that perfect. The rip, the stains…I think they’re all very sincere, too.
So they had all of those little stains on them when you found them?
Yes. I mean, what did this guy do? A little dirt, a little grass, a little oil. He worked.
What do you do in them?
Everything. I wear them everywhere – to dinner, to work, weekends. I don’t discriminate where I wear them. It’s my rule: 24/7. Why not?
If your jeans could talk, what would they say about you?
That I never stop. I’m always moving.
What’s the most memorable place they’ve been?
You see, I don’t know because I just got them. A certain gentleman must have had them and taken them lots of places. That’s the funny part about it, right? I don’t know where they’ve been, but I know I will have them forever. They’ll go places.
Click for more of Karyn’s story…
Was there ever a pair that got away?
In high school in the 80s, I bought all my 501s, and I wore them in the tub to shrink them. I did the whole thing. And, I swear to God, I wore them through college, dating. And then, probably after having kids, I couldn’t fit into them anymore. They were really on their last legs, patched and re-patched. But I was saving them for my daughter…and then I lost them during a move. I had a bag of Levi’s – including a Trucker that belonged to my high school boyfriend – that I had saved. But when we moved to Connecticut, I was rummaging for my Levi’s and I could only find the Trucker. My jeans were all gone. I was devastated. I’d been everywhere in them. They had seen everything. My daughter is 13; she’d be perfect for them right now. I really wish I had them to show you.
We wish you did, too! Was there a pair you should have broken up with sooner?
No. I tend to stop wearing jeans if they’re not what I like right away.
Do you own a pair only you could love?
No, except for that I tailor them all my jeans to fit me. I’m not sure anyone is my exact size and shape.
How may pairs do you need to feel satisfied.
Probably only a small number of favorites at a time. Five at a time. I have a lot, but my inner circle is five.
If you had to replace your jeans with something else, what would it be?
How can I answer that question? I don’t think I can.
Without my jeans, I am ____________.
In my jeans, I am ____________.
See who else Lives in Levi’s:
Nick Rendic and the Levi’s He Won’t Leave Home Without
Jonathan Cheung’s Aha Moments in Levi’s Eureka Lab
How Michael Giordano Lives in His Levi’s
Kaede Matsumoto, a Vision in (and for) Levi’s