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Hairsteria: Levi's President Robert Hanson's Latest Collaboration

Levi's brand denim is no stranger to collaborations. Their most recent team-up comes by way of, well, Broadway, where they've joined forces with champion costume man Michael McDonald to outfit the cast of the new Broadway revival of Hair. Being set in the mid-60s, Levi's was an obvious choice for the countercultural youngsters who sought to defy the norm and awaken and social and political awareness not only through their voice, but also with their fashion. Levi's President Robert Hanson took a few moments to elaborate on not only the collaboration itself but also the philosophy behind Levi's that makes it an ideal fit for thes how.

Obviously Levi's has always been a forerunner in collaborations, how did this one get started?

Robert Hanson: We partneredwith Gus Van Sant and the wardrobe for Milk, which was really important to us because Harvey Milk was a voice of social justice, and he wore Levi's 501 jeans as a kind of uniform of the late '70s. Then there's the upcoming Stefan Sagmeister poster series. The Shepard Ferry show at the ICA in Boston we're taking on the road. We worked with David Hearst and the Andy Warhol foundation. But what happened here, with Hair, is a really authentic collaboration. You think about what's going on in the world today, how the times are kind of leaning into the attitude of the pioneers of the '60s, so the times naturally kind of lean into Levi's. We think of our brand as the embodiment of the energy and the events of our times. So when Michael started to do research for the show our archive eventually found its way to him. It just made nothing but sense for him to collaborate with us because they were so true to the times.
So you approached Michael or he came to you first?
Ultimately he came to us. When people start doing their research they eventually think "let me talk to Levi's because I'm sure that they probably have the history." I think most people are surprised by the archive we have and our ability and our willingness to share with it artists. It's a unique brand that's always been associated with pioneers and cultural revolutionaries that make a difference, whether its young political rebels, or artists, or influential thinkers. They've always sort of embodied and embraced Levi's values: originality, creativity, integrity, youthful optimism, independence, and sexiness. It's just in the fabric of what the brand is all about.
And what specifically was contributed from the Levi's line? We have this amazing finish called Acid Trip, which is kind of the times. There's low rise boot cut, skinnies, low rise skinnies on both men and women, mid rise flares - you see all that in the show. Some of the guys are wearing tight sexy boot cut jeans, and we have two 527 bootcuts that are in our range now, plus the low-rise slim bootcut and the Hesher bootcut from our capital E range. And then the denim trucker jacket I'm wearing conveniently--all of these pieces are commercially available, but they are all used in the show, only Michael took it all and played with it. He added patch-work and stitching. He removed sleeves from the denim jackets to make great vests. It was all about customization for authenticity of these kids who just wanted to express themselves openly, which we encourage with our brand.
How much involvement did Levi's have in the conception of the pieces in the show?
It was very collaborative. We brought the archive to Michael - shipped him tons of product and also opened up the doors to all of our stores in New York City and he said, "this works, this works, this works..." But during the process he showed us the sketches and all his progress. He did everything in terms of the customization, but we talked every day for 3 months, so we were very much in the loop.
For you personally -- any stories, memories or associations with Hair?
I'll probably relive my association with Hair tonight when I see the show, but here it is. I grew up in Santa Rosa, California and there's a great repertory theatre there - the Summer Santa Rosa Jr. College. It was a really well respected repertory theatre, and the first time I fell head over heels--like head over heels, inconsolably in love--was with a cast member of that production of Hair. I'm sure a lot of that will resurface when I see the show tonight, but I'm still looking forward to it.
What do you want people to take away from these collaborations with Levi's? Why is it so important to the brand to have them?
Look, I work here for a reason. If you're going to do what I do for a living, it's got to be meaningful. I think the reason the association with Hair is so magical is because it shows that people who've made a difference in the world have always worn Levi's. It's worn by people who get shit done. It's worn by people who understand the importance of the time that they're living in, and that they choose to do something with that time. These were the jeans that people wore when they rebuilt California after the 1906 earthquake. These were the jeans that people wore after the Great Depression to rebuild America. These were the jeans that young G.I's wore coming back from WWII. And then you think about the '60s: all these young people who had something to say about war and culture and politics and sex - they wore Levi's. Every generation that has mattered has really been wearing our product, and we as a company have given a lot of love back.
This is a company that believes in social justice. We integrated our production facilities in the south 20 years before it was legislated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We've been supporting the gay and lesbian community long before there was a popularity to it because it's just the right thing to do. We took a position early on HIV and AIDS, on domestic partnership, on employment and discrimination. We argued the business case before the California Supreme Court for ending discrimination on California's marriage statutes. Levi's is the uniform of common sense and that's always been a part of who we are.
-- Seth Plattner
Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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