Editor’s note: The Levi’s Wellthread x Outerknown collaboration ended in 2019, but you can still shop some of its best garments at Outerknown’s sale.
In the last iteration of the Levi’s Wellthread x Outerknown collaboration, the brands released some seriously game-changing shirts. The Western shirts are made entirely of cotton — that includes the fabric, thread, buttons and labels. Because the garments are made solely from one fiber, they have the greatest potential to be recycled in the future.
Pure inputs — materials made up of one substance — maximize material efficiency in a recycling system, but very few garments available today fit that definition. Many fabrics — like nylon or cotton — are blended with elastane for stretch. And even if they aren’t blended, they may be sewn with durable polyester thread, utilize plastic buttons or metal rivets, include polyester backings inside the design or feature polyester labels and tags. All of these elements reduce the potential for recyclability at the end of a garment’s life.
Because of increasing rates of consumption, recyclability of garments is incredibly important. McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm, found that “clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60 percent.” And, to make matters worse, a staggering 60 percent of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made.
These classic shirts, available in olive moleskin and indigo Ikat, are a major step forward in sustainable design. Currently, the apparel industry lacks the technology and processes to recycle garments on an industrial scale, but Levi’s is practicing producing single-fiber clothing so that the company will have success when society creates the proper grading, labeling, take-back and maintenance systems needed to make true circularity viable.
While this entirely cotton shirt was a first for the Levi’s Wellthread x Outerknown collab, the brands released a 100-percent polyester Sherpa Trucker in 2017. They also released 100-percent polyester board shorts — the threads, fabric, buttons, tipping on the drawstring, nylon pilot for a drawstring and iconic Levi’s Red Tab were all polyester ensuring it could be recycled as a pure input. “When it does go into a recycling system, it maximizes the potential material efficiency and it’s out to become a second-generation turned into first-generation material,” said Paul Dillinger, Levi’s vice president of Global Product Innovation. “And that’s not what any of the recycled nylon vendors right now are doing.”
In the spring of 2019, Outerknown’s co-founder and chief creative officer John Moore reflected on meeting with Dillinger in San Francisco a few years ago. An afternoon was spent discussing ideas, exploring Levi’s Eureka innovation lab and laying the groundwork for the highly successful collaboration.
“As much as I want to call him a peer and a collaborator, Paul’s a great teacher,” Moore told us. “He’s so clear with his details, but he’s also so expressive with his tones. He can keep a great audience with the creatives in the room but also the business minds. A lot of people can share an anecdote, but Paul’s truly passing on the wisdom he’s generating at Levi’s and he’s really doing it in a way so others can carry that to their own organizations and practices.”
Western Shirt (Olive) by Levi’s Wellthread x Outerknown
Western Shirt (Washed Ikat) by Levi’s Wellthread x Outerknown