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Can Better Denim Change the World? Levi’s Is Betting on It

Paul Dillinger has given himself the impossible task of transforming the global apparel business into a cleaner, more ethical and more sustainable industry.

the man transforming the global denim industry lead
Chase Pellerin

A version of this article originally appeared in Issue Ten of Gear Patrol Magazine, published in 2019, with the headline “Wash. Fit. Rinse. Revolution.” Subscribe today.

“Do you know how to sew a button?” Paul Dillinger, Levi’s vice president of Global Product Innovation, asks me the question near a sewing machine on the second floor of Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab in a nondescript warehouse in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill neighborhood, just blocks from the company headquarters.

Before I can answer, Dillinger bounds down the stairs, out of sight, and soon returns with buttons, needles and thread. He grabs a pair of scissors and shears off a length of selvedge canvas in a single smooth movement before getting to work, sewing and lecturing simultaneously.

“In 1997, the state of California stopped teaching conventional home ec,” he says. Dillinger is tall and lanky in a denim jacket and black beanie, with sharp blue eyes and a dark, close-cropped beard. “Home ec and shop got turned into seven different vocational tracks, and now every school teaches all seven. But basic life skills aren’t part of it,” he says, threading his needle. Back when he lived in New York, Dillinger says, he gave similar button-sewing lessons to friends during weekly poker nights at his apartment.

Dillinger grew up in a small logging town in Washington state, near Mount Rainier. He decided to become a designer at just 12 years old after seeing a fashion segment on The Phil Donahue Show. He spent his teens teaching himself sewing and patternmaking, eventually receiving a BFA in fashion design from Washington University in St. Louis. For postgraduate work, Dillinger received the first-ever Fulbright scholarship for the study of fashion, in 1994, attending the Domus Academy in Milan. It was at there, under the tutelage of design luminaries like Anna Zegna, Philippe Starck and Andrea Branzi, where Dillinger absorbed the idea that every design decision should be validated by research, which remains a core tenet of his work.

After his MFA, Dillinger moved to New York City. For the next 16 years he worked at a succession of competitive brands, including Calvin Klein, DKNY, and Martin + Osa. He quickly noticed similarities.

From left: A pair of jeans found at an abandonded mine in Calico, San Bernardino County, California dated to the late 1800s; modern pre-distressed jeans hang in the Eureka Lab.
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“They manufactured at the same factories, offered the same fits and finishes, with minor deviations, and were sold at the same price points at the same retailers,” he says. As retailers began pushing for tighter cost margins, Dillinger saw profits being prioritized regardless of the effects on the supply chain, or on consumers. Disillusioned, Dillinger dropped out of the fashion world and joined the faculty as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at his alma mater, Washington University.

In the two decades since he graduated, the school had affected a noticeably more sustainable facade — no plastic water bottles for purchase on campus, waste disposal marked specifically for “Landfill” rather than “Garbage” — though despite the nod toward eco-friendliness, Dillinger noticed a disinterest in other pressing issues facing the apparel industry, from child labor and sweatshop practices to the lessons of the American Labor Movement, and so he focused his academic attention on conceiving the most sustainable system possible, from all possible angles, for the fashion industry.

Later that year, Dillinger got a call from Doug Conklyn, a former colleague at Martin + Osa who had recently taken a position as senior vice president of design at Dockers, in San Francisco. (The Dockers brand is owned by Levi’s.) Conklyn was calling to offer a job — a return to the fashion industry, but also an opportunity for Dillinger to explore his personal interests from within the company.

“There’s probably no better soapbox to try to convince the industry to change its ways than Levi’s."

“He’s quite simply the most brilliant and creative designer I’ve ever known,” Conklyn, now Speedo’s senior vice president of design and merchandising, tells me later by phone. “Paul is that rare individual that looks at things in so many different dimensions simultaneously. I haven’t seen it duplicated.”

Dillinger worked at Dockers for three years, during which time he attended the First Movers Fellowship Program at the Aspen Institute, a 60-year-old think tank for values-based leadership. (Dillinger describes the Fellowship as, “You go to the Aspen campus and engage with the brilliant people they have, and just literally bump into Madeleine Albright and have a conversation around the implications of the common economy on global security policy.”) He introduced an academic, research-through-practice methodology to Dockers’ clothing design in the form of the Wellthread program, which explores and showcases cutting-edge sustainability solutions through small collections each season. It was, and is, a revolutionary approach.

“One of the genius things the company has done with the Wellthread model is to allow it to exist at the smallest industrial scale, so that any idea we put through that model can be proofed through the gears of a major supply chain, but never at such scale it puts the ideas themselves at risk,” Dillinger says.

A laser at the Eureka Lab can distress a new pair of jeans in seconds.
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On the second floor of the Eureka Lab, over the hushed whir of machines and the sounds of sewers putting finishing touches on custom garments for the upcoming Coachella festival, Dillinger frames the scope of his mission by first admitting the apparel industry’s dirty secret: it’s one of the world’s top industrial polluters, producing more CO2 in a year than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the dyeing and treatment of textiles accounts for 20 percent of industrial water pollution globally; greenhouse gas emissions from textile production in 2015 were equivalent to 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide. More alarming is that, according to management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 60 percent of all clothing produced winds up in incinerators or landfills within 12 months. People, meanwhile, are buying new clothes at a staggering rate; according to McKinsey, “clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by sixty percent.”

When Levi’s offered Dillinger his current position, in 2014, he saw a chance to implement the Wellthread program and similar initiatives on a larger scale. Levi’s is one of the world’s biggest apparel companies, with a reported net revenue of $5.6 billion in 2018.

“There’s probably no better soapbox to try to convince the industry to change its ways than Levi’s,” Dillinger says.

For many brands, adopting a sustainability narrative involves a misleading if not cynical focus on a single sustainable component — say, recycled ocean plastic — which can be marketed to eco-minded consumers even if it does nothing to extend the life cycle of the overall garment. But at Levi’s, Dillinger had the mandate and the resources to consider a massive, full-system redesign. He knew the hard limitations behind feel-good sustainability stories (fabrics made from reclaimed bottles, for example, can’t be recycled when snaps or zippers are added, and can release microplastics into the waterways when washed) and he wanted to create something better.

“There’s an abundance of bullshit in this space,” Dillinger says. “Don’t tell me you value recycling and haven’t considered the recyclability of the garment.”

Bolts of denim from mills across the world are stacked in tall racks for easy access while creating prototypes.
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On the main floor of Eureka Lab, bolts of denim are stacked in tall racks for easy access. The huge blue rolls come from mills across the world and are made almost exclusively from cotton. To a typical denim lover, this alone is the very image of sustainable fashion. But there’s more to jean-making than denim. The other components, from pocket bags to the tag, are of equal interest to Dillinger’s work, as they’re often made from less sustainable materials that can severely compromise the recyclability of “pure inputs” — like cotton and nylon that can be reused over and over again.

Take elasticity. Most people now want jeans that stretch, at least a bit. Manufacturing stretchy jeans typically requires taking cotton, a pure input, and blending in a small percentage of elastane. At that point, the new material can’t be recycled. And dyes, hardware, even thread material can further complicate or negate the recyclability.

In spring 2019, Levi’s quietly released a line of garments designed with 100 percent cotton Thermadapt fabric. The thread starts as a polyester core wrapped in cotton, which is woven into denim. The polyester is then dissolved out and recaptured for future use. The resulting fabric looks like a heavyweight jean but is 30 percent lighter than traditional denim; it also wicks moisture from the body and provides enough insulation for year-round wear, which means stores don’t have to chuck it in the Sale bin at the end of a season.

The machines that produce Thermadapt aren’t located in San Francisco, but Eureka Lab does house an array of scientific instruments for testing fabric and a room full of hi-tech wash and dye machines. As we walk past vats of natural indigo and a row of big, blinking contraptions for garment dyeing and ozone bleaching, the conversation shifts to hemp.

Hemp is superior to cotton in many ways; it’s resistant to pests, requires little water and has a short growth cycle. But it isn’t widely used in the clothing industry, mostly because industrial apparel machines are calibrated to accommodate cotton’s natural stretch, which hemp doesn’t have. Rather than creating a new manufacturing system, Dillinger wanted to process hemp so that it felt and acted like cotton. The result: cottonized hemp, recently introduced by Wellthread, which is produced using little energy or chemical processing and can move through a supply chain similarly to cotton.

From left, clockwise: The spacious concrete floor at the Eureka Lab is painted for organizing seasonal collections; vats of nautral indigo, warmed with lamps, sit next to a row of washing machines; an employee chooses a thread cone for work on a prototype.
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"Why on Earth would you try to use sustainability messaging as a mechanism to sell more product...

...when in fact the quantity of product being sold is a problem?"

In keeping with Dillinger’s research-through-practice ethos, Levi’s produced the Wellthread cottonized hemp collection after his team learned how to process, spin and weave the thread — but notably before they figured out how to color the material. In upcoming seasons, cottonized hemp will be incorporated into Levi’s indigo denim and finished with a range of washes, but in the meantime, the collection features only white garments.

“It’s exciting to be able to talk about cottonized hemp, to signal that one of the world’s big brands is saying, ‘Something new has happened here,’” Dillinger says.

Of course, the fashion industry is full of bold and misleading claims, but when Dillinger proclaims something truly new, people notice. “Paul is one of the rare honest voices in our industry,” says John Moore, designer and cofounder of wardrobe essentials brand Outerknown. “He’s never afraid to speak the truth about his own work.”

During a debate at the Museum of Modern Art, in 2017, Dillinger won over a room of fashion heavyweights while arguing the position that people should stop buying clothes. And he asks me a question — one that he explicitly puts on the record as his opinion and not that of the mega-brand that employs him, but that is no less antagonistic to his industry for being rhetorical. “Why on Earth would you try to use sustainability messaging as a mechanism to sell more product, when in fact the quantity of product being sold is a problem?”

The belief that people should buy less is an odd position to hold as one of the most influential executives at the world’s largest denim brand. He mentions the Levi’s Wellthread x Jacquard by Google jacket, which he showed me back in 2017, in Manhattan. The jacket features a touch interface on the left wrist paired to the wearer’s phone, allowing on-the-go access to navigation, messaging, music, and more. The idea of Wellthread x Jacquard is that the jacket itself remains unchanged from season to season; instead, it’s the digital functionality that’s upgraded with new features, challenging Levi’s to devise ways of adding and monetizing digital value rather than simply producing more stuff.

“I know this season’s Jacquard has zero environmental footprint, because the season’s Jacquard is simply the addition of new abilities that keep you from losing your phone at the bar, or your jacket at the bar.”

New jeans with a variety of finishes hang in the Eureka Lab.
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"Our closets are stuffed full of value that we’ve been trained to ignore."

And while Dillinger’s role encourages him to experiment with new and emerging technologies — e.g., working with textile technology startup EvrNu to produce jeans from garment waste, or using bacterium to dye clothes the right shade of blue — his most radical thinking may be in his simple, humanistic approach to attacking the thoughtless consumption cycle, in which people treat clothing like entertainment, habitually acquiring and discarding garments.

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, according to Dillinger, that can mean “just making things that last for a very long time,” because people are less likely to trash clothing that isn’t falling apart. But more than that, it’s about teaching people how to find value in what they already own — how to use it, repair it, reuse it. “Our closets are stuffed full of value that we’ve been trained to ignore,” Dillinger says.

“It’s cheaper to buy a new pair of cargo shorts than it is to take your shorts and get a waistband taken out because your waist has changed since last summer,” he says. “Your clothes become a burden to own because you don’t know how to take care of them. I get why people throw them away to get something new. We’ve made it really cheap to buy something new.”

This point, about the feverish, unsustainable consumption cycle, is why Dillinger stops everything to teach me how to properly sew a button. We practice, with the sun falling in through high windows onto the painted concrete floor, and I consider just how many millions of cheap, disposable shirts and pants and shorts and sweaters have been tossed because someone can’t sew on a new button or fix a hole, can’t even be bothered to pay someone else to do it because that garment can just be replaced with a few mouse clicks and twelve bucks plus tax. Sure, it won’t last two seasons, but it will arrive tomorrow. Maybe sooner.

“You’re not creating tension between the surface of the fabric and the button,” Dillinger tells me, demonstrating the technique. His method is considered, practiced. He secures a thread shank with double knots. “It’s a much more durable way of sewing a button,” he says. The way he explains it, it sounds downright revolutionary.

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