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Meet Denim’s Leading Lady

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  • 10 JULY 2015
  • Lauren Milligan

Karyn Hillman

IF there’s something worth knowing about denim, Karyn Hillman knows it. The Levi’s CPO – that’s chief product officer for anyone not familiar with the role – has amassed a vast knowledge of the fabric that features prominently in almost every wardrobe, and she’s currently applying it with gusto to the legendary American workwear company. Two short years at Levi’s is merely a drop in the ocean of her denim nous – with 25 years of experience working for two of the country’s best-known labels, Calvin Klein and Gap, under her neat leather belt.

The Levi’s 501CT, Hillman’s first project after joining the brand

“I love denim – the men’s and women’s business – and I wanted to bring a fresh perspective to Levi’s, so it was time to take a look and see what we have, what else is out there, and what do we need?” she explained. “Everyone knows what the Levi’s icons are – like the 501, which we updated this year with the launch of the CT – but where is the slimmer skinnier version of our brand going? And how do we make sure we offer a modern, core shape, which still has the same identity as people expect from us. They have to speak to each other. We can’t go so modern or premium that it doesn’t feel like us anymore, or so authentic that people like them but think, ‘Yeah, but I only need a few of those.'”

The lot 700 jeans in a few of their colour incarnations

Rooted in masculinity and American workwear, Levi’s have been manufacturing men’s jeans for 140 years – but the women’s business is also the oldest in the world, with more than 80 years worth of jeans for girls in the brand’s history. And the first they made for women (in 1934) was called the 701.

The Levi’s ambassador for autumn/winter 2015, singer Alicia Keys

The fact that the fabrics are working really hard for us means that it’s easier to flatter all different body shapes

Karyn Hillman – Levi’s CPO

“The men’s offering has a lot system, and people know 501, but they also know 511 and 514 and on from there, so we thought if we simplify the offer then we could go after lot numbers too – and we decided to take the 7 series as our foundation,” Hillman nodded.

Marilyn Monroe, one of the first icons of women’s denim
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The collection features a super-skinny, the 710 (tight all the way to the ankle); a skinny, 711 (with slightly more fabric in calf and ankle region); a slim, 712; a straight, 714 (popular across Europe and distinguished, again, by just a few centimetres of fabric on the lower half of the leg); a bootleg, 715; and the same styles in a high-rise waist, called 721. When you take into account the myriad washes that each style is available in, it’s hard to imagine the collection falling short no matter what your jean preference.

But the advent of a brand new core offering should not imply that Hillman isn’t utilising the archives. This season’s flare – tapping into a catwalk-inspired verve for all things Seventies – is taken from the iconic Levi’s orange tab, for a new jean with believable Charlie’s Angels vintage magic, while the CT – a slimmer, cropped version of the classic 501 that taps into the way the way company observed women were wearing the old faithful style – has been “so well received,” she enthused.

Winona Ryder wearing 501s in the Nineties
Picture credit: Getty

As CPO – a role that not every company boasts, or needs – Hillman’s remit extends into everything product related, while another senior executive manages the merchandising chain, rather than splitting the business by men’s and women’s jeans as it previously did. Like a creative director of a designer brand, she provides the team with inspiration and guidance for the coming season, but unlike many creative directors, she is so immersed within the production team that she knows every fabric, stitch and hardware tweak as well, if not better than, them.

The roots of Levi’s in American workwear stems from creating something to make people’s lives better

Karyn Hillman – Levi’s CPO

“Everything I do revolves around product,” she nodded. “There is nothing that I do that starts somewhere else, and everybody who helps create product is in my world – that’s the best way to define my job. I lead the creative team as well as he design team, in addition to an innovation team and the production team – and these teams will be involved in everything, from an update to one of the icons, to a new core collection like this, to the seasonal, more trend-led collections. I’m there to inspire them and stay on point and give direction to the brand identity – and at the same time they’re inspiring me every day with what they do.”

Dressed head-to-toe in denim (what else?), Hillman laughs easily and listens intently to those around her. Small, tanned, and blonde, she’s the perfect denim model, but that doesn’t mean she’s focusing only on those neat, petite Californians that so many premium denim labels are keen to keep happy.

The lot 700 jeans

“I want to make jeans for every body, but because of that we’re actually reducing the curvy line,” Hillman said, gesturing to the models of all heights and shapes and sizes lining the room as we chat. “It’s smaller then ever before because we’ve worked hard to make sure that our jeans, especially our core line, looks good on all bodies. The fact that the fabrics are working really hard for us means that it’s easier to flatter all different body shapes.”

Models Erin Wasson and Marloes Horst wearing Levi’s at the Lot 700’s NY launch this week

Clearly Hillman knows her mind and takes leadership of such a famous brand in her stride, but she is also keen to ask questions, listening to the denim stories of everyone in the room with interest, even though she must have heard it all before. Phrases like “stretch and recovery” and “ping back” flow easily, and it’s obvious that Hillman is passionate about the resurgence of a brand with A-list name recognition but less modern cache. With the design team, Hillman has spent her first two years in the role travelling almost constantly; asking women worldwide what they need from a jean, and what Levi’s means to them – and she feels she’s found some answers.

“The generation coming up is trying to find some meaning, and Levi’s definitely has meaning, but we still need to push ourselves, and iterate, and evolve, to keep the story and the authenticity alive,” she asserted. “Fabrics have come so far, even in the last three years, let alone 10 years, so we worked really hard on the fabrics and what we found is that women would pick up jeans and even before they would try them on, they’d say, ‘Urgh, I hate the fabric.’ We changed the process so that now, for the first time ever really, fit and fabric go hand in hand. So every new jean fabric and finish has its own pattern, making technical adjustments each time. The roots of Levi’s in American workwear stems from creating something to make people’s lives better; and we’re obsessed with the details of purposeful designs. Effortlessly simple, with that cool-girl masculinity, our girl is not flashy or showy.”

Sounds like someone we know.

New Levi's Jean Inspired By You
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