Nothing Gets Between Stefan Sagmeier and His Levi’s

When Levi’s approached Austrian graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister  to design a series of mixed-media works for their Original Button-Fly 501 jean campaign, he was about to embark on one of his “year-long sabbaticals,” which he takes every seven years. Sweet as it sounds, he found the challenge irresistible.

Lately, Levi’s has turned to the artists to give the brand a more dynamic identity: Last year, they commissioned Damien Hirst to design a capsule denim collection; following that success, they approached Shephard Fairey. On May 1st, aka “501® Day,” he will finally reveal his top-secret design project for the label. In the meantime, Levi’s is previewing the collection with two hanging window installations at the American Rag boutique in Los Angeles (PICTURED LEFT). In evidence is Sagmeister’s deconstructionist streak: He turned the denim inside-out and ripped it apart, finding inspiration in the details—seams, buttons, zippers, and all. He became obsessed with the thread that holds it all together: endless spools of the stuff serve as the backdrop of his Levi’s installations, which disassemble jeans down to their raw elements, then rearrange them strategically into eye-popping collages that resemble shag carpets. How’s that for an image overhaul?

COLLEEN NIKA: When you were asked to do this project, did you immediately have a concept in mind or was it trial and error? Did Levi’s come to you with a specific visual in mind?

STEFAN SAGMEISTER: The brief was very much a dream: Create a series of Levi’s posters around The 501, jeans we all love and wear in our studio. They said, “Do whatever you want.”

CN: Were there particular difficulties you encountered?

SS: The thread itself proved very difficult to work with and in fact influenced the final appearance quite a lot. The whole ‘shag carpet’ feel is very much a product of the unruliness of the thread. From previous projects we had learned that water works wonders in helping to make thread behave.

CN:  I like how the “thread” itself is the focus of this campaign, not denim. Was that your idea?

SS: The deconstruction idea is very much Joe Shouldice’s, a young Canadian designer who works with us in the studio. Richard The and I advised on the execution. Tom Schierlitz took the photos.
CN: From there, you actually turn layers of threads into a backdrop—a “shag carpet.”

SS: Shag carpets are nice things to roll about on, wearing jeans or not.

CN: You’re a graphic designer, but many of your well-known projects are handmade.

SS: Any excuse to get away from the computer screen is welcome. There is so much cold, faux-objective digital work out there (modernism being the status quo in visual communications for over 80 years now) that a more subjective working method makes sense if your goal is to reach an audience.

CN: Do you think your affiliation with music culture influenced Levi’s  to work with you?

SS: Yes, but Levi’s Creative Director Len Peltier was head of creative at Virgin Records when we designed the Rolling Stones CD cover, so we already had worked together and knew each other’s habits.

CN: What’s the hardest part of working with denim?

SS: Its sturdiness resists deconstruction. After we had set up the entire piece in our studio and taken a quick shot to  be approved by Levi’s the entire setup needed to be packed up and moved  downtown to be re-created and professionally shot by Tom.

CN: What interests you in a brand?

SS: The product. All that talk about brands over the last decade has been completely  overblown and much of it is just plain wrong. By far the most determining factor of any brand is the product or the service the company produces.  Branding companies have very rarely any significant influence on that, but it is of course in their interest to amplify their importance. I’ve just heard a great little truth uttered by San Francisco product designer Yves Béhar: “Advertising (and branding) is the prize companies pay for being unimaginative.”

CN: What’s your favorite brand?

SS: Any company that produces a good product over a significant period of time, right now what comes to my mind are, besides the usual suspects like Apple and Starbucks (yes, I do admire their consistency in quality): Red Bull (also because they supported my students in such a brilliant way), Villiger (a Swiss company that produces two products: Cigars and bicycles, allowing me to smoke while riding my bike and still display brand loyalty) and yes, Levis.

CN:  Did any of your previous projects influence your approach to this one?

SS: Yes. We had deconstructed a year 2000 Florida voting booth (the ones that brought us eight years of misery, the Iraq war and the world economic crisis) for very different reasons and effect.

CN: I’m a zipper person. What is your favorite aspect of a jean?

SS: The fact that its long lasting product. The fact that a 501 does become more beautiful over time and the joy in observing how an artificially distressed jeans never reaches the beauty, neither formally nor conceptually, of a properly worn in one.

CN: Are jeans a closet staple for you? Do you have one pair you can’t bear to part with?

SS: Yes, they are. But clothes in general don’t play a huge role in my life (my brother has a men’s clothing store so I get my clothes quickly once or twice a year, selected by my sister in law), so I don’t think there is a single item in my closet that I could not bear to be without.