Levi Strauss & Co’s Eureka Innovation Lab is located on a quiet, dead-end street near Coit Tower in San Francisco. Unassuming from the outside, the brick warehouse is a hive of activity within. Sewing machines whir, washing machines thump and lasers beep as they precisely cut holes into raw denim. Hundreds of jeans in every shade of blue hang on the walls and mysterious trunks covered in stickers from around the world are stacked wherever there’s room, while jazz music plays in the
the background. You don’t need to know anything about fashion, design, or technology to grasp that this is a place where creativity is nurtured and fed – as regularly as the batch of indigo dye the team keeps on hand, more for symbolic than practical purposes. There’s a sense (whether or not it’s entirely accurate) that the people who work here are not beholden to meetings and emails like the rest of us. Instead, their days appear to be spent dreaming up new products that will keep Levi’s in the cultural zeitgeist or investigating some groundbreaking technology that will change the way fashion is made. From Turkey to Telegraph Hill Eureka Innovation Lab was opened in 2013 as a way to bring the prototyping process closer to the denim brand’s US headquarters. Previously, when designers had an idea for a new fit or finish, they would have it produced at the company’s factory in Turkey. But this required shipping multiple iterations back and forth, and it could take weeks before they had a prototype they were satisfied with. When Chip Bergh, Levi Strauss & Co’s outgoing CEO, joined the company in 2011, he quickly identified the need for a new approach. “Deciding to move it two or three blocks away [from the head office] was kind of a no-brainer,” Bergh told Inside Retail in a recent interview. “It was a signal to the company that innovation is important.” The lab’s output over the past 10 years is impressive and wide-ranging, from researching and developing new products to testing new manufacturing techniques and equipment to building digital apps and technology. One of the most high-profile innovations to come out of Eureka is Project Jacquard. Launched in 2016, Project Jacquard incorporates wearable technology from Google into a classic Levi’s ‘trucker’ jacket, enabling users to control their smartphone by making specific gestures on their sleeves. A second iteration, released in 2018, enables users to order a ride on Uber and Lyft through the jacket. While it has received a lot of media coverage, Project Jacquard hasn’t been a huge commercial success for Levi’s, but that isn’t actually the point, according to the company. Rather, it’s about continuous learning. For instance, during the development process, the team had to figure out how to wash the jacket without damaging the microprocessor and Bluetooth transmitter, now Google is using these insights to provide wearable tech to people with disabilities. Digitising the design process The innovation lab has also played a key role in the development of water-saving finishing techniques, including a dyeing method that involves an aerosol spray, rather than a water bath, avoiding huge amounts of wastewater, and a program to reduce the number of chemicals used in denim manufacturing. Both projects are open-source for the benefit of the entire industry. More recently, the team at Eureka has been focusing on digital innovation in the design process. In the past, factory workers would distress each pair of Levi’s by hand according to a physical sample created by a designer, but today, it’s all done with digital patterns and lasers. As part of an operating model known as Project FLX (Future Led Execution), designers create ‘handwriting’, or distressing, patterns in Photoshop and upload them to machines, which then use giant lasers to cut whiskers and rips into jeans in just a few minutes. It’s not only faster and less costly but also much more consistent than previous distressing methods. During Covid, the team at Eureka took this one step further and built an app that allows designers to drag and drop various wash patterns and ‘handwriting’ elements onto jeans, and see photo-realistic, 3D renderings of what they will look like on different-size models. “When we first opened, we had mannequins and hand-finishing, and now everything’s laser,” Bergh noted. “The technology has evolved, and we’re leading the industry in that.” Tinkerers and problem-solvers From the beginning, Levi’s recognised that creating a true culture of innovation at Eureka would require out-of-the-box thinking, so rather than hiring seasoned designers, it brought on board people with diverse skill sets. The original team included a former auto mechanic, a furniture maker, and a welder who made large-scale metal art, as well as several people who had run the brand’s previous innovation lab in Turkey. “Engineering and fashion design are not dissimilar cognitive processes,” Paul Dillinger, head of global design innovation at Levi Strauss & Co, told Inside Retail. “You need tinkerers, you need problem-solvers.” Dillinger himself has degrees in fashion design, but he is also a born scientist and is constantly conducting experiments in his everyday life. During Covid, he participated in a mask innovation challenge launched by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and was named runner-up. And recently, as part of his research on cooling technology, he walked around with temperature gauges strapped to his thighs. “This place enables curiosity to explore, run wild and dream,” Dillinger said. “We’ve also got all of the mechanisms to bring those dreams back into reality – into a provable, testable place. And that’s what this facility is for.” Love for the product In his 13 years at Levi’s, Dillinger has worked on countless innovation projects, but his involvement in the recent launch of a plant-based pair of 501 jeans is undoubtedly among his proudest achievements because they’re virtually indistinguishable from a classic pair of 501s. “The equity of this company is built on the love people have for this product. The second you try to change it, to make it better for the environment, make it more sustainable, you have carob – the alternative to chocolate,” he said. “Carob is not a successful innovation, because no one wants to eat it. Similarly, you can’t mess with things if it’s going to make the ownership prospect less pleasant.” It took years for the team at Eureka to find the right plant-based substitutes for some of Levi’s iconic design elements, such as the leather patch on the waistband, and red tab on the back pocket. Most of the brand’s red tabs are made out of polyester, but the plant-based one is made out of cotton, and the chemicals used in the finishing process kept turning it pink. “Those details aren’t the consumer’s job to know about, but they’re definitely my job to tackle,” Dillinger said. No one ever said innovation was easy, but Dillinger is not the kind of person who is easily deterred by setbacks. Neither are the rest of the Eureka team members. That, more than anything, might be the key to the lab’s success. “You need people who don’t care about the ‘no,’ and only care about the ‘yes,’ and are willing to work for the five or 10 years it takes to get the ‘yes’ across the table,” Dillinger said. The journalist visited Eureka Innovation Lab as a guest of Levi Strauss & Co. This story first appeared in the December 2023 issue of Inside Retail US magazine.