Meet An LS&Co. Creative: Sally Leon

Levi Strauss & Co.
February 24, 2014

One of the best parts of working at Levi Strauss & Co. is rubbing shoulders with a lot of creative people — professionals responsible for everything from amazing marketing campaigns to, of course, the beautiful product of our brands, including Levi’s® and Dockers®. Today, we talk to Sally Leon, one of the visionaries behind some Levi’s® capsule collections.

Sally has an incredibly unique job — one that fuses art, design, creativity, functionality and a hefty dose of imagination. There’s never a time she’s not primed for inspiration, whether meeting with chefs, listening to new bands or checking out documentaries from the 1950s. The talented designer, who has helped make menswear capsules for both the Levi’s® Commuter™ and Line 8 lines, took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to Unzipped about her work, her creative process and what she loves best about designing capsule collections for Levi’s®.

UNZIPPED: What is your role at Levi Strauss & Co.?

SALLY LEON: I am the global menswear designer for Levi’s® capsules Commuter™ and Line 8. My role involves designing the seasonal collections and creating new fabrications, as well as setting the seasonal mood and direction with our team. That’s pretty much the gist of what I do, with a lot of meetings in between!

What is a capsule collection?

A capsule collection is essentially set apart from what we call mainline. It serves a different purpose and expands our fan base as a brand. That could be cyclists (Commuter™) or those who prefer a cleaner, more stealth denim look (Line 8).

Commuter™ stands apart from our core offering through added functionality. We design to meet the needs of our consumer through fabric technology and design features to really tailor the garments to the specific activity of cycling.

How do you come up with a given capsule collection?

Sally Leon, Levi's® Brand Designer

Sally Leon, Levi’s® Brand Designer

For Commuter™, we started from a function perspective. So last season, for example, everything was about thermoregulation — fabrics that adapt to keep you cool when it’s hot out or keep you warm when it’s cool out. It was about smart, 12-month fabrics.

Our greater design team collaborated and came up with a concept around the city of San Francisco. It’s part of our DNA as a brand, and in many ways the spirit of Levi’s® is mirrored in San Francisco. Part of what makes our city so unique is that it’s surrounded by natural beauty — you can be sitting in a skyscraper in the Financial District while looking out at the bay. There was a focus on weather changes because we get every season in a day here (laughs). So, a lot of inspiration came from the foggy climate.

How are you guided to come up with a given story?

The season begins with very open creative workshops around a theme set by our leaders in design. Every idea is welcome. The design team then goes out to meet with a variety of people — it could be an architecture firm, a craftsperson or even a chef. We have round-table discussions with these people, learning about their craft or design processes and what’s important to them. This sparks new ideas and ways of thinking. We also visit galleries, flea markets and trade shows for research.

We then hold intense concept workshops. We’ll sit down with the men’s and women’s design teams and lay out key images, ideas and garments we have made that we’re gravitating toward. The best ideas come from pieces we have made; as by nature we designers all want to create something that hasn’t been done before!

Then, we sit together and edit them down and curate that assortment of inspiration into key seasonal stories around color, finish and silhouette direction.

How does collaboration work on a capsule collection?

With three designers on the team, we work together to come to a consensus, but it’s very intuitive and hard to narrow down. It’s about a feeling. We’ll all gravitate toward certain images, artists or colors — it could even be a random object such as a beautifully crafted ceramic, you name it. It’s about finding unanimity on something that feels new, fresh and still brand relevant. Then we start building the key stories into each capsule. For example, if we have a lot of images gathered that show dimension and depth, we will build fabric stories based around exploring new textures or creating the illusion of texture through denim finishing. We all bring different aspects to the table — it might be strength in finishing, tailoring or simply a style point of view.

Do you seek inspiration from mediums other than the purely visual realm? Are you guided by music or films?

For Line 8, inspiration came from bands such as Drowners and Citizens!, and film-wise, we were inspired by a documentary that was filmed in San Francisco around “jacket clubs” called Ask Me Don’t Tell Me. They were groups of kids in the late 1950s who belonged to different clubs based on the style of jacket they wore, and it was very specific to San Francisco. Mood- and silhouette-wise, that was the major influence.

What do you like best about working with capsule collections?

I think that there’s a lot of freedom in them — style-wise, design-wise and concept-wise. Our focus is on bringing Levi’s® DNA into products that sit outside of brand icons such as the classic Trucker jacket or the 501® jeans.

The fact that each capsule consists of a head-to-toe collection is a major plus. Every piece can interact with each other style-wise and proportion-wise; everything fits together. For example, in Commuter™ this allows us to build a system of dress depending on the garments’ proximity to either the body or the outdoor elements.

You’re also not just working on one category, so you grow your breadth of knowledge by learning about multiple product areas and interacting and collaborating with many cross-functional partners within the company. It’s really exciting to constantly be doing something different.

What do you think is the most unexpected and unique aspect of your job?

I would say the most unique aspect is sitting down with people and having big powwow discussions around what’s happening in say, the biking community, and discussing bigger-picture themes like the importance of sustainability.

Also, a lot of insight comes from wear test feedback on fabric and garment performance. We test everything to very high standards at LS&Co, but it’s important to us that we also have that human element to the testing, where you get someone saying, “It was 82 degrees one day and 20 degrees the next, and I was really comfortable wearing exactly the same pair of Levi’s® Commuter™ jeans.” That really solidifies the work we do.

Do you have a favorite collection that you’ve worked on?

Commuter™ has been the most exciting for me to work on. My background is more in technical performance, and Commuter™ has given me an opportunity to bring that knowledge into a true lifestyle, heritage-influenced product. Working on that hybrid of both heritage and performance is fascinating — and, of course, it’s always through the filter of Levi’s®. There’s something really exciting about fusing innovation into products that we all grew up with and maintaining their brand identity. It’s incredibly challenging and rewarding to maintain the balance of craft, sustainability and performance every day.