For Paul O’Neill, head of design at Levi’s Vintage Clothing, visiting the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives used to be a bit like Christmas morning.
“The Archives team would bring out all these boxes, and we’d have a look to discover what was inside,” he said.
Crossing the Digital Divide
Until recently, it was challenging, not to mention time consuming, for designers like Paul to tap into to the full range of garments in the Archives. Designers would submit a request, then the Archives team would sort through binders of paper records and pull a selection of items that might meet the designer’s need.
“Finding what I was looking for was very time consuming,” Paul said. “Usually it wasn’t physically possible to look through everything from a given time period, so there was always a chance we were overlooking things.”
Now, that’s all changing. We recently took a page from our Silicon Valley neighbors and started to digitize our archives. For garments and three-dimensional items, this meant painstakingly shooting each item in high resolution — using a rig to zoom out far enough to capture the entire item, as well as taking detail shots of a piece’s most distinctive attributes — making sure each image was properly lit and color calibrated to be as true-to-life as possible.
About 14,000 images were captured in a mere 18 days — all while giving the artifacts the white-glove treatment they require. In addition to the photos, close to 80,000 paper records were sent offsite to be scanned.
Then came the arduous task of tagging each image with metadata so images would be easily found in search results. Our Archives team worked closely with designers to see how they approach their work — this helped determine how to categorize each item and create a glossary of logical keywords.
The Virtual Vault
Now, six short months later, the project is in pilot phase, with a whopping 100,000 of our most popularly requested items in the new digital asset management system the Archives team is calling, “The Virtual Vault.”
“To be able to do a conversion of this size in this time frame is pretty unheard of,” said LS&Co. Historian Tracey Panek. “It really is a testament to the important role that our heritage plays in our day-to-day life here at LS&Co. and creating the means to make that heritage more accessible.”
For our designers, having a vast library of high-resolution images only a mouse-click away is a game-changer for multiple reasons, including time and accessibility.
“It’s so great to have so much of our Archives available and out in the open,” Paul said. “If I’m doing a collection about the 1930s, I can search ‘men’s denim’ and ‘1930s’ and quickly get a comprehensive view off all our denim products from that time period. And because the tool is digital, I’ll be able to do searches from anywhere, which is incredibly helpful.”
Because the photography is so high-res, designers also can zoom in to a greater level of detail — a single rivet, a rust stain — than they could see just looking at the garment in person. This also means the garments need to be taken out less often, reducing wear and tear.
While Paul’s designs continue to be inspired by the past and our rich heritage, he’s thankful his process for selecting denim artifacts has moved into the digital age.
“It’s an amazing tool — I can click through the digital system for an hour and select the handful of items I want. Then when I go to the Archives, the garments are ready for me, and I know they’re the right ones.”
You can learn more about the process of digitizing the Archives in the Society of California Archivists’ Spring 2015 newsletter.
Like this story?
Sign up for the Unzipped newsletter to get the best of the Unzipped blog — company news and views, employee profiles, innovation and sustainability stories, behind-the-scenes and Archives highlights — sent straight to your inbox weekly.