SAN FRANCISCO — If you are here to see the man in charge of Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab, a test kitchen of denim in a former mill 10 minutes from the company’s Embarcadero-area headquarters here, look for what appears to be a blue manicure.
Bart Sights, 51, takes his Levi’s 29 inches by 34 inches and speaks in a soft Kentucky lilt, but his most distinguishing characteristic is the deep blue of his fingernails, a color that, depending on the day, may be creeping up his hands and forearms, too.
It washes off skin easily enough, but it has a way of getting under the nail beds and then, Mr. Sights said, “it doesn’t get out very easily — not for, like, a month.”
“It” is naturally fermented indigo dye, a living anachronism kept in restaurant-kitchen-size stockpots at Eureka, where it is warmed over heat lamps and fed wheat bran. (Dead indigo will not dye.) This slurry, or some part of it, has traveled with Mr. Sights for 25 years, all around the world.
Natural indigo is finicky, and for the jeans Levi’s produces on a mass scale, the company uses primarily synthetic, the industry norm. These kettles of dye, with their rich fish-sauce stink, are mostly kept around as inspiration, a link to a previous era that, given Levi’s role in the early years of denim jeans (“waist overalls,” as they were originally known), is a constant reference.
“Really, it’s like our blood,” Mr. Sights said. “This is what we came from.”
While small-batch brands trumpet their use of handcrafting and natural indigo, Levi’s is a behemoth, reporting — despite encroaching threats like yoga pants and chinos — more than $4 billion in revenue for its 2014 fiscal year. What it does, it must do big.
The name tends to conjure the image of a single, iconic pair of bluejeans, but Levi Strauss & Co. (which includes Dockers as well) produces more than 100 million pieces per year in nearly countless styles.
The Eureka lab, which opened in 2013, is a nerve center and skunk works for innovation, a place to test out new treatments, new finishes and new ideas.
Some, like recent collaborations with Mr Porter or Unionmade, are handmade at Eureka and arrive in consumers’ hands directly; many more begin on a small scale at Eureka with the express purpose of eventually producing tens of millions.
The lab contains not only vats of indigo and an atelier where jeans are cut and sewn by hand (“It’s totally ‘Dior and I,’ ” said Jonathan Cheung, 49, Levi’s senior vice president for global design), but also lasers and washing machines that can be pumped full of enzyme solutions and age-simulating pumice stones or jeans-fading ozone gas.
There are hot head presses and digital printers, torturous contraptions to test strength and durability, and good old-fashioned iron weights to assess stretch. In one area, a pile of denim samples sported laser-burned patterns of florals or sports-team logos. Those are just for fun, Mr. Sights said. Lab hours are long.
“It’s like a small factory,” Mr. Sights said. “If you go to our store on Market Street, everything in there, we’ve probably made at least one of those here first.”
Mr. Sights is a fabric expert, trained essentially from childhood. In Henderson, Ky., his grandfather founded a uniform rental and industrial laundry company, which Mr. Sights would visit every day after junior high school.
After college, he joined his father at Sights Denim Systems, an offshoot of the company where, with the premium denim market booming, they began renting out facilities for companies to prewash jeans in wholesale quantities. It grew to become a development lab not unlike Eureka.
When Sights Denim Systems closed in 2008, Mr. Sights went to India to make fabric, then eventually landed in Turkey, where he oversaw Levi’s lab in Corlu, the predecessor to Eureka.
Having its development operations 12 hours by air from its Bay Area headquarters was not ideal. Members of the Levi’s design team would fly to Turkey, work furiously over a short time and return to base.
“The challenges pre-Eureka were much, much greater,” Mr. Cheung said.
“There was a lot of wasted materials, a lot of wasted effort,” Mr. Sights said. “People who came would try to do too much to come back and have a lot of choices, and then even with all those choices it wouldn’t be right.”
Now, with the lab so close, Mr. Cheung is at Eureka nearly every day. Each season, the design team moves in for six weeks to begin the collection, side by side with Mr. Sights. He still thanks the members of his team who came with him from Corlu in Turkish, and Turkish tea (at brew strength when it is, as they say in Turkey, the color of rabbit’s blood) steeps all day.
Under his watch, a staff of 27 (four additional staff members work off-site) abuse, abrade, rip, stretch, gas and apply lasers to jeans. They are from diverse backgrounds: The job requires as much chemistry as design. One key employee was previously a chocolate temperer in a candy factory; another, a furniture refinisher.
At any given time, eight to 10 large-scale projects are underway. Each pair of jeans has a numbered “recipe,” a step-by-step guide to the manual, chemical and mechanical processes that created it, which must be systematically organized, recorded and tested.
“We’re not very old here,” Mr. Sights said, gesturing with a recipe fished out of a nearby garbage can. “But this is 13,806.”
In the lab’s expansive central room, near giant bolts of denim, pair after pair of jeans are laid in groupings on the floor, near a rubber mallet and a football signed by Snoop Dogg, a recent visitor. A row of jeans in a spectrum of colors, fades, finishes and degrees of wear attests to the possibilities Eureka can coax from a single fabric.
An enormous amount of effort goes into each weathered-looking pair. Consider the whiskered wear patterns. Once upon a denim history, those would be achieved through hard labor, often literally; Levi’s maintains an archive going back to the 19thcentury, including a pair found in a mine that are striated with patterns so deep they ought to be accompanied by canary song.
Twenty-first-century denim wearers, unlike their forebears, don’t tend to earn these stripes. But Mr. Sights’s team can provide nearly identical versions. They wear new, unmarked jeans until they develop a patina, then use them as models to replicate. The resulting jeans have history, faked and baked right in. Mr. Cheung calls the faux-distress “an homage to human nature.”
The markings on your new-but-old-looking jeans may have been developed by a Eureka employee, etched on a sample pair using sandpaper. GoPro cameras on each workstation record the process, and when a pattern is complete, the video is edited into a kind of digital instruction manual to guide those who will do the distressing on a larger scale at the factories Levi’s uses.
Even this process is ripe for innovation. Laser technology can burn wear patterns into jeans, many of which are designed not only to mimic the patterns on vintage pairs, but also to improve on them, to trick the eye and flatter the figure. It is a process Mr. Sights compares to makeup contouring or spray tanning, in a fraction of the time.
“Don’t stick your hand inside the door,” Mr. Sights warned as a machine whirred and hot ash sizzled on the surface of a pair of jeans. “It will tattoo you.” After the process, they were still warm to the touch.
The laser’s advantages over sandpaper are finer gradations of tone, and denim-like markings can be introduced even to fabrics made mainly of other fibers, which becomes crucial as increasing amounts of stretch fabric are introduced into jeans.
More and more, Mr. Sights said, this is becoming the industry standard. He can no longer always discriminate between jeans that are hand-distressed versus lasered.
“I think we realized when we built Eureka a couple years ago,” he said, “we had an opportunity to define the future.”