Proper Interview: Paul O’Neill, Levi’s Vintage Clothing

In our continuing series of having a little nosey into the post/current lockdown lives of our talented amigos this week we bring you the boss of the button fly, the don of denim, the champ of the chain stitch, the big cheese with the big E, the ruler of the rivets, the top boy of the turn-ups, Sir Selvedge himself, Paul O’Neill. Paul is the head designer at LVC and is so good at his job that we’re not so sure we’re joking any more when we say that he owns a time machine in which he uses to go back and make his incredible collections. We managed to get Paul to drive his DeLorean back the year 2020 to answer some probing questions, check it out…

So Paul, first question, what type of jeans are you wearing today?

I’m wearing some vintage 501s from late 70’s

It appears that during lockdown we’ve both been tending to our vinyl collections. I’ve now got a whole new set of 12 inches as well as having rediscovered some absolute gems I already owned. What’s been going on amidst your shelves and what type of tunes have you been buying/unearthing?

Yes I’ve set myself up in the basement amongst my record collection so have been enjoying buying new records and rediscovering albums I’ve not played in years. Some classic albums I’ve been relistening to recently are Pink Flag by Wire, Bummed by Happy Mondays, the Alice Clarke album on mainstream and Karen Dalton’s debut. Some new purchases include Dolly Mixture-demonstration tapes, Sibylle Baier-color green and lots of Fall records. I think I’ve got original UK copies of all the studio albums from live at the witch trials (1979) to shift work (1991). Since Mark E Smith passed I’ve been getting back into the fall and discovering some of their later albums like ‘the real new fall lp’ which is fantastic.

I’m guessing as well as vinyl you collect clothes too? Have you got a lot of denim? 

Yeah I’ve got a lot of jeans for sure, I have been collecting vintage clothes since I was a kid in Dublin. Also jackets, I’ve got a major jacket problem, like half of Manchester I believe, so maybe it developed it while living there in the 90s.

Being based in San Francisco what’s it been like living there over the past few months with all the political and pandemic related chaos? To be honest I’ve been barricaded in my basement working and playing records or in the garden with my two boys so have been keeping a low profile. Obviously crazy stuff going on here which is not great but I’m hoping something positive comes out of it all.

Being a Dubliner is there anything you miss from back home? Jammies and red? White pudding? A decent pint of stout?

The folk are good in Dublin so I miss having the craic with Irish people. Sausages for sure and good Crisp sandwiches. When my Dad comes over from Dublin he brings a slice pan of Brennans bread, packed in a shoe box for protection and King crisps. That’s a proper treat.

How has lockdown affected your work with LVC and also Levi’s as a whole? 

Like everyone It’s made us work as a company in a completely different way and has thrown a lot of obstacles in our paths that were jumping over or tripping up on, but I do think there is a lot to be learned from this. Regarding LVC its definitely inspired me to approach our upcoming photoshoot in a unique way which I’m excited about.

How is the Levi’s vault these days, have there been any exciting new acquisitions? 

Although it’s truly a vault at the moment we are still managing to hunt down exciting pieces from lockdown! We just got something quite special that I’m excited to reproduce.

Your collections are always so well researched and detailed, has isolation helped you to go deeper than you usually might with research?

I don’t think isolation has helped me go deeper. To be honest I’m much happier to physically go somewhere and dig around as you’ll always get talking to someone and get a lead and end up finding amazing things you were not looking for. It’s a bit like buying records online as opposed to a record shop, for me at least, when I’m buying records online I only find what I search for but going to a record store I hardly ever leave with something I was looking for, so it’s much more about the discovery.

When looking for an era or a scene as a point of reference for LVC what are the rules that you have to stick to? 

Well since I started at LVC (11 years ago now) we always based the collection on a cultural moment that took place within the USA. I kind of broke that with the Jamaican collection and it felt  good to look at US culture from a different viewpoint so that rule has gone out the window. I’d say the only rules now are that Levi’s should have been part of whatever scene we are researching and I’d tend to steer away from anything too contemporary. We’ve started to venture into the 1980s which is new for us but still feels good.

As a reggae fan the LVC Rockers inspired collection was a particular highlight for me, how did that project come about and how on earth did you recreate such an accurate photo shoot?

I’m also a big reggae fan and have been since I was a teenager. Obviously the style that was coming from Jamaica in the 70s was mind blowing so I was excited to base the collection on this period. I went to Kingston alone for a week on a research trip and hung out at record stores/dancehall nights and met a lot of interesting people and made connections that would help when I’d go back to do the shoot. It’s an amazing place and people still put themselves together in unpredictable ways that is really inspiring. We approached the photoshoot in the same way as any other LVC shoot by street casting locals as models. In this case it was young musicians and hustlers from the streets of Kingston. I think this is key to making something feel authentic. If you use real people from a real scene its gonna look real. The best thing that happened was while looking for a motorbike for the shoot we met up with these kids who had a bike but were suspicious of us, they were casing us out and when we were taking a reference pic of the bike they started to stand in front of the bike throwing shapes saying ‘hey mister you need me in your photoshoot’, eventually we said ok yeh come along when you bring the bike and well see if we can get you in. We were a little nervous they were going to be disruptive on the day of the shoot as they were a bit loose. Our plan was maybe having them in the background of a couple of shots to keep them sweet, but when they turned up I got them dressed and gave them the painted hats to try on, immediately the morphed into these amazing characters and became central to the shoot, this was totally unexpected and we couldn’t control or direct them  but we just chased them around shooting them. This was the highlight for me.

What can we expect to see from future LVC collections? 

More of the past !

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