Every year on May 20, Levi’s celebrates the birthday of their iconic 501 jean. With 145 years of this jean under their belt, this year, Levi’s saw it fit to celebrate big by collaborating with stylist Karla Welch to create the Levi’s x karla 501 Day Collection.
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You may not know Welch by name but I can guarantee you’ve seen her work. The stylist counts Tracee Ellis Ross, Sarah Paulson, Busy Philipps, Amber Heard, Ruth Negga, and many others among her illustrious client list. Which might make you think Welch would be fantastically over the top. Turns out, the Canada-native is actually the opposite. Dressed in a white t-shirt, dark denim straight leg jeans from the new collection, and brown boots, Welch looked paired down and at ease holding court at the preview of her 501 Day collection. Welch walked me through each piece, sharing how it all came together—and how a love of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders of the ’80s influenced one standout jacket.
You’ve created t-shirts with Hanes, and now you’ve done this collection with Levi’s. What made you want to get into designing?
I don’t think of myself as a designer, but I wanted to explore the idea of American icons. A white t-shirt, to me, is iconic. It’s a conceptual idea but also a practical thing of, ‘What did I want?’ I wanted a t-shirt that wasn’t $200; I wanted a $30 t-shirt that was perfect. There’s nothing more iconic than Levi’s—so, what do I want from jeans? I don’t ever want to feel like I’m being limited to one thing, like styling. So while I’m not a fashion designer, I can certainly have creative ideas and find experts to create with. That’s kind of what this is.
And there’s a philanthropic component.
I saw this as a way to leverage for social change. In honor of the collection, Levi’s is making a donation to the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. I’m in a superficial business and it’s wonderful, fashion is super important and it makes people feel incredible, but I was like, ‘How can I use more of my platform and what I can do for a change?’ I wanted to join the Peace Corp when I finished high school and they wouldn’t take me because they were like, ‘Girl, you don’t have skills. We don’t need you. We need nurses and doctors, you have nothing.’ So I think that has been bugging me for so many years. This is my way of saying, ‘Okay, I can do a project. I can work with partners, we can make money for organizations that do make change.’
Tell me a little bit about the process of working on this collection.
It was magical and easy and wonderful. Jonathan Chang, the creative director of Levi’s, and I would just speak in short hand. I’d say, ‘I want a wide-leg raver pant but I want it to be like this.’ Or, ‘I want a fringe jacket that reminds me of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders from like the early ’80s’ and he would just make it.
Why were the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders a reference?
As a child, I thought those women were so amazing. I loved them to the point where when I was 13, I saved all my money and bought a white pair of cowboy boots because—don’t ask me why—I don’t even like the Dallas Cowboys, I don’t like football but maybe because I liked watching Dallas the TV show with my mom. I think I’ve been chasing icons my whole life. If I actually looked back at it, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were iconic.
What’s one of your favorite pieces from the collection?
I love the jeans I have on. They’re based on a vintage page from the archives that had a visible pleat from the person folding them. I loved the idea that your history can be found in a pair of pants, especially in Levi’s. I really was thinking about future vintage. Everything is in indigo because I want you to wear it in yourself, I don’t want it to be done for you. I think maybe in 200 years, on Mars, a pair of these pants will show up. I wanted to think far out there.
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When found, what will the history of these pants will be?
It can be different for everybody—and that ties into the girls in the campaign, every one of them is so different. There’s so much storytelling that’s so rich. It’s like, ‘Make your own story and think about what you love.’ I think about moments in my life and so much of it is tied to clothing, like how I felt in that first moment I ever put on a 501. I’m sentimental in that great way.
When was that moment when you first put on a 501?
I was 13 and I stole my brother’s jeans. They were big and I rolled them and I cuffed them— nobody was doing anything like that—and I remember feeling different but amazing. Now, 31 years later, I’m still wearing 501s and I have a collaboration with them.
When you were designing, who did you have in mind?
Me. I really did, I’m kind of my own muse. I don’t look to others for inspiration. I love references, but I don’t really think about anybody else for this sort of stuff. My t-shirts, I wanted it to be perfect for this but I’m not designer enough to think about ‘the woman’—I’m the woman. It’s me, and I hope it works for the rest of you. It was amazing; for every girl that came in, every girl looked sick.