ERL Just Made the Vintage Levi’s of Your Dreams

Close your eyes and imagine a pair of jeans. Chances are, you’re picturing the Levi’s 501, a genre-defining silhouette the denim juggernaut introduced 150 years ago. Levi’s is to jeans what Kleenex is to tissues: so dominant they’re practically synonymous. And yet, over the decades Levi’s has continued to tweak, refine, and subvert its hero product. So to celebrate the 501’s big anniversary, the first name in denim called up Eli Russell Linnetz, the creative polyglot behind the buzzy menswear label ERL, to inject its catalog with a dose of Venice Beach vibes.

The last time Linnetz was let loose in another brand’s archives, he was in Paris with Kim Jones, the artistic director of Dior Men’s, who tapped the native Angeleno to guest design the maison’s spring ’23 capsule. This time around, the ERL mastermind saved a mint on airfare: Levi’s HQ is in San Francisco, the very same city its founder got his start slinging riveted blue jeans to hard-scrabble gold miners.

Linnetz’s reverence for Levi’s lore, and the vibrant tapestry of American life he encountered in its archives, is very evident—and very contagious. The upcoming collection includes plenty of jeans: there’s a slit-leg riff on the 501, along with a few entirely new silhouettes inspired by the effortless slouch of Venice-area skate rats. But there’s also a floor-length sherpa-lined trucker jacket and a boxy overshirt, the latter of which Bad Bunny surprise-debuted on the Coachella stage in April, wearing a matching pair of Levi’s x ERL oversized board shorts.

All of it comes rendered in a washed blue denim inspired by the well-worn Levi’s Linnetz remembers sifting through in flea markets and secondhand stores as a kid; the specific sun-faded hue he landed on took the designer and the Levi’s team close to two years to perfect. And in typical ERL fashion, Linnetz shot and styled the campaign himself, corralling a beatific crew of American archetypes—including a gaggle of frat bros from USC, his alma mater—to bring his gently-bronzed vision of the Levi’s universe to life.

Ahead of the collaboration’s debut next week, GQ hopped on a Zoom with Linnetz to discuss the global influence of California style, how skaters look so cool, and why a perfect pair of jeans is the highest form of luxury.

The Levi’s x ERL collection will be available starting on September 6th via the Levi’s website, select Levi’s stores, and at Dover Street market locations around the world.

Courtesy of Levi’s x ERL

GQ: Walk me through what you and Levi’s have been cooking up.

Eli Russell Linnetz: When I design a collection or I work on a special project, it has nothing to do with what people want. It really has to come from this authentic place—my touchpoint with Levi’s, for example, seemed very connected to me and my story of sun-faded California, and very all-American, obviously. Which is why I wanted to work with Levi’s: Because of the heritage. ERL is all about authenticity, so it was really important for me to work with them on this.

I imagine that you’re a longtime Levi’s head?

Yeah, of course.

Do you remember your first encounter with the brand?

I was always wearing my mom’s 501s.

How did they fit back then?

Wide in the hips. [Laughs.] I was always stealing my parents’ clothes. I guess my dad wore Levi’s, too. So for me it’s really a thing that people were doing before they were aware that it was a fashion statement. [Levi’s] was always a part of my parents’ lives, and everyone’s lives, really. So that was intriguing to me to kind of be, like, Oh, how do I give people the memory of my feeling going through flea markets and secondhand stores?

It’s not a knock on Levi’s to say that their product isn’t fashion; it’s transcended fashion. There are so few brands able to do that. Did that legacy feel daunting?

That was the exciting part. For me, Levi’s is so specific, and then once you really go there, you see that there’s all these other things. In my mind, Levi’s was always sun-faded—very light washes, distressing—but everyone probably has a different experience of how Levi’s exists in their life. Because it was specific, it wasn’t really daunting. I only do things that feel super authentic or logical, and besides for Dior, I don’t really do fashion-related things. I liked the authenticity and storytelling of something super American and specifically Californian, too.

Courtesy of Levi’s x ERL

Courtesy of Levi’s x ERL

I was going to ask about the West Coast “synergy” there, if you will. You mine a very different vision of California than Levi’s does, but they’re both distinctly American in their own ways.

That was literally the only thing I was really interested in doing. For me, it was more exciting to get to play with the iconography of Levi’s and their heritage.

What was the first thing you wanted to tweak?

It wasn’t really tweaking anything. I had the exciting pleasure of playing with the 501, but it really was taking their language and the visual history, because there were a lot of shapes that we created, a lot of skate-inspired shapes that just didn’t exist. It was really exciting to capture this youthful energy, so I casted a lot of people that I knew from Malibu and Venice. Some of the people [from the campaign] are related, some of them are brothers and sisters. Some of these guys are in a fraternity at USC together.

Of course they are.

It almost seems like I wanted to design something that felt common, that is anti-fashion, but that has the details of [designer counterparts]. It’s all about the light-washed denim and it comes super distressed.

Why do you think skaters wear jeans so well?

The lifestyle, the effortlessness. There’s an inherent swag to their personalities, a connection to movement or mobility. There’s a functional aspect—even when their jeans are completely ill-fitting, it’s just about the vibe.

Is that part of what attracted you to this project: Jeans as American iconography?

I always think of things as movies and stories. I don’t really care about the real world at all, and I think of things as photos before I even think about the clothes. Then it becomes taking those photos, or realizing something that was already in my brain that I was trying to express, about this youthful American ease that’s super relatable for Venice Beach. It’s kind of like working backwards as a costume designer, where you know what the end frame is going to look like. How are you using washes and all this stuff to tell those stories?

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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