Kingpins Stories: Franky Vangaever – 33 Years at Levi Strauss & Co. (Pt. 1 of 2)

FRANKY VANGAEVER, Denim & Textile-Industry Expert, worked 33 years at Levi Strauss & Co.

Life has been kind to me.  I was born and still live on the Belgium seaside where I enjoy the mountains, my motorbike, skiing, and I love being a board member of a volleyball team.  My youth was all about sports and expending energy of which I have plenty and where I was able to play volleyball in the highest national divisions.

Like many people in the denim industry, I was never an outstanding or exemplary student, I did the bare minimum because sports were more important to me.  Creatively I loved and studied ‘In-House Art & Deco’, all about interior creation, design, and renovation.

After school I was obliged to fulfil my military service where I was placed as a military-police on a motorbike and selected for the military national volleyball-team — all of which were great times and a perfect fit for me but finally I decided to get serious, leave the military and take a job.  I went straight to an Interim Office and told them “Tomorrow I want to start work, whatever it is” and they placed me immediately and the next day I started working at one of the Levi Strauss & Co’s finishing locations in Wervik Belgium.  That was my first job and the first day of what turned out to be a 33-year unexpected, unimaginable commitment and love affair to jeans.  This first job had me stone-washing and bleaching jeans, which was fine, but I quickly applied for a job more in-line with creative work which was what I studied.

Two weeks passed before HR called me to their office, and where they proceeded to tell me they were looking for somebody with a ‘creative’ background, because Levi was planning to open a start-up ‘Finishing Development Lab’ and they needed a ‘Lab-assistant’ to execute all the development-trials, as well as creating commercial and photoshoot samples. My immediate reaction was “OK fine why not?” It sounded much better than handling 50 kg heavy bags of pumice stones.  Weeks later working in the Lab, I had a great feeling, having learned so much about denim finishing, fabrics, and chemistry, and all that I was asked to do it was easy to combine with my volleyball-career.

I had offers to start in Interior-Deco-Design, but I wanted to give the Lab job more time, mostly due to the fact that the denim-indigo passion bug had caught me.  My parents were angry and didn’t understand why I would not leave Levi’s lab, having invested money for studying which I was now ignoring and not paying attention to what I had scholastically prepared to do.  But I was resolute and wanted to follow my mind and heart.  Now more than 3 decades later looks like I made the right decision.

Two Years into working at the Finishing Development Lab, which was growing, I was moved to the second Belgian Levi Strauss & Co finishing location in Antwerp, about a 1.5-hour drive from my home where I was appointed as the Finishing Lab Supervisor, with two lab-assistant colleagues, and three extra Development Engineers. By now, with all my internal work-related studies I had a good fabric background but was still three years away from completing the necessary chemical education.  The Lab continually expanded each year, as denim and finishing became very popular with consumers.  Finishing Development was not able to handle all that was being required in the industry and Levi had to make new sub departments. 

When I started in 1986 jeans were washed or stonewashed. During my years enormous complexity was added to jean processing. The whole industry was changing dramatically.

Levi Europe created in 1993 a fully dedicated Research Department and I became Finishing Researcher.  The job required us to be the first “Innovation developers” working to create advanced fabrics and finishing technologies.  In addition, we had to supply technical support so that we could upscale mass production at the jeans facilities.  Always new work, new demand as the industry relentlessly exploded.

Beginning in the early 2000’s I became Finishing Technology Engineer-Super Premium, as the Levi’s Super-Premium product lines were born, and working at ‘the top’ of products was fascinating and a wonderful time.

Levi’s Vintage Clothing® was all about taking historical archival selvedge vintage garments and making replicas.  Not easy to do, and processing required all applications be done with handcraft work, requiring many hours per garment.  For LVC Denim Equity pieces sometimes the original vintage garment from Levi San Francisco archives flew from California.  I remember some star products, the Bunkhouse, the 1927 Heath, the 1890 Chalk Miner, the 1901 Big Blue, the 1880 Nevada jean, all passed into my hands, and we reproduced them.

Levis RED®, later Blue®, and then Made&Crafted® took a more modern view on denim styling and looks. They always used advanced and natural Premium fabric constructions and raw materials, e.g., Japanese paper-denim, hemp, sculpture denim, etc… more modern patterns and advanced silhouettes with clean finishing looks…

All developments and prototypes were produced in our R&D Lab, and for the production a few dedicated facilities were selected in Italy, Kentucky, and later in Romania and Turkey. At that point we were going on site with our designers, to re-develop and approve the products and providing intensive training to the factories.

In those day lots of pieces were made specifically for artists and stars.  For example, we created a vintage sun-bleached denim shirt for Madonna when she was touring in Europe, with 200 handsewn real seashell buttons. Unfortunately, I was not the one to hand it over to her…☺︎

Vintage Leather jackets were also important.  We had to develop used vintage-abraded looks, worn-and shiny polished areas, and hand feels with natural waxes and oils. This was done in Northern Italy, at the best quality leather Mill, which worked as well for high-end Brands such as Gucci and Prada.  Here our story was that we started training the factories on vintage used and destroyed leather looks.  At a certain point the owner stopped us, he simply could not bear it as it was too emotional for him to see us destroying his high-quality leather.  Only after many discussions and a few glasses of prosecco were we able to continue our creative destruction…☺︎

A few years later I became the Finishing Development Manager Super Premium & Red Tab, managing developments and support our LevisXX division that moved towards the new offices in Amsterdam.

Our Research and Development Lab moved from Belgium to Corlu Turkey, and we became a Technical Development Engineering Team in our Brussels HQ. The company became Global, we had to coordinate and manage the global developments for all product lines, coordinate the transition towards the new Global Development Center in Turkey, provide support and trainings to become a center of excellence.

The years following the global streamlining continued, Product Technical Innovation R&D Manager was my next function. Driving the novelty and research, streamlining with the global teams from Innovation, providing technical expertise towards Design concept and sustainability…

A few years later I became the Area Lead – Technical Innovation & Research Science, managing Global Technical Innovation and Research in Europe, feeding novelties towards the Global Innovation Teams. I also supported with technical expertise the Design Innovation and Sustainability teams to be the global Innovation Leader within the fashion industry.

Today Franky is the founder of the RESPONSIBLE Textile Innovation consultancy, which collaborates with innovative companies, brands and organizations taking responsible and conscious decisions towards best-in-class sustainable innovation.

Read Part 2 HERE

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