Kingpins Stories: Stefano Aldighieri – The Impossible Dream

The Impossible Dream

(From a small provincial town in Italy to the top job at the best jeans brand in the world).

This is my quest,

To follow that star

No matter how hopeless,

No matter how far.

Songwriters: Leigh Mitch / Darion Joseph The Impossible Dream lyrics © Helena Music Company, Andrew Scott Music, Helena Music Corp

Q. Where are you from?
A. How much time do you have?

I got lucky at the birth lottery. We have no control over when it comes to where/when/how we come to this world. I was born in a small town in Northern Italy, like the ones that visiting tourists think are paradise and some locals – like myself – could not wait to leave. My childhood was uneventful, until that day in my early teens, when my parents decided to let me spend the summer in North America (all my dad’s brothers had migrated to the U.S. and Canada); the plan was for me to learn English (not the funny one taught in school). It was a life-altering experience (I enjoyed it so much that I had to do it again), and made me decide that one day I would live somewhere in North America.  My parents did everything they could to give us a comfortable life – better than the one they had – up to and including a good education and the tools to shape our destiny.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are our parents. My dad came from a big family with very modest means and grew up in a tiny mountain village, graduated as a textile engineer and spent his whole life in the T & A (as in, textiles and apparel) world. Little did I know growing up that I would end up there too.

I took classical studies (philosophy, history, art, Latin, Greek, literature) and then decided to go to university to become an architect (I unfortunately never graduated, but later switched to business and got my MBA).

Other than photography and art, my passion was music; I worked for small radio stations, DJed and eventually went to work for a music production company. I thought that was my path. We make plans, then life happens. I was drafted to join the military, went to the academy and spent a couple of years as a lieutenant; it was a great experience, but once my stint was over, I decided to revert to civilian life (it is hard to be a good soldier when you hate violence).

By that time, I realized my little dream of making it in the music biz was unrealistic and decided to “get a job.” I ended up at a local factory that made parts and accessories for spinning, weaving and dyeing machines (how glamorous). My job got me to travel a lot – which I loved – and my natural curiosity had me intrigued by the complexities of the textile manufacturing process, despite having ZERO intention of following in my dad’s footsteps. I knew nothing about it, but was very eager to learn, asking questions to whomever would listen, talking to the old guys who had all the experience in the world. Against all odds, I was hooked.

One CAN learn on the job, if one really wants to. Some say that you cannot be a great designer unless you graduate from a famous design school; if that were the case, fashion would not have some of the most influential people that we are blessed to have. The list would be too long, and I would hate to leave out someone, but so many of the key players in our industry have ZERO formal education.

My next chapter was to be headhunted and hired by a top denim company (FINALLY the indigo connection, right?). When I got the job, my expectation was that it would be a piece of cake; how difficult can denim be? It is always blue, made of cotton, it comes in three weights, light for shirts, medium for shorts and dresses, heavy for jeans and jackets … boy, was I wrong. Again, lots of travel (a pattern starts to emerge), the chance to meet legendary designers and help develop fabrics for so many wonderful brands, it was very intoxicating. I caught the indigo fever and have never recovered. The music and fashion worlds are far closer than one thinks; they are not just selling a tangible product, both are producing an emotional connection.

I got headhunted again, this time by a large UK company (their chemical unit invented tencel), to run a small division that made sportwear/casual wear fabrics. The downside, no denim; the upside, a chance to leave my small town (and start heading west) and an opportunity to learn about different products and markets, so I gladly accepted and moved to my second country. While I loved the experience, I was missing the blue stuff (and the weather eventually got to me too); I decided during my previous job in the denim world that one day I would work for one of the big American jeans brands. Easier said than done, but luck came by again. Through a common friend, I met the one person who would eventually make me achieve my dream – and became my best friend in the process, Andrew Olah. He was supposed to help me get a foot into one of the jeans cathedrals; I pestered him for a while, we got to know each other and realized that we could work together and have fun doing it. The idea was that I would join his company for three years, help him modernize it and in the meantime, get to know those brands and figure out if I wanted to and/or was able to be hired by one.

After about three years of wonderful living in Canada, THE opportunity knocked on my door; a job was available for me to become a design director in charge of research and development of fabrics, technologies, laundry treatments, colors, etc. at Levi Strauss & Co. I KNEW it was THE once in a lifetime opportunity. It was all I had been dreaming of for years….and yet, it was one of my most difficult decisions. On one hand, I was finally able to fulfill my dream of working for the best jeans brand ever, to live in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities anywhere and learn so much more about the blue stuff. On the other hand, I felt like I was betraying my friend, jumping ship right when a new exciting chapter of the company was about to start. I had sleepless nights trying to make the best decision. I took the job, knowing that even if I was hurting my friend, he could and would eventually understand and be happy for me. I am so glad I did not lose our friendship over this!

My years at the Plaza were possibly the best ones of my career. I spent LOTS of time at the archives, studying everything that Levi’s made—its history, the company’s values, etc. I traveled to many parts of the world, met incredible people and saw places I had only imagined. I loved my job and my team. Everything was great … until, as it often happens in large companies, a shift in the top management sent ripple effects throughout the company and everything was “reorganized.”

Why do you look so sad and forsaken?

When one door is closed, don’t you know other is open?

(Bob Marley)

Little did I know that the same day that I exited Levi’s, another friend of mine was leaving a much smaller but very promising L.A. brand called 7 For All Mankind. Jerome Dahan went on to found Citizens of Humanity and the remaining partner needed somebody to take over the creative helm of something that was becoming one of the most successful stories of our times. I packed up and moved south to Los Angeles.

There is a strange animosity between Northern and Southern California, and they both think they are the better place. Before moving to L.A. I also had mixed feelings about the city, but once I discovered the soul it has under the superficial glitz, I ended up loving it and spending the longest part of my life there. The chapter at 7 FAM was cool; I had left the largest and most organized jeans brand in the world to join a small and very hectic one. Truthfully, we were on fire and could not make enough product. My regret was that while I believed we could have done so much more, thanks to our status, the company decided not to rock the boat and keep delivering the same stuff that had made us famous. Probably a sound decision from a financial standpoint, less exciting from a creative side.

Time to take a break.

Our rag trade can burn you out and if you can afford the luxury, it is good to take a sabbatical and clear your mind. I tried to do that, took time off to read, visit museums, ride my motorcycle, explore California … until my two worlds collided. Fashion, meet music.

Next chapter combined two of my life’s main ingredients: I had the amazing opportunity to work on a line inspired by a music legend; Bob Marley’s family and I joined to create Tuff Gong Clothing, a brand heavily influenced by Bob’s music, words and actions. I felt proud to be involved in the project, and sad when the circumstances forced us to shelve it. Not all the stars aligned at the right time.

One more L.A. jeans brand, and then off to the last (for now) adventure.

After we shut down our brand, I joined another top Los Angeles jeans maker, Hudson, reconnected with some friends and made some new ones; however, when all the pieces do not match, it is better to end the experiment without trying to force something that may never happen. I joined forces with a couple of design colleagues from Hudson and two more from Levi’s and we created Another Design Studio.

Over the last several years, many exciting projects came about; even though the team drifted apart. Eventually, the original idea remained well alive: to share our experience and talent to help brands, retailers and manufacturers with design, product development, marketing and branding. The end goal is to make better denim together.

Do I consider myself lucky? Hell, yeah. I had the chance to be exposed to all the facets of our industry, and the opportunity to keep learning. Not all my choices were as good as they could have been, and I do have some regrets.

But I am so lucky to have spent most of my life in the wonderful world of denim. What is next?

Many people ask me why I never launched my own brand. My answer is always the same: I do not believe in creating a brand just for the sake of it or to try and make a quick buck. Brands without soul should not exist, in an ideal world … and nobody really NEEDS another one (to the ones saying they started a brand because they could not find a shirt/tee/pant/whatever that fit them, I respond that they did not look hard enough!) Having said that, is it perhaps time for me to finally put together a proper plan for a new project?

Over the last few years, I had the incredibly good fortune to collaborate with some of the best brands, retailers and manufacturers worldwide and after this long forced break due to you know what, I am eager to return to give my modest contribution to making denim great again!

Stefano Aldighieri – June 19, 2019

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