Paul Dillinger is a fashion designer straight out of central casting: hipster skinny, sporting a knit hat, happily hunched over drawings and his sewing machine alone in his studio.
But in 2012, as senior director of design for Levi Strauss & Co.’s Dockers brand, he decided to attempt something far from typical: the production of an apparel line that took environmental and social sustainability into account at every step, from raw-material sourcing to product durability to the human rights of the workers who stitch the garments.
Dillinger’s efforts resulted in the Wellthread line, launched in 2014. It included a number of innovations (such as a dye method that used less salt, water, and energy than normal processes) and demonstrated how much more effective it is to consider sustainability at the design phase rather than trying to tweak or retrofit a product that has already been made.
But what is most interesting about Dillinger’s work is not just the improved sustainability of the end product, but how that product led to profound changes in how the company does business.
One feature that Dillinger set out to improve was the trouser back-rise seam, which he believed could be made more durable. He came up with a complicated design that took seven different stitching and assembly operations rather than the usual three, with additional materials needed as well. He sent the specs to one of Levi’s vendors in Bangladesh, who did a prototype and came up with an understandably higher price than the norm.