What does an artist do who is at the top of their game? Simple, kick it up a notch. Or various ones. This is what Ian Berry did, British denim artist extraordinaire who creates painting-like artworks out of old jeans - minus the paint. In honour of the 150th anniversary of Levi’s cult jeans 501, Berry collaborated with the brand. The result is the largest mural ever made out of denim - it stands at an impressive 13 x 33 feet (4 x 10 metres), and was displayed mid-March in Paris. FashionUnited caught Ian Berry before the mural is moving to Milan and asked him about the challenges involved in such a gigantic task.
“This was by far the most challenging and difficult project I have worked with,” laughs Berry. “I usually don’t work with brands but this one was exciting and I love the history of jeans and there is no history of blue jeans without Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis. The 501 is the pinnacle of jeans, so this 150th anniversary definitely feels like a big thing to me. The result is the largest piece that I have ever attempted. Countless hours went into this work, but I’m immensely proud to finally see the result together,” says Berry.
As a tribute to those who have made the 501 a timeless fashion item that crosses styles and generations, the mural depicts seven figures representing key cultural archetypes over the decades - “from the cowboys of the 1880s to the punks and queer communities of the 70, bikers, rebels and one that represents the workers via a Rosie-the-Riveter-type character,” explains Levi’s in a press release.
Levi’s unveils largest denim mural to-date
“The history is so rich; it was pretty easy to draw inspiration from all the people who did great things in their denim,” adds Berry. And indeed still do - when the mural started its European journey from 17th to 19th March at Paris’s iconic Place de la République, mere days later, the square was taken over by protesters in the latest pension reform strike, many of them no doubt clad in jeans.
The whole mural consists of 16 panels, each one as big as the biggest of Berry’s previous works - for example “Hotel California”, which is 96 x 48 inches (244 x 122 centimetres) in size. “I saw the finished piece only in Paris,” said Berry, which is when Levi’s got to see it too.
The sheer scale was “super challenging because you have to use bigger pieces, which was really difficult, trying to find the perfect fit,” says Berry. “That was so scary about it, how big each piece had to be. After all, while the pieces became bigger, the jeans did not. I had to completely change my style of working, my mindset,” recalls Berry. Consequently, part of the work was to go through many pieces of post-consumer jeans, which were collected and given to him by Levi’s.
The brand is more than happy with the result. “This project looks amazing. Ian’s interpretation of the 501 jeans recurring presence in counterculture and progressive movements is on point,” comments Levi Strauss & Co. historian and Berry’s long-time admirer Tracey Panek.
Part of the display was also an exhibition at local café Fluctuât Nec Mergitur that showcased different models of 501 jeans, including the Circular 501 and the most recent launches, the 501 54’ and 501 81’, alongside the process of creation, showing cotton plants and other raw materials that go into the textiles.
“I’m proud that our Levi’s brand could associate its name with this great artist on such a milestone year and that we could share his stunning work of art on this busy and diverse square at the heart of Paris. This year’s Greatest Story Ever Worn campaign is all about celebrating the 501 jean with our fans and thanking them for being a part of this inspiring story,” commented Mathilde Vaucheret, Levi’s brand marketing director, South Europe.
Next stops of the mural are Milan and Madrid where it will be shown from 17th to 26th April at the Università Statale as part of Milan Design Week and from 4th to 7th May at Plaza Callao in Madrid, one of the city’s liveliest squares.
“It was great to see the installation at such a busy and historic spot in Paris. I can’t wait to see the reactions in Milan and Madrid,” concludes Berry.
This is not the first time of Berry working with Levi’s - in 2022, the artist unveiled a portrait made especially for the Levi Strauss Museum, and created three portraits of the Chilean musicians Jorge González, Ana Tijoux and Roberto Márquez de Illapu to exhibit at Lollapalooza for Levi’s Chile. They have now found a permanent home at Santiago’s Plaza Egaña Metro station where hundreds of thousands of people pass by.
While in Chile, Berry also got a chance to see the mountains of clothes waste in the Atacama Desert - an experience so eye-opening, that Berry decided to make a documentary about it named “Fast Fashion’s Graveyard”, which is forthcoming. “Denim is just full of dualities - it is amazing but it is also problematic,” he comments on the environmental impact of the material.