Rhythm and Blues
From the street, Peter Lang’s house looks like any other along the side of the Angeles National Forest in Pasadena. Unassuming. Quiet. Yet stoic and beautiful. Peter steps around the side to greet us with a firm handshake and wide, brilliant smile. “Oh man, you guys have got to try some of these croissants we just got,” he says. “And coffee.”
He leads us around to the backyard. A garden lines the edge of his property, butting up against a fence, beyond which the hills jut upward, covered in a jungle of green. The low hanging clouds drizzle a steady rain against the roof.
Peter returns with said coffee and croissants in hand. He has a strong, yet calm and generous charisma. We imagine he treats everyone like this – like longtime friends from his youth.
“I grew up in Hollywood, born in Hollywood. Like hardcore, man,” says Peter. “I remember being four years old, on the corner of Hollywood and Western, you know, some kid jacking me for my two quarters. Haha. I’ll never forget that. ‘Hey kid, give me your quarters!’”
Thankfully, most of Peter’s memories growing up aren’t about getting robbed of his lunch money. Rather, they’re about creation. In the early 1980s, Los Feliz was a bohemian mixture of artists, designers, and musicians. “I wanted to be a rock star just like everybody else”, says Peter. Everyone from his high school played an instrument and was creative in some shape or form, whether visually or musically (one of Peter’s classmates was Beck).
The music and arts scene was burgeoning – a breeding ground of explosive creativity. “It was a concentration of talent with a competitive edge that kept everyone pushing. If you were getting faded and then going up on stage, people didn’t take you seriously. And someone else was ready to take your place.”
And so, throughout high school, Peter followed his passion. He played in a variety of different bands, each of which, to him, required a uniquely different look.
To find that “look”, he kept his eye out for just the right pieces. “I’d walk by a yard sale and I’m like, ‘Oh crap, there’s an old pair of Levi’s or Lee’s!’ And I’d buy it for two bucks. And then I would get each jean tailored for a certain band, so if I was playing in a hard pre-Metal band, everything would be really skinny. If you look at old pictures of Iron Maiden, you’ll see they’re all wearing high-waisted skinny jeans. So I would just mimic that. And then if I was playing in a punk band, it was loose and kind of Dickie’s style. And that started my acquisition of jeans.”
With increasing volume, what began as a collection of band uniforms became, simply, a collection. When Peter was 18, visiting a girl he was interested in, he made a unique discovery upon visiting her house. “I walk into her mom’s study and there were stacks of jeans. Battenwear, Levi’s, Lee jeans. All vintage stuff everywhere,” he recalls. “So, I was like: wow, screw the girl. I’m going to hang out with the mom!”
And the denim collecting continued into college, in part because it helped pay for school. But as the vintage reselling market began to run dry, people started asking Peter if he could make custom jeans inspired by the vintage collections they traded. “And that clicked something in me. That maybe I could do this.”
The answer was yes – he could do this. After teaching himself the basics of denim construction, Peter went on to start his first company (which would go on to become Hudson denim), and shortly thereafter, he spun off a line called Farmer. “When I made my first Farmer jean, it was based off of a Lee Rider jean. Because I was a big fan of Lee, I took the characteristics I liked and tried to implement them into that collection. So basically, the entire Farmer collection was based off a Lee jean,” he tells us. “Actually, you want to see them?”
Yes we do.
Peter takes us over to his garage, steps away, and opens the door. It’s simple and unassuming, like any garage. Except for the jeans. Stacks and stacks of jeans. Wooden shelves line the right side of the wall. A second shelf runs down the center of the floor, dividing the space in half. Each shelf contains hundreds of pairs of jeans.
He pulls out a stack of 12-year-old Farmer jeans. They are an inky indigo with the rough handfeel of unworn, raw denim. The only indicator of their makership is a small piece of red and white gingham fabric on the back pocket. Like a signature at the bottom of a handwritten letter.
“This gingham patch here is actually one of the reasons I’m at Lee today.”
With Farmer, Peter had established himself as a sought-after designer, so much so that he was hired by Ralph Lauren to run their denim division. It would prove to be a short run, however, as Peter felt restricted in freedom of design working for such a large company. It just so happened that Lee’s sales office was in the same building as Ralph Lauren’s. “Dan Sterbens from Lee got wind that I was there and called me and said ‘Hey, are you that gingham dude?’”
“And that was it,” says Peter. “To have someone that high up recognize the work that I had done. To have someone like that recognize the intricate details of what I’ve been passionate about since I was 15 years old – that was amazing.”
And Peter has been at Lee since, commanding the design and creation for Lee 101. The 101 division creates modern-day pieces inspired by the 100-plus years of Lee’s extensive history. “But we don’t just do a direct translation of the archive pieces. We feel that that’s been done, it’s being done, and it’s not enough of a selling point for us to keep on bringing that old pony back out.”
And so instead of replicating them, Lee translates and evolves them. Utilizing advancements in manufacturing, the 101 line has an authentic look but with tighter construction and updated fits. “It’s like updating a historic car. You give it more comforting details like AC, better steering, and new brakes. You’re taking something with classic lines and you’re giving it all the modern amenities it needs to survive in today’s marketplace.”
And alongside of such modern amenities, Peter has integrated a use-centric design philosophy. Clothes aren’t meant to hang on a rack, after all. They’re meant to be worn. And if Peter has anything to say about it, he hopes they’re worn hard. “When I design, I do so for use. I’m thinking about a product that I want to ride in. I’m thinking about having the sleeve be long enough when my arms are extended, throttling down the road. And I don’t stop there – I go and ride in it. If I’m thinking about what the abrasion would look like if I fell in it, I go out and fall. Honestly, we’re more of a utilitarian, industrial company versus a fashion company.”
The result is a clean and smart but rugged line of pieces, each with history anchored in the archives of one of the oldest makers of denim in America.
“I do believe in things that are timeless. I want you to take it, have it sit in your closet and feel good about it five years from now, ten years from now.”
As the afternoon wears on, rain pattering heavily on the roof, Peter wants to show us something before we go. He guides us to the other side of the garage, which is dedicated to his other obsession – one with roots as deep as his passion for denim: music. An Orange half stack, drum kit, and bass amp, along with his semi-hollow body Gibson are on display. “One of the best things about Lee is that we share passions beyond apparel. We’re all musicians. I’ve got a 1945 Gretsch in the office and I’ll pick it up and we’ll just all sit around and play. My buddy will bust out a harmonica, and Eddie will lay down a bass line.”
He fires up the Orange and smiles at the hum of the tubes. After tweaking a few knobs, his fingers find the fretboard, and from the warming amp flows a bluesy arpeggio. But we don’t get jazz for long. He jumps into a crunchy rock rhythm, grinning like he’s back in high school. Somewhere in Loz Feliz. On a stage.
“That’s what it’s about. Right there. I could be out here and play for hours.” He laughs and puts down the guitar. “Oh ya, and those are my snowboards,” Peter says, pointing to the back of garage. “I wanted to try my hand at making one. So I made three. By hand. It was fun!”
Of course he did. When asked if he made the snowboards to break up his constant focus on textiles, particularly jeans, his answer was immediate. “You know, designing other stuff is great. The snowboards were a really fun challenge and something new. But honestly – jeans are it. To this day, if I go by a yard sale and see blue, I stop the car. It’s a part of me now. Denim is the only textile I know that falls under industrial design. It’s almost like woodcarving – no two pieces are really the same, even if your jigs are identical. It has the characteristics of wood and ages the same…it’s constantly changing and it fascinates me. I never get bored.”
“Well…when I make the perfect pair of jeans, I guess I’ll think about stopping. But actually, if I do make the perfect pair of jeans, I’d have to replicate it first. Once I replicate it, then I’ll quit.”
He pauses for a moment, then smiles. “But I guess I just said you can never make the same pair twice, so that’s not happening any time soon.”
We hope not. So until that day comes, to his pleasure, he’ll keep making jeans. And, to our delight, we’ll keep buying them.