Want to know how far denim can be stretched? London artist Ian Berry heads to Milan this month to launch a giant billboard made from recycled jeans. The unique piece turns a spotlight onto the importance of Italy in denim history.
When you enter the creative industry, many people will tell you it's good to specialise. Well, that's certainly what artist Ian Berry has done. Born in Huddersfield and now based in Poplar, East London, he creates artwork solely from recycled denim. And in his latest work, he's made a billboard for jeans titan Levi's using his signature medium.
The piece, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of Levi 501s, debuted last month in Paris's Place de la République (as shown in the photos on this page). And it's now moving to Milan for Design Week (from April 17 to 23), followed by Madrid's Plaza del Callao from May 4 to 7.
The exhibition of the piece at Milan Design Week is part of Interni Fuorisalone 2023's Design Re-Evolution Exhibition at the University of Milan's historic Ca' Granda central courtyard in Via Festa del Perdono, one of the city's most symbolic buildings.
But why Italy? Well, that's something that Ian is keen to talk about.
As the artist explains, it's here that the history of denim really began. "In the 15th-century port city of Genoa, a strong cross-weave cotton from the French city of Nimes was used for sails and protecting goods, resulting in the name 'denim', from Serge de Nim," he explains. "Similar textiles were later dyed with indigo, fashioned into work clothes and exported with the French name 'bleu de Genes'; blue jeans."
And Ian's own association with the country is a long one. "When I was growing up in the 1990s, I really felt that denim, while seen as American, had truly been embraced and elevated by Italian fashion," he says. "I think the country has a great connection to the material."
He adds: "I've worked with the city of Genoa, where the name 'jeans' originated, and unveiled a portrait of Garibaldi at Museo del Risorgimento with 'the unifier of Italy' depicted wearing the progenitor of modern jeans.
"At one point, many of my portraits were simultaneously in Italy, with both Armani and Lapo Elkann having one, my Debbie Harry hanging at Luxottica, and the Ayrton Senna portrait showing in Turin at APLOG, Alessandro Del Piero's museum."
His current piece is the largest ever made entirely of pre-worn denim, standing at 13 feet tall and 33 feet long, or four by ten metres. Conceived and crafted by Ian in his East London atelier, the mural was assembled on-site in Paris out of hundreds of bits of cut-denim jeans.
By collaging the pieces of recycled 501 so well that to most, it looks like a blue-toned painting, the artist pays tribute to some of the communities and movements that have contributed to the legacy of the 501s, which have become a timeless fashion item.
The striking composition features seven figures representing key cultural archetypes who made Levi's iconic, from the cowboys of the 1880s to the punks and gay communities of the 1970s, along with bikers, rebels, and a representation of the workers via a 'Rosie the Riveter'-type character.
Tribute to the 501s
This project holds a very particular significance for the artist, whose signature medium is recycled denim. "There is no history of blue jeans without Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, and the 501 is the pinnacle of jeans, so this 150th anniversary definitely feels like a big thing to me," Ian says. "The history is so rich; it was pretty easy to draw inspiration from all the people who did great things in their denim. The result is the largest piece that I have ever attempted. Countless hours went into it, but I'm immensely proud to finally see the result."
Ian's name has been linked to Levi's for some time, and Levi Strauss & Co. historian Tracey Panek is a long-time admirer. "He's such a talented artist with a gift for using denim," she says. "And this project looks amazing. Ian's interpretation of the 501 jeans recurring presence in counterculture and progressive movements is on point. I'm excited to see it myself."
"I'm proud that our Levi's brand could associate its name with this great artist on such a milestone year," says Mathilde Vaucheret, brand marketing director, South Europe, "and that we could share his stunning work of art on this busy and diverse square at the heart of Paris. This year's campaign is about celebrating the 501 jeans with our fans and thanking them for being a part of this inspiring story."