When the creative potential of Northampton school students ignited imaginations at Levi Strauss, the results were spectacular. Hazel Wood reports
At first sight you might think the display hanging on the wide azure-blue wall of the staff canteen at Levi Strauss's UK headquarters in Northampton is the work of some imaginative designer at the company. There are jeans covered in appliqued eyes, hands and mouths; denim banners with the company's four key motivating words - courage, empathy, integrity, originality - appliqued in lighter denim and picked out with zips; studs and red Levi labels, and engraved perspex panels hung on denim.
Actually, this impressive display is the work of pupils at Trinity High School, a local comprehensive. When Levi's visiting designers first saw the garments they were bowled over. "They thought the jeans were terribly funky and wanted to know where they could get hold of some," says Ian Carter, a supervisor at Levi's and the man behind the exhibition.
The idea of a collaboration with Trinity first occurred to him last November when he watched his granddaughter receive a prize at the school's awards night. He was impressed by the high standard of artwork. The Levi's plant is an enviably airy and well-planned building, but he knew that there was very little art on the walls, and he liked the idea of being able to fill that gap by providing encouragement to a local school.
At Trinity, art has a special part to play. Some children arrive with few means of expressing themselves, since they know very little English. "This was the perfect project for us," says Jolan Woolridge, the school's head of art. "We are a designated refugee school and our pupils come from many different ethnic backgrounds. Levi's is a company everyone could relate to, because they all wear jeans and know the Levi ads, and it's such a major employer in the area that it meant something to their families, too."
She decided to involve children in Years 8, 9 and 10, together with a small A-level group. They started with a visit to Levi's headquarters to discuss the project and take photographs. "We laid down absolutely no rules," says Ian. "I just asked them for something that would fit this space. But Levi's is very proud of its record on ethical and human rights issues, and I think they picked up on that."
They set about the project at the start of the spring term. Levi's supplied some materials - jeans and jackets, zips, poppers and reams of denim. Jolan's Year 8 group had already done some collage work on the theme of eyes and when she came across a picture of an appliqued jacket by a surrealist artist, this gave them the idea of decorating jeans with appliqued eyes, hands and mouths. Working from their own drawings, each child produced a set over the course of a few weeks.
Their work reflected the school's diversity. There were eyes of every shape, size and colour, embroidered, painted, layered and glued - some with shiny tears at the corners. Hands of different shapes were decorated with rings, brightly varnished nails, and intricate painted patterns. There were laughing mouths, sad mouths, mouths with teeth and tongues.
Meanwhile, two other groups pored over books of far away places and chose ones that interested them. The Year 8 group sewed denim banners, made up of imaginative flags. The Year 10 group used the idea of dream destinations to decorate perspex panels featuring palms, mosques, football grounds and outer space.
One sixth form student chose to sculpt an eerily convincing pair of jeans-clad legs made from chicken-wire stuffed with newspaper - a challenging sculpture project. Now the legs are a moveable feature at Levi's and are sometimes found lounging cross-legged in a chair or standing in reception with a visitors' badge hanging from its belt. "I sometimes phone Ian," says Jolan, "to ask how the legs are standing up".
Two striking multimedia exhibits make the point that appearances can be deceptive. A collage portrait of a trendy, jeans-clad girl with spiky red hair is backed by a classroom soundtrack indicating that she is a teacher. A boy with baggy clothes and a skateboard is revealed as a choirboy by an accompanying recording from Songs of Praise.
At the end the group got together to decide how to arrange the pieces and to sew and glue them on. "It was then that I realised how willing they were to commit to the project," she says. "It was really tough work, but they wanted to see it through. One lad sat there for 20 minutes trying to thread a needle. I offered to do it for him, but he was determined to do it himself."
The boys' enthusiasm didn't stop there either. Several went on to make denim pencil cases and told me they "really like making things".
The school's relationship with Levi's is ongoing. At its end of year exhibition Ian was delighted by work he saw in sixth-former Lucy Marlowe's sketch-book, which was part of an A-level project on using materials. She had created a semi-abstract picture of a blue-jeans-clad rear cleverly achieved with painted, scrunched-up tissue. It now hangs in one of Levi's conference rooms. As payment, Ian offered Lucy "anything from the Levi catalogue", and this has led to the establishment of an annual school award with a similar prize, for the Most Original Young Artist.
Jolan is delighted by the success of the project. "We're planning a fashion week and I'm going to ask Marks amp; Spencer to donate some T-shirts for us to decorate," she says. "It motivates the children to feel they are involved with a major company, and it links the school to the community outside. I shan't hesitate to approach other companies directly now."
The Levi's project was completed in eight weeks, during normal art periods of 90 minutes per week. Jolan Woolridge and her colleagues spent about 10 more hours on discussions and visits to Levi's. Paint and materials cost the school less than pound;100, since Levi's supplied all the garments, fabrics and fasteningsBusiness in the Community fosters contacts nationally between schools and businesses. 137 Shepherdess Walk, London N1 7RQ.Tel: 0870 600 2482 www.bitc.org.uk London Accord, at the same address as Business in the Community, does this specifically in the London areawww.londoneblo.org.uklondonaccord