Like something straight out of science fiction, a laser beam slowly travels down the pant leg of a crisp blue jean, wisps of smoke billowing up off the surface and leaving behind a perfectly roughed-up look. Meanwhile, the denim washing machines nearby are generating ozone—O3 gas is a more powerful oxidizer than your basic bleach, and using it helps waste less water. Next door, pots of natural-fermentation indigo spill over like boiling stew. And across the room, a whole range of decidedly more lo-fi processes are taking place: a cluster of busy tailors sew away at their machines, swatches are strewn about for side-by-side comparison, workers collaborate by the digital printing station, and rigid jeans are mounted on an inflatable mannequin contraption where sandpaper is applied by hand.

This is Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab, a breeding ground for creative ideas in artistic treatment and technology where the brand’s product prototypes are made. To be clear, it is no factory—no automated lines or operators—rather, it is a place where a small team, headed up by director of global development Bart Sights, brainstorms and speedily brings to life technical, conceptual, and seasonal developments in fits, finishes, fabric, and prints. In layman’s terms, the lab’s staff is made up of a bunch of jean geniuses who play around with denim all day, test exciting new ideas, and ultimately create a sample product that can be tried out. Yes, they’re living the dream.

Eureka is a relatively new establishment, opened in April 2013, just a short walk from Levi Strauss & Co.’s global headquarters in San Francisco. Before then, Levi’s prototyping would happen mostly abroad at the company’s facility in Turkey, or at vendor factories around the world. But the brand recognized the benefit of having such a space close to home; it would allow Sights and company to work more intimately with Levi’s senior vice president of design Jonathan Cheung and his team, who come up with the specific product application ideas for the Eureka crew’s innovations. “Think of Eureka as a music studio. We’ll come here and see stuff and start to connect the dots—put a drum beat together with a melody, with a lyric. Eureka is where you play it, and you iron it out, do it over and over again,” explains Cheung. “But even beyond production, Eureka is our heart and soul. It gives another spirit to the company; you can just feel the integrity of this place.” He’s absolutely right.

NYLON market director Preetma Singh, associate features director Lisa Mischianti, and associate market editor Marissa Smith got the exciting opportunity to visit this denimhead heaven and undertake their own next-level customization of a pair of spring’s new 501 CTs, a style derived from the world’s first-ever blue jean, the 501, but which features a more tapered leg and slightly altered cut. Here, they discuss the exciting process and the awesome finished products.

PREETMA SINGH: Having the opportunity to customize jeans at the EurekaLab is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so I wanted to take full advantage of the offerings, especially since I’m minimally crafty myself. Once I saw the huge range of options there, l fully committed to the ‘more is more’ approach. The fabric swatches for the patches were the initial inspiration—I loved the ’70s/grandma feel of the florals and colors. From there, I tried to balance the septuagenarian vibe with some juvenile embroidery and appliqués (bows, broken eggs, etc.). At the risk of the jeans becoming a bit too precious, I decided to deface them a bit by adding a good amount of distressing (that will hopefully continue to distress itself) and a sturdy VOMITFACE (my band’s name) across the back waistband. I probably could have spent the whole day adding crazy trinkets to the jeans, so thankfully we were on a tight schedule. Notwithstanding the time constraint, these are definitely the most fantastical and personal pair of jeans I’ve ever owned—I’m sure I’ll have them forever.”  

MARISSA SMITH: “I decided to go with a jean I knew I could wear every day, and with anything. My major inspiration was mom jeans. I wanted them to be light-wash, and with just a little distressing: tiny holes here and there, and tearing at the button closure. The other thing I knew I wanted to do was have the edges be raw and ripped up, as if I lopped off the bottom hems. I also got my initials embroidered on the back pocket, making the jeans feel uniquely my own. I’m thrilled with how they came out.” 

LISA MISCHIANTI: “You’ll never catch me trying to dress up denim. Jeans are historically a workwear pant, and I’ve always felt they should be worn with a certain air of grit. So, I wanted my pair to have a kind of scrappy, hodgepodgey, punky vibe. In terms of wash and finish, I had the denim dyed black with a subtle crackle effect, and wrecked the knees. I also brought a few fun things to be affixed. The front features retro pins I found during one of my weekend strolls through the Brooklyn Flea this past summer, an old high school varsity jacket patch from an East Village vintage shop near my apartment, and two tiny triangular badges I found at my parents’ house from when I was a Girl Scout in second grade (I’m pretty sure one is for proficiency in ID-ing plant life, a skill I’ve apparently long since lost). The left back pocket is adorned with a piece of a Metallica-Guns N’ Roses 1992 tour tee I had in my closet (I plan on patching up the leftover tee in some fun way and getting two uses out of it for the price of one); the right back pocket has an old hardware store employee patch, another thrifted find. But perhaps the most exciting element of these jeans is that they have markings on the inside showing they were produced at Eureka; no mainline Levi’s products have this, making them a collector’s item!”