Value Plus Quality: A Q&A With Denizen® and Signature™ Designer Leah Isla Dela Cruz

Levi Strauss & Co.
July 22, 2014

Leah Isla Dela Cruz has been training for her job practically all her life. “I became a designer because the only thing I knew and loved to do growing up was sew,” Leah said. “When I was a little girl, my mom taught me to sew, just as her mom taught her to sew, but it was more of a necessity during my grandma’s generation.”

Today, Leah is the design director for both Denizen® and Signature by Levi Strauss & Co.™ — two LS&Co. brands that you’ll find at our mass market retailer partners in North America. (Denizen® is at Target, and Signature is at Walmart, Kmart and Meijer.)

We caught up with Leah to talk about her role at LS&Co., where she finds inspiration and her love of designing for the value consumer:

UNZIPPED: As a design director, what does your role entail?

LEAH ISLA DELA CRUZ: I have a unique role because we develop for two brands, Denizen® and Signature by Levi Strauss & Co.™. Both brands are sold in the mass market, but they have different branding, product assortments, and customer and consumer needs. I manage bringing the brands to life through branding, product and packaging.

What are you most passionate about in your job?

My job is awesome because it aligns with my belief of making fashion accessible at any price point. I appreciate that we offer jeans to the value consumer for $20 to $30. It excites my sense of competition to engineer jeans at a challenging cost because I’m extremely passionate about designing the best quality at a value cost!

I strive to make our jeans durable, comfortable and reliable for our consumers. I feel we owe it to them and they deserve to look good. They invest the couple extra dollars more than our competitors because they know they’re made from a company they can trust.

Where does your creative inspiration come from?

My initial inspiration comes from the fabric. When I look and feel a denim fabric, I start to visualize how the fabric can be worn and how it can be finished. I link back to the consumer and construct how this fabric will perform for their lifestyle: Is it super stretchy and snap back to it’s original shape, allowing her freedom to move in her daily life? Is it strong, durable and comfortable for our man to endure his active lifestyle? Is this durable and cool enough for our Denizen® boy to wear?

My second inspiration is the consumer. As a design and merchandising team we spend a lot of time researching the consumer, strategizing how we can design a jean in a way that will improve its performance and have a place in their lifestyle. Our goal is for a jean to be better quality and even more comfortable, stylish and flattering to wear.

How are Denizen®/Signature™ unique compared with the other LS&Co. brands?

We are a very small team, which we have been able to use to our advantage by being agile and nurturing the synergy between design, merchandising and product management. We sync up as a team and build the product together — everyone doing their part, everyone having input and all sharing a common goal. We have jokingly called ourselves the “trifecta” because we can’t make a move without all three teams coming together.

I think it makes us all proud when we develop the product together and it performs well because WE did it. It’s difficult for me to say, “I did this.” because it was never just me — we all played our roles to make it happen.

We are also super consumer-obsessed. Each season, design and merchandising travel together to see the consumer in their daily life.

Lastly, we closely assist our sales teams, supporting them with brand information and even constructing brand presentations during sell-in meetings to bring the brand to life for the retailers.

Do you have a favorite Denizen® product?

Honestly, the style varies by season, but I always love and appreciate our super stretch denim. Right now, I’m living in our Denizen® Modern Ankle Skinny in Limo. I’m short, so I love the ankle inseam and the option of cuffing it. The super stretch denim fabric is our best seller — more than 45 percent stretchability that literally snaps back and won’t get baggy. It is so comfy, yet always looks sexy! I had to stock up on them because they’re almost sold out. Last year, I was in love with our pull-on skinny jean.

We are constantly wear testing our new innovations, and I can’t wait for them to hit the floor! I’ve been known to walk around with tags hanging off my test samples. People ask me why I don’t take them off, but I keep them on because they’re usually so comfy and stretchy that I forget to change and end up going home with them!

What is your LS&Co. story? What was your first interaction with an LS&Co. brand?

Growing up, my dad was a Levi’s® loyalist. His company builds coffee roasting and air pollution equipment, and he would often come home with coffee grinds covering his 501’s and smelling like a dark roast. I guess that began my obsession with Levi’s® and coffee! Later, when I worked designing at Mervyns, I would stock up on his 501’s — dark rinse for special occasions, medium stonewash and light stonewash for work. Now among his favorite jeans is the Denizen® 218™ Slim Straight Fit.