Josh Levine
Josh Levine

One thing you’ll learn quickly about FRAME Denim CEO Josh LeVine is that he’s very inviting. Sure, he’s a warm character, but he’ll also actually invite you places. As soon as I sat down, Josh encouraged me to stop by the brand’s upcoming sample sale. He also insisted I tour FRAME’s newer, larger, Culver City headquarters. His attitude towards the world of fashion reflects that same charm: It’s not about being exclusive for the sake of it, it’s about inviting the right people in. No surprise, he keeps a tight crew, and each one brings their own charms to the FRAME world.

What were you doing before Frame?
God, how far back would you like to go?.
CAN WE START FROM THE VERY BEGINNING?
Sure! I’m born and raised here in Los Angeles, Calabasas to be exact. I was always surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding. After high school I went to college in Santa Barbara. I actually snowboarded professionally for a hot second, but a few torn knees later it was back to school. I was a Fine Arts major at Santa Barbara, and after school I went to work in advertising — the art direction side of things. I worked for a couple of agencies, and when I was 24 years-old, a friend of mine named Carlo Mondavi — grandson of Robert Mondavi Winery — and I started this luxury skincare business called Davi. We took the grape extracts from their flagship wine and spun it into a high-end, anti-aging skincare brand that we sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Selfridges, and Lane Crawford. It was a really great product, and I was the creative dude — marketing, PR, the packaging. Carlo was the face of the company. Our third partner, who had a financial background, was the CEO.
IT SOUNDS FUN, BUT A LOT OF HARD WORK.
We eventually had to part ways with the CEO. Very quickly, I went from being the creative guy to logistics, operations, and finance. Basically, I was handling the nuts and bolts of running a business — not my choice, but in hindsight it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It set my life down a different path. That company was really entrepreneurial: we raised a lot of money that we treated like our own money and we made big decisions. We lived and died with our mistakes. We had a good five-year run — we learned a lot and traveled the world. I was 24, 25, 26-years-old interfacing with a heads of stores and banks who were 30 years older than me.
HOW DID IT END?
I had no idea what was going to come next. I just knew I wasn’t going to do that anymore. I had worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for five years and traveling non-stop. I had recently gotten married, but I was never home. I just burned out after a while. So Carlo went back to Napa and I literally did nothing for three months. It was the best! I went to the beach everyday. Then, Gene [Montesano] and Barry [Perlman], the guys who founded Lucky Brand, gave me a shout. They asked if I would be interested in coming onboard. They said to me, “taking a look at our creative services and marketing department, we feel we need to sort of refresh what we have going on.” You know, sales were tough, the economy was sort of down…
WHAT YEAR WAS THIS?
2008. Sales at Lucky were a little sluggish before the economy got super tough, so they thought it was a good time to inject some new creativity. It’s super corporate, and it’s not necessarily my cup of tea, but I thought it may be neat to have an opinion on a brand that isn’t mine. I consulted and ended up going over full-time for a couple of years. It was so different than what I was doing in the past, which was highly entrepreneurial. This was very structured — there was the meeting about the meeting about the meeting. I come from a place that was decision, next, decision, next. But being in that corporate environment was interesting because there was structure. And, in my past, there wasn’t any structure. It was more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and figure it out later. You had to stay on calendar, you had to make margin, you had to run a business — at the end of the day you’re trying to make money. So, I always knew that whatever I did next would be more like my first brand, but I wanted to bring together the best of both worlds. If you can bring this entrepreneurial spirit, not too much overhead, not too many people making decisions, but you bring process and calendar and true operations — that is the right way to run a company.
SO, IS THIS WHEN FRAME WAS BORN?
Yes, there are four partners in FRAME. There is myself, Nico [Peyrache] — who is based here with me who oversees design and anything product related — and my partners Erik [Torstensson] and Jens [Grede] who are based out of London. They operate a group of companies called Saturday Group — fashion marketing, advertising, PR, a little bit of sales and distribution — they sort of have their hands in everything in the fashion and lifestyle business. Jens and I had breakfast in Beverly Hills about five years ago and instantly bonded over business and brands and lifestyle and our points of view about how things should be done. Over the course of about six months, we’d get together and continue the conversation. And, after about six months he said, “I do everything for these brands, why don’t I have a brand?” and I said “Yea, why don’t you have a brand? We should probably do something!”
THEN FRAME WAS BORN HERE IN AMERICA OR THE U.K.?
Their point of view was that it would be a lot easier to set up a brand in America and bring it back to Europe than to create a European brand and bring it to America. It’s tricky to do that from a pricing standpoint. Costs become very expensive when you import things. Like an Acne pair of jeans in Stockholm are $150, here it’s $250. We also knew America was the place with real scale because of the department stores. We hashed out the concept for FRAME wanting to start with denim then transition to lifestyle. We had good relationships here in L.A. with financial partners, production, logistics, customer service — we had everything here to do it proper. You layer on top the creative services those guys have in London, and we felt like we had the perfect storm to do something proper from day one. That’s been our recipe for success: it’s the product, it’s the marketing, and the back-of-house functionality that shows up on time. We really had our act together from day one. and I think that’s why it really worked. We acted like a much larger company, and then the stores took us seriously. There are one-million other brands out there, so why you? You need to have the product and the marketing, but I think you need your logistics in place. That’s what really sets us apart from other people.
BUT ESPECIALLY IN LOS ANGELES, A VERY SATURATED DENIM MARKET, WHAT SETS FRAME A FEW NOTCHES HIGHER?
Nico oversaw Lucky’s denim business, and they were working with lower price points. When I first told Nico, “hey I’ve got this idea,” he already had it thought out in his head. He said “the fabric I have never been able to afford at Lucky, I want to use for FRAME.” it was like he had it mapped out in his brain already. It was really investing in amazing fabric. Really nailing the fit. It was not making it overly complicated.
KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID!
When we launched FRAME at that time, if you remember, it was all print, color, novelty, digital-craziness and we came to market with beautiful shades of blue, black, white, and grey. We thought there would be this shift back, and we were probably a season ahead of it. It was about doing something simple and pure. We’ve always designed through the filter of chic essentials. It’s what you would really want to wear. And, from day one, we always wanted a great package. We were treating a five-pocket jean like Chanel. From campaigns, to who we associate with, to the logos on the jeans, it was packaging an amazing product beautifully. Retail the past couple of years has not been super amazing, specifically in contemporary and more so in denim. Yet, we’ve carved out a really nice business. It wasn’t converting people into wearing jeans — it was taking customers from other brands, just by doing something really simplistic. Those other guys have walked away from their core blue-jean business to chase trends. We snuck in the back door with a better product with a better price point that I think fit better and looked better.
RIGHT, AND WHEN YOU GO BACK TO THE NAME FRAME, IT’S SO SIMPLE.
Simple and strong. And the point was that it fits your frame and frames your look. One syllable, super strong.
WHAT I FIND SPECIFIC TO FRAME IS THE SLOW BUILD. EVERYONE ELSE IS BOMBARDING ME WITH TONS OF PRODUCT. IT FEELS LIKE YOU GUYS WAITED FOR THE RIGHT TIME TO UNVEIL SWEATERS, OR HOST A FASHION WEEK PRESENTATION. YOU STARTED WITH SOMETHING, FELT CONFIDENT, THEN MOVED FORWARD.
I remember the first conversations about FRAME. You get overly excited: “and we’ll do the skinny, and we’ll the boyfriend, and we’ll do the flare.” We sat back were like, “let’s do one fit and do it perfect.” So we launched with the Skinny fit. The initial collection was 15 SKUs: one fit in three fabrics with some color ways. It was very simple. Once we established that fit, it took two or three seasons before we came out with something else. After one year and a half, we figured we could layer on some shirts. But the design process has to be the same. Amazing fits, amazing fabrications, and you see that with the initial shirt collection.
DO YOU EVER FEEL LIKE ITS TOO MANY COOKS IN THE KITCHEN HERE?
No, we keep it super tight.
SO HOW TO BALANCE IT OUT?
Nico already knows what he needs to create in terms of how many skews. Then, he sits down with Jens and Erik and talks about the season. Erik is going to come at it from a mood or a color or a texture or a period in time. Nico is then very good at taking that and translating it into product. Nico then designs the first prototypes. We go through each one and I would say that 85-90% of the stuff we develop makes it in to the final line. It’s very efficient! There’s no second or third or fourth meeting. When we feel something is good, we move on.
THEN THERE’S A GOOD BALANCE BETWEEN BUSINESS SMARTS AND CREATIVITY.
At the end of the day, you’re trying to run a business. There has got to be some commerciality to it. We’re not trying to win design awards. We’re trying to sell product. Nico is a very commercial designer. He isn’t going to lock himself in a room for a year and sketch crazy stuff that will never sell. A lot of that has to do with coming from a place like Lucky Brand. In the contemporary space, you want to sell clothes that people will want to wear.
WHO WORKS FOR FRAME?
We’ve kept the team really tight. Here in Los Angeles we have about 25 employees between here [Culver City] and Vernon, where we run production and pre-production. In Culver City we have finance, customer service, merchandising, design, and little bit of marketing. It’s about finding ambitious people. Since I have that entrepreneurial background, I like to hire people with that same entrepreneurial spirit — not people who work 9-to-5 and collect a check. People who really believe in what we’re doing. Nothing is more deflating than feeling like you have no real say in your job — I’ve been there and it’s terrible. That’s one of the things I’m the most proud of — the fact that we have cultivated a culture of people who all genuinely respect each other and enjoy working with each other. We all go out for drinks together, we all have each other’s backs.
SO, NO CHALLENGES?
In think in the next 18 months, when we open our own showroom in New York, open our own retail store, and really do e-commerce properly, the company is going to grow from a headcount standpoint. And, I’m sure, there will be challenges along the way.
WHEN YOU’RE LOOKING AT A RESUME, IT IS IMPORTANT TO SEE A DENIM BACKGROUND?
I like a little bit of everything — big or small companies, some people have started something themselves, worked in different industries like entertainment or fashion. Like I said, I snowboarded professionally when I was young, and I took a lot away from that. I had to manage my own time, I had to manage my expenses. You’re sort of alone on the road dealing with situations as they come. So, I wouldn’t limit a hire to something super specific. I like to meet all sorts of people.
I WANTED TO ASK YOU ABOUT YOUR RECENT NYFW PRESENTATION.
We had done a couple of presentations before Fall 2015, but on a much smaller scale. It just felt like the right thing to do, as we were transitioning into lifestyle. Once we felt we had a complete collection we felt like we should present it. It’s great for your wholesale partners to see your entire vision. We wanted to act more like a fashion brand than a denim brand from Los Angeles.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST TAKE-AWAY FROM YOUR FIRST PRESENTATION?
Well, I saw everything being developed — I’ve seen all this for the past six months…planning this growth from denim to lifestyle. Then, you present it, and people say, “wow, I had no idea. I get it now” and it shows me we have the opportunity to continue with our vision for the brand and follow in the footsteps of rag & bone or Acne. Although they talk about and market their fashion component, those brands sell a lot of jeans! We’d like to emulate that.
THOSE BRANDS YOU MENTIONED, THEY DON’T RECEIVE HUGE CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENTS, BUT IT’S THERE. THE SUPPORT FROM TRENDSETTERS EXISTS. WHETHER THAT’S IN ADVERTISING OR PERSONAL STYLE.
We have great relationships with stylists, celebrities, photographers, and people in the industry who we send pieces to. They like the stuff and wear it. Them liking it helps commercially. It builds awareness.
LETS BE SPECIFIC ABOUT THOSE CELEBRITIES WHO WEAR FRAME: KARLIE KLOSS, MIRANDA KERR…
Erik is close with Karlie from working on campaigns together. The idea to create the Forever Karlie collection happened over dinner when she said, “oh, you’re starting a denim company? It’s really hard for someone like me to find jeans that fit.” I was shocked. So, we made these jeans with a 40-inch inseam. Of course, when we unveiled that, there was a nice press pop from it. But, rather than just slapping someone’s name on a product, we actually created something slightly different. And she told us, “just watch, this is going to sell. This will be a commercial success.” She was 100 percent right.
WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO CAMPAIGNS THEN? DO YOU START WITH THE PERSON?
That’s Erik’s world. He shoots all of the campaigns, he’s a photographer as well. All of our campaigns so far have been shot in a similar fashion because we want to be consistent. Because Erik is out there working on campaigns for Calvin Klein and H&M he knows a lot of these models and stylists. So we have access to someone like Sasha Pivovarova, who would not normally do a campaign for somebody like us. Obviously, we compensate these people, but they’re happy to do us a favor. But the campaign usually starts with the clothes. Sometimes, Erik will say, “I would love to get so-and-so to do it.” And he gets to work and nine times out of 10 we’re able to get who we want. It’s amazing — these girls are doing campaigns for Chanel. And, yes, they model for other denim brands, and I know those denim brands can pay them much more than we do, but they do it because they like FRAME.
YOU’RE SAYING IT’S ORGANIC.
Absolutely. What’s interesting is that you see J Brand campaigns that look an awful lot like ours. Us doing this is just us being us. There’s no hiring a famous art director and throwing a million dollars at a model to create something we’re not.
OK, BUT YOU LOOK AT TRENDS LIKE THOSE OTHER COMPANIES LOOK AT YOU GUYS RIGHT?
Well, having an office in Culver City was done by design. We didn’t want to be in East Los Angeles or Vernon where everyone else is. You go down there and you start looking like everyone else. It’s super cookie cutter. Are we aware of what they’re doing? Of course. But we don’t look at them to inform our decisions. We look more at high fashion and street style. We say that FRAME is the girl you want to date and the FRAME guy is the guy you want to be. We shot Matt Dillon for the last campaign — he’s someone whose life you want to live.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE OF FRAME LOOK LIKE?
A full lifestyle brand. We were able to spread out internationally from the very start. There’s still more opportunity to be had in Asia and parts of Europe. Stores are super import. We’re opening our first store later this fall on Melrose Place.
WOW, CONGRATS!
Thank you. We think the product line and awareness is big enough to justify a store. It’s also important to create physical spaces and show the world what FRAME is.
IT’S ONE THING TO SEE IT IN AN EDITORIAL, OR ON A CELEBRITY, BUT IT’S ANOTHER LEVEL WHEN YOU ENTER FOUR WALLS FILLED WITH IT.
I want people to interact with it. Flagship stores in key cities like Los Angeles, NYC, London, Paris, and Tokyo are all important from a sales standpoint, from a resonation standpoint, and of course a marketing standpoint. Also, we’re going to launch our own e-commerce. Of course, you can buy our product online from different e-tailers, but we didn’t have the manpower or resources to do it ourselves. So, April next year, we’ll launch e-commerce done internally. We’re moving offices across the street where we’ll be able to do our own photo shoots and really control the image.
TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON ACROSS THE STREET.
We’ve outgrown this office. We’ve actually moved three times in three years! That new space is about 11,000 sqaure-feet and will be the new FRAME headquarters. We want to set up an amazing place to work, that will be great for us and vendors.

Author: Sarah St. Lifer

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