When Justin Timberlake invites you to dinner, you cancel all your plans. He chats with us about his menswear collection with Levi's, how he's keeping youth music education alive in his hometown and why fashion should come from a feeling.
By Tessa Trudeau
If you get the chance to interview Justin Timberlake and you're not nervous, you may want to check your pulse. Levi's flew us to LA to spend an intimate evening with the multi-Grammy Award winner in celebration of his recent work with the denim label. When we sat down in the backyard of the brand's West Hollywood showroom, a cozy bungalow (aptly named Haus of Strauss) off Sunset Boulevard, all nerves disappeared. The Memphis-born musician has a calming presence about him that makes you feel like he's just a regular guy.
In celebration of his partnership with Levi's Music Project and the latest drop of his Fresh Leaves collection, now at Nordstrom, we were one of a couple dozen people invited to fête the collaboration, including some of his closest friends and supporters. Guests got to pick out product from the line to customize and were treated to dinner by Evan Funke, the chef and pasta master behind Felix Trattoria in Venice.
Fittingly, it was at Haus of Strauss that the whole thing actually started. "Funny enough, the collaboration came to fruition here," Timberlake says when we chat in the backyard before dining al fresco under palm trees and glowing string lights. Clad in a vest from his collection and a pair of vintage Levi's jeans, he's been a fan of the brand for as long as he can remember. "I said, 'You guys have been a staple in my life and I think that we could do something really fun together.'"
Now in its third iteration with the Fall/Winter 2019 collection, the line began as a few pieces designed for his last tour and grew from there. "It was sort of serendipitous because the Man of the Woods album for me was a throwback to my childhood, and my son's name means "of the forest" or "of the woods," so that's why I called the album Man of the Woods. It wasn't a literal, you know, hanging-out-in-the-trees thing, it was just more of a dedication to my son, which in a way was a dedication to my own childhood. So, the collaboration started off from me saying that I would love to design some pieces for that tour. Then we got into this bigger conversation—I said, 'Have you guys ever done a sub-brand?'"
The very name of the collection is another homage to where Timberlake comes from and the roots that have bound him to his home state. "I loved the idea of a leaf because Tennessee is such a four-season place that I felt like it represented change and keeping things fresh," he tells us. Of designing for the classic brand, his approach comes from a place of appreciating and recognizing what already is. "You're not trying to reinvent the Levi's wheel," he says. "It's more of, 'What type of different wheels can we put on the car?' What we kind of do is just a little bit of a swerve, like putting a hoodie on their trucker jacket just to mess around with it. We did a sort of longer modified trucker, and it sold out instantly. And then it led to, 'Let's do a cool little side project that's very Levi's and very me,' and that's where Fresh Leaves started. At the end of the day, I just like creating things. I don't necessarily want credit for things; the creativity and seeing it being made is enough for me."
Of his personal style, which the world has watched evolve and mature from his NSYNC days to life as a solo artist and eventually a family man, he wasn't so keen to define it in any certain way. "That's impossible," he says. "I think style should be based on a feeling. You wake up every day and feel totally different—sometimes I want to dress up and sometimes I don't—and I think that whatever you're wearing should just reflect your feelings," he explains. "I guess the one word I would use is 'authentic,' but that can mean so many different things, and I think it should. We live in a world now where people can be a lot of things."
Fresh Leaves isn't the only thing Timberlake has been working on with Levi's. Back in August, the singer took part in a mentorship program at Stax Music Academy in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Through the Levi's Music Project, Timberlake (along with collaborators and music producers Timbaland, Danja, Rob Knox and Elliott Ives) surprised students with two days of songwriting and performance workshops. The goal of the initiative is to bring music education back into schools and communities, which for so many youths is a crucial part of their personal development. "It really hit home for me because when I was in third or fourth grade and going to a public school in Memphis, the budget cut came in and the first thing that was cut was the music program," says Timberlake.
Apart from the two-day intensive, students were treated to a brand-new space at the academy called The Song Lab, which is fully furnished with stage-ready instruments and recording, audio and production equipment meant to be used for songwriting. Timberlake also set up a scholarship fund to help more Memphis students attend Stax in the future. "It's probably one of the greatest things that I've ever been a part of."