Since starting at Levi’s in San Francisco in August 2019, Ronald Pritipaul has supervised the photography of a library of 10,000 garments and coordinated the design process for men’s denim jackets and bottoms. Now, the lifelong “denim head” has a new role — associate data project manager for computer vision.
Curiously, Pritipaul doesn’t have a background in computer science. What he does have is an ingrained loyalty to Levi’s and a thorough knowledge of the day-to-day problems that need solving. He’s one of 40 recent graduates of Levi’s first machine learning “bootcamp,” a new programme to train global employees, across all disciplines, in machine learning, coding, design thinking and product management. Afterwards, some will join a strategy and artificial intelligence team, while others will use their new skills in their current roles.
The fashion industry has largely accepted the need for digitisation, but recruitment of the necessary tech talent is a challenge. And once new hires adjust to working in fashion, they’re often poached by others. “We used to call this the endless cycle of frustration,” says Katia Walsh, Levi’s SVP and chief strategy and AI officer, who is leading the project.
Rather than rely on training new tech recruits to speak fashion, brands like Levi’s are teaching existing teams to speak tech. Levi’s is not alone. Moncler has awarded employees with lessons at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, created to teach innovative thinking to executives. PVH, parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, created a “corporate startup” to train design teams in 3D digital design. Hugo Boss is creating a new “digital and data campus”. Meanwhile, universities and consultancies are creating courses with an emphasis on digitisation in fashion as the roles of chief digital or innovation officers expand.
“You can teach someone in fashion data science, but to teach someone who has a data science background the nuances of fashion? That is really hard and takes time,” says Pritipaul, who didn’t pursue data science in school because it wasn’t tied to his interests.
Levi’s announced the initiative in May as part of ongoing efforts to accelerate digitisation and shift to a direct-to-consumer model. After laying off 700 corporate employees amid 2020’s store closures, Levi’s is now opening a number of new tech-centric stores.