Amsterdam Denim Trip: K.O.I.

Kings of Indigo may be one of Amsterdam’s newest denim family members but they are already making their mark on the denim market with their consciously developed denims and sustainable credentials. Now in their second year since inception, the brand launches its first pop-up store in Amsterdam’s denim district to showcase its RRR concept and second evolution of blue dyed denim.

Over the course of its relatively short history, Amsterdam’s Kings of Indigo (K.O.I.) has emerged as one, if not the leading sustainable denim brand in the market. As such, the brand has decided to open its first pop-up shop in its hometown of Amsterdam. Located in the renowned denim district, The Nine Streets, home to Denham, Tenue De Nimes and Scotch & Soda’s Blauw, the temporary space on 24 Berenstraat plays home to K.O.I.’s Triple-R concept. Launched in collaboration with KICI (Netherlands largest independent clothing collecting charity) and House of Denim, the Recycle, Re-use, Repair program comes alive with an in-house denim technician to repair your broken jeans and recycling bin to donate your old wears. To increase awareness, K.O.I. are also rewarding donations with a 10% discount on a fresh new K.O.I. purchase.

The pop-up store is mainly to show our product directly to the consumer – for them to see the full range and also to promote the Repair and Recycle. I think its important to communicate this sustainable concept to the consumer as there is roughly 40% of clothing still being disposed through garbage. We want to show that recycling an old pair of jeans is valuable, its not garbage – Tony Tonnaer, K.O.I. owner and founder

To celebrate their opening, owner and founder Tony invited his friends to the store last Thursday for an evening of Japanese beers, Sake and burgers. Housed in a typically throwback Amsterdam space, the focal point of the store is the Repair concept complete with technician, machine and hardware trims. In keeping with the brands American style with a Japanese lean, the collection is merchandised amongst an array of reclaimed vintage crates and rails. A range of Tony’s personal Japanese memorabilia’s are also showcased alongside the house line channeling the brands inspiration.

Earlier that day we had stopped of at the K.O.I. Head Office to talk with Tony about his latest sustainble developments.

What makes Amsterdam so key for denim?

I think in the past 20 years we have developed a real love for denim because if you look at it before G-Star started there was not such a premium offer or innovation in the market. G-Star was one of the first to come to Holland, start quite basic and then innovate. Although its not my personal style, I think its clear of how they have developed their vision of the brand and I think there are a lot of Dutch companies or dutch based like Pepe (where I joined in 1997)  that have followed them as an example. We looked at G-Star as one of the strongest players being influenced by detail, heritage, etc and I think it has taken many years to develop that.

Aside from that, Amsterdam (or Holland) has been very friendly to foreign companies to place their head offices here. Major companies like Starbucks, Nike and Adidas to more denim focused labels like Denham, Levi’s and Dockers are all here, so that has attracted a lot of people to come. So this area has been flooded a little bit with denim lovers or those who are interested. With the dutch commercial mentality that we have had since the middle ages, where we travelled all over the world to trade,  this has equipped us with a good combination of commercial product but also to make something a little bit different than mass market product. And so we have developed ourselves as good denim people. Its not only a Dutch influence but also Jason (Denham) is English and Pierre Morisset (G-Star) is French, so its not solely the Dutch, we brought it here together.

K.O.I. have emerged as a key figure in the denim market for their sustainable practices. What drove the inspiration and innovation behind this?

You reach a certain point and experience level and you have opportunities around you. I’ve been with the whole sustainable denim development for the past 10 years (7 of which as managing director at Kuyichi) going from nothing to becoming the leader and first for sustainable denim in Europe.

I like the idea of being good to your production partners, the people who work for them and to make a healthy brand. When starting K.O.I. I was really interested marketing-wise how can you seduce a person who is not interested in sustainability at all. And to seduce them to buy them something sustainable without them even realising. My idea was don’t communicate it too much, let them buy it and then they discover it inside the jean.

Its an interesting concept to take old material and make it into something new, even though its mainly fabric left over from production, cutting waste and second choice fabric rather than post-consumer, which is much harder to do. But I also like that development part of it to make something which is innovative. For me thats my biggest challenge. When I left Kuyichi and I started my own brand, I had a choice to go and make just a nice jeans brand, or do it in the best way. And for me it was always that, I just had to do it different from what I used to do before because everyone knows Kuyichi and everyone knew I did it and this has to be the next step. So this is why we are focused more on the RRR concept and becoming an organic only brand – we work with factories that are certified with Wellfare Foundation so we brought it to another level and made it more denim-denim. The name Kings of Indigo says it already.

Sustainability still remains a grey area for a lot of brands. Why do you think this is?

I think over the past 20 years, in society in general sustainability has become an important factor. With food and coffee it is something that is quite close to your body, no chemicals inside, better for my health. Clothing is a little bit different, its about other people’s health, its not about your health so its harder to sell. The organic story is really difficult to explain to the consumer, pesticides, pervicides, fertiliser… its a very technical process, which you want to improve and when you try explain this to a consumer its very difficult. You have to make the story simple and the RRR concept is simple enough for the producer, shop staff and the consumer to understand.

It is not just the agricultural factor either, you have cotton, which means the way the cotton is cleaned, spun, woven, the way its dyed and constructed together. Its a big chain and if you want to change that chain its nearly impossible or its very expensive so its been a big dilemma for bigger companies. if you have a non-sustainable business and you change over to sustainable its has a huge impact because your sourcing strategy completely changes. You have to do it step by step to cope with the change.

How do you feel the industry has developed over the past 10 years?

The will is getting there more and more in the industry and the possibilities from the mills is increasing – Isko, Orta, TRC Candiani all have organic or recycled fabrics. The price is a little bit more but not that much. Now they have to develop fabrics that are easier to wash without water so the fabric suppliers have to work together with the laundries to make sure they correlate. If you look at the market you see almost nothing achieved but if you really think mentality-wise, a lot has changed and also what is available from the industry now, there is a huge difference. I think it will get there but not next year, not in 5 years but maybe 20 years.

The main thing is the market needs to be ready for it and you need to make beautiful product. That’s how we do it with K.O.I. I don’t over communicate that we are sustainable so when you see the product in the shop you see a pair of jeans with a cool logo. The name Kings of Indigo has no green colors on purpose, no trees on it, the KOI is swimming in the water which means we are clean so the story is linked to it but not that directly. People have resistance if you force the message, whereas if you bring it in a playful way with great marketing then people will respond bette

How do you go about selecting the mills and the factories that you work for and how do you ensure transparency?

I only work with one supplier that I have been working with for the past 8 years. We are so small that we need to partner with them also to make the product and they have a good chance to benefit from us if we grow. Its all to do with relationships, I dont deal with sourcing factories, my philosophy is to source as close to home as possible. This means its sustainable but also manageable and have as little suppliers as possible.

What are the latest developments in eco-denim that you have seen emerging?

For me the biggest development is the variety you can get in recycled denims. Royo for example are working on new mixes with a little bit of recycled cotton, recycled polyester to make it stronger but also indigo canvas, herringbone – nice new constructions that make the sustainable product even more special.

Other developments I have seen include great new selvedge fabrics that are recycled, 100% recycled, 40% recycled, nice heavy fabrics in authentic constructions.What else is important is the different kind of shades we can develop in sustainable fabrics. If you have a dark shade and you want to make it lighter you will have to bleach it, or do more washing on it. Now with the new washing techniques; laser, ozone etc its better to use a good base cast, green cast, red cast, grey cast, a black and a grey denim. From those 5 colors you can make a really nice collection without using too many chemicals used to bleach it down. I really like that development.

You recently launched the Kings of Laundry washes. Can you tell us a little more about this.

We started with RRR, now we are launching Kings of Laundry, with the new sustainable washes like laser, ice blasting, ozone washes that use less water, less chemicals, or maybe no water.

Whats your favourite piece from the S/S 13 collection?

My favourite is a piece we call the Organic Waterless, that combines the laser technique and ozone wash for lighter fresh blue. Together with that a green cast selvedge fabric washed at Martelli.

Are there any plans to expand the collection?

We expand every season and take on a new product group. For S/S 13 we took on t-shirts, before that we only had denim, leather good and socks. For winter we will introduce organic wool knitwear and will develop a new blazer for men in organic indigo stripe as well as some new shirt fabrics. We try to keep the collection small and focused we currently only have one shirt for Spring/Summer: 4 t-shirts, 1 denim jacket. That is more or less the same for winter: 2 knits, 2 shirts, 4 t-shirts, a blazer jacket and bottoms.


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