Interview with Owner and Founder of Tender Co. William Kroll

As an independent British denim label, William Kroll’s brainchild Tender Co. has always been an inspirational label that we (Stylesight Denim team) have looked at with admiration. Rarely do you meet someone with such passion, ingenuity, and respect for the heritage of the humble jean. So it was our pleasure to get the chance to sit down with the man behind the brand and learn about his passion for denim, inspirations, and future plans for the business.

Since its inception in 2009, British denim specialist Tender Co. has been steadily gaining a name for itself in the ever growing heritage segment of the denim market. Over the past  three years, owner and founder William Kroll has kept the growth of his beloved brand slow and considered, reflecting the integrity and work ethic that he continues to pour into every Tender product. Each season, William faithfully weaves his narrative of antique workwear and machinery, especially from the Great British Steam Age (the core roots of the brand), into a comprehensive assortment of handcrafted denim and woven goods. An incredible amount of development work is put into each product, with a true appreciation and hands-on approach to every aspect of the process.

One of the processes Tender is widely recognised for is its use of natural garment dyes to create its rich and varied palettes. This is an unbelievably painstaking and lengthy process, however the reward is a richness, depth, and variety of color which simply cannot be achieved in any other way. Many Tender fans who read Superfuture will be familiar with William’s profile picture where his hands are blue from woad.

While the brand has now solidified a cult status throughout the denim community, William’s sometimes silent and modest approach may have left some followers unaware of the recent progressions of the brand. Last month saw the relaunch of Tender’s new website fascia and launch of his new webstore, Trestle Shop.

The websites new homepage see’s an evolution to an almost Tumblr-like layout, that gives a greater focus on content. Readers are now treated to broader scope of the range that the brand now covers as well as a personal window into William’s design process. According to William, “The plan is that it’ll evolve with Tender itself, but also keep track of what has happened so far.” It also links all the new products in the Trestle Shop and shows previous seasons’ collection photos. A nice touch for any Londoner is the navigation system that references the signage from Earls Court tube station.

The Trestle Shop (taking its name from railway trestle bridges of the 19th-century) is William’s project, along with wife Deborah, that they operate from their home in London. Here you can find pieces made parallel to the core Tender collection including experimental and unconventional items, which come about during the development of the main line.

With all of what we had read of the Tender brand and the recent progressions, we decided to get in touch with the man behind it all to discuss his domestic production approach, the concept behind the webstore, and his new found passion for pottery.

How did your passion for workwear and denim begin?

I got interested in workwear from a construction rather than a design point of view. I was very interested in furniture and making things with wood and metal when I was at school. When I was 14 I thought I’d have a go at making something to wear as well. Trousers seemed easier than a jacket, and the only fabric I could find which I liked was some canvas upholstery fabric. My mom very patiently showed me how to use her sewing machine, I made up some sort of pattern by drawing around a pair of black Levi’s I had, and what came out was something approaching a pair of jeans. Nobody had shown me how to make a fly, so it had openings and tabs at the sides. Pockets were an innovation still to come and the top was hemmed rather than having a waistband. I certainly didn’t think about it at the time, but designing from limited capabilities and based on requirements is very much how jeans have evolved to where they are today. Whenever I put together a new garment or product for Tender I think through how it will be made and how it will be used. The design ends up as the midpoint between the people who make it and the people who use it.

You have a very traditional and artisanal approach to denim craftsmanship and design. What has been your driving inspiration behind this?

One of the biggest pleasures in what I do is getting to learn from the people who make my jeans and other products. Before I finished college I took a year out to be the apprentice of a bespoke tailor and cutter. John taught me a huge amount and I was extremely lucky to learn from him. He was quite unusual because while he was one of the best cutters in the business, he was also a working coat maker; most cutters pass their work onto tailors to make up. He had also worked in mass production in the past, so he had respect for the skills and inventiveness involved in factory methods. He taught me not to be afraid to mix traditional and modern ideas, bespoke and mass market.

You are known for your keen eye for detail when producing your jeans. Can you tell us what signature details go into a Tender pant?

I like to think that every detail in a pair of my jeans is thought through and considered. Even if something’s done the same way as other garments, it has been looked at carefully and weighed up. For instance, the inseam on a pair of jeans is usually folded over towards the front and top-stitched down. This leaves a lip pointing towards the back on the outside of the garment, running up the inside of the leg. I find that this seam is often one of the first to break, particularly up at the crotch where it gets a lot of wear, especially if the wearer rides a bike. On Tender jeans the inlay is flipped towards the back on the inside so that the lip of the seam from the outside points forwards. When you sit back onto a saddle or a chair you’re moving with the direction of the seam, rather than against it. This means that there is less friction against it and it’s less likely to break.

The denim market has become rather saturated with “heritage inspired” workwear brands as of late. How do you ensure a point of difference through Tender?

There’s a huge amount of very good stuff out there. When I started doing Tender in the summer of 2009 I had to think very carefully about what I could bring to the table. I think it’s very important to be doing something that you believe is different and special. Also, just practically, as a one person business (which Tender still is), I have no marketing budget so there has to be something going on in every product, which is genuinely interesting and different from the next brand. I’ve tried to achieve this by aiming to tick all the boxes at every level. This might sound a bit arrogant, but when you’re offering something to the public I think you have to give them something really interesting. So Tender has to hold up against the best in terms of its research, design, provenance, construction, presentation, service — everything! There can be just as many historical construction and design allusions in a button as in the shape and details of the jacket it is attached to. I think a good garment or product has to be satisfying at any level you choose, while also seeming like it hasn’t been designed at all. It’s a difficult brief to give yourself!

You continually weave references of British work clothing (especially from the Great British Steam Age) into your garments. What makes British workwear inspire you above American design?

One of the things I love about jeans and workwear-type produced garments is that along with the construction and utilitarian design there can also be some nuances that give the garments personality and warmth. When I started up Tender I was working out how to bring a personality to the brand. I’m British and have spent time looking at British clothes so it made sense to bring that through into my new brand. I love American clothing too and I have huge respect for the companies that reinterpret it well – in the U.S., Japan, and elsewhere – but it didn’t feel like that was the thing for me to do.

Why is the “made in england” mantra so core to the Tender brand?

It’s not necessarily a dogmatic or even an idealistic thing; to start, it was a matter of practicality. I’d spent some time in Japan and had looked into making things there, in a small way. I have fantastic friends in Japan who make great stuff, but the cost of sending things around the world and visiting often enough to maintain a good relationship meant that it wouldn’t have made sense as a business, nevermind any environmental or political concerns. When I started looking around in England I started to build up relationships with some wonderful people who are now making Tender what it is becoming. One of the things I’ve always liked about menswear, and jeans in particular, is the restrictions it gives you as a designer. Some people thrive by having no limits on their design; personally I really like having a framework of what’s acceptable to work around and to push against. Deciding to make everything in England has meant that I’ve had to adapt my designs to the people I meet and how they work. This in turn has affected the details in products and the feel of the brand. I’m very proud to be involved , in a very small way, in manufacturing in the U.K., and it’s lovely to be able to nip over to a factory for the afternoon.

The American market has seen a recent return to domestic manufacturing. Do you feel this will impact the British market and influence brands to reconsider their manufacturing bases (i.e. Huit denim)?

I don’t know that it’s enough for a brand to distinguish itself just on its country of origin. There are fantastic things made in China and India and not so great things made in the U.S., Japan, Italy, and Britain. There’s certainly a trend towards making more things here at a smaller, higher level, which is wonderful and hopefully it’ll lead to some lasting good for the economy at a larger scale. While I’m extremely proud to be making things in Britain, I try to ensure that there are other, broader stories to tell in every product.

The photos on your website show your hands on approach to production and dying. Are you fully involved throughout the entire process?

As I said, one of the best things of the last few years has been getting to spend time with people who are really expert at what they do, and I’ve really enjoyed learning from them. I think it’s really important that I understand everything about all the processes that go into the products, so I like to be as hands-on as possible. I make the patterns and sew all the prototypes myself, and work on the other techniques involved at the development of something new. At the other end of production, I write the type number on every washing tab, and put on the buttons and fold and pack every pair of jeans myself, so there’s a real personal element with every garment.

You have experimented with Woad and Veggie dyes in previous collections. Are there any new dye stuff you have worked with recently?

Natural dyes are really interesting – in their history, the colors they produce, and the way they fade and deteriorate with time. In F/W 12, there’s a really nice mushroom-y brown from wattle bark, and coming up in the next production there have been some experiments with rusts, which are quite exciting.

You spent some time in Okayama with an indigo dye master. How did the Japanese approach to craftsmanship and work ethic impact you and your approach to design?

I’ve been lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time in Japan and I’ve met some brilliant people there. It has become a bit of a cliché, but there is a real culture of respect and appreciation of time spent developing a craft. My friends in Japan and the people there I’ve been lucky enough to meet and learn from have shown me some amazing techniques, products, and materials. I’m wary of generalizing too much about a vast and varied culture, which has as many good and bad points as any other, but more than anything, there’s a feeling of understanding why it’s worth making an effort, even if you could get away with less. It’s an attitude that is also present in the people in England who now make Tender’s products, and those around the world who sell and own them.

You have recently launched the Trestle Shop. Can you tell us the concept behind this?

My wife Deborah and I started up the Trestle Shop in the Summer, and it’s been a really nice project to do. First off, it was an exercise to design a web shop, which was very interesting in itself and not something I’d ever worked on before, but also a way to put out products which might not have fit in with the main clothing line. During the research process for the main line, I’ve often come across interesting processes or ideas which don’t work in clothing but seem to fit in to the spirit of Tender.

Another nice thing about the Trestle Shop is that it allows things to turn around very quickly, without the long selling and making period for a full production to go to shops. For instance, I was experimenting with English-made cotton bias binding to see how tight a curve I could make with it, and it seemed like it would make a good scarf edge. I made up some scarves in Welsh-woven woollen flannel from F/W 12 shirts and they were up at the shop the same evening.

Finally, it’s been really nice interacting directly with the people who end up owning and using Tender products. I’m very lucky to have been working with fantastic stockists all over the world from the beginning (there’s a list here), and it’s a pleasure to see how they present things. But it’s also really nice to be able to photograph, describe, display, pack, and deliver things directly. Everything in the shop is dispatched from our home, and we pack and send everything out ourselves, so it really is a very personal service, which is nice to be able to offer.

You’ve also launched a new line of household goods and unconventional items. How did this come about?

I’ve become really interested in ceramics (like this hand-thrown and hand-inscribed sgraffito bowl) and glass (like these mouth-blown tumblers). I love how direct the interaction is between the maker and the product; you see the marks of the potters fingers around the sides of a bowl or mug, and the punty mark on the base of a piece of glass where it’s been broken off the iron.

Finally, whats your favourite denim piece from the F/W 12 collection and why?

There’s a jacket in the current production that is made on the type 915 “guard’s jacket” pattern, cut sideways, across the grain of the denim, with the selvage running along the bottom edge. This isn’t just a visual detail; it means there’s no need to hem the fabric, which removes the lip which could otherwise catch on other garments, as well as using slightly less fabric, by allowing the panels to be cut right up to the edge of the cloth (this is the reason that selvage appears on jeans out seams). Finally, it’s a reference to 18th-century tailoring, when the heavy box cloths and doeskins were so tightly woven that they could be cut and used raw-edged. This carried on into the heavier overcoats worn by British railway workers, even into the 1960s. The facings on the jacket, cut from English-woven ecru calico, also refer to the contrasting revers of classical tailoring. The pockets are lined with the same calico, bias-cut to stretch over their contents. The waist is supported to flax strapping, also woven in England, and the buttons are lost wax cast from solid brass. I’ve been wearing mine for a few months now and really enjoying it. 

If you would like to find out more about Tender Co. head over to the Made by Tender website. Alternatively take a browse around the newly launched Trestle Shop to see what new products the brand has to offer.

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