Amsterdam has long been famed for it’s (relatively) exotic (if you’re English) approach to sex, drugs and rock and roll, but away from the fog of legal highs and the primal urges that course through the red light district there’s a sustainable revolution afoot, courtesy of denim brand Kings of Indigo. Launched in 2012 by Tony Tonnaer, the label has been ranked the number one sustainable denim brand in Europe, with an ethos that ensures an environmentally friendly approach is woven through each stage of the business, from production to the way they run their offices.
It’s an ethos that Tonnaer has long supported, having previously worked at Kuyichi, another denim brand that sought to introduce organic cotton into the industry back in the early 2000s. Now with a host of accolades and famous supporters (Kings of Indigo counts Emma Watson and Pandora Sykes as fans) the brand is well positioned to help lead the fashion revolution and show major denim brands that it is possible to build a business and ensure a positive impact on the planet. As part of our Behind the Seams series, Culture Trip catches up with CEO of Kings of Indigo, Tony Tonnaer, to talk finding inspiration in carp and Swedish indie bands, reimagining waste clothing and the endless possibilities in denim.
Culture Trip: Denim is a competitive market, how did the idea for the brand come about, and why did you want to build a company around denim?
Tony Tonnaer: I have been working with denim products since 1997 so it’s in my blood; I’ve had a lot of experience in denim as well as in sustainability. When I quit as MD at Kuyichi I had such a great network in denim production, design, sales and investors that it really felt like the right time to start my own company in sustainable denim. Despite the fact that 2010 was the depths of the crisis in the EU economy and denim trade.
CT: Where did the name for the brand come from?
TT: I decided to get a tattoo of a Koi carp on my shoulder when my mom died. It is a sign of pride, swimming against the stream, grace and beauty. When I started the brand I thought this was a great metaphor for denim. When we were in the development process, I happened to be at a concert by Kings Of Convenience, I made the link between K.O.I and Kings Of Indigo. If you ask me, it was meant to be.
CT: What were your reference points when launching the label? Where there any stand-out images of denim in the cultural canon that inspired you?
TT: The most important reference point in the beginning was my own denim experience at Pepe Jeans, Ubi denim and Kuyichi. There were also the qualities of my freelance team at Goodhood London (design and brand ID), Hiltje Huisink (patternmaker for perfect fit) and Pirate (for marketing POS concept). I had travelled many times to Japan and USA and both countries inspired me for the best denim and indigo products. USA for the classic vintage denim and sportswear, Japan of their indigo tradition and how they developed American classic products to a higher quality level. So this became the main ingredients for Kings Of Indigo, together with my vision to develop all products in a fair and eco-friendly way. ‘Quality era for the next era’ we named it.
CT: Why was it important to place sustainability at the heart of the brand?
TT: I had been doing this for seven years at Kuyichi. I developed the brand from nothing to the first 100% sustainable denim brand in Europe. It’s the future for all clothing companies and it is such an interesting challenge to combine design, quality and sustainability. I’m not saying it is not easy, but it’s so rewarding when it works.
CT: Can you tell us in a bit more detail about the Red Light Denim initiative?
TT: The idea came from James Veenhof of House of Denim. He wanted to work on a selvedge denim fabric with post consumer recycled cotton collected from Amsterdam and name it Red Light Selvedge. Due to technical issues we did not manage to develop the selvedge, but we could develop with Royo (denim mill from Valencia) nice quality regular denim with 18% fibres from worn jeans in Amsterdam. Now we have developed a version two with 25% recycled cotton, 8% hemp and 78% organic cotton, in stores now. The idea is to keep increasing the percentage of recycled cotton, which is a challenge.
CT: How difficult is it to be sustainable when also trying to expand and grow as a business?
TT: It is very difficult as you are so much more limited in the sourcing and development of fabrics, products and factories. Because there are more limits, you have to think in a different way. My head of design – Khoi, and myself, have been working like this for 14 years; I think we’ve got it down now and are now creating great products and a profitable business. But it does remain hard and demands a lot of determination.
CT: What have been the biggest challenges for launching a brand, and when have you experienced your biggest learning curves?
TT: It was hard to get the right investor on board in a period when the economy was really down. We had some money to start the brand but really needed an investor on board to realise the ambition of becoming one of Europe’s key denim brands. Besides that, it remains difficult to meet the fabric minimums of sustainable fabrics, while being a relatively small brand.
CT: Do you ever find the creative possibilities of denim to be limiting – is there anything that you can’t do?
TT: No! Whether inspired by the past, or by innovations for the future, denim creates lots of options to play with. I think denim creativity is never ending.