Joakim Levin is sitting in a conference room in Nudie Jeans’ headquarters in Göteborg, a small city in Sweden where the denim brand was founded. The space—an old bank—reminds me of the New York Public Library: high ceilings, marble floors, dark wood furniture. Levin, who’s dressed in a grey T-shirt, a newspaper boy cap, and black Nudie jeans is telling me about the first Nudie repair shop he’s opening in New York City this year. “This is a big thing for us,” he says.
Levin, the company’s chairman, has worked at Nudie since he founded it with Maria Erixon in 2001. In the 14 years since, Nudie has remained niche—”We’ve always been, and we’ve always in many ways wanted to be,” he says—but Levin wants to widen the brand’s reach. The repair shops and repair service offered at the stores help, he says, but even he will admit that Nudie’s success all starts with one thing: raw denim.
While Nudie produced both pre-wash and raw denim (denim that has not undergone any of the usual washing and distressing process), the latter was a definite focus by the brand. Erixon, who grew up in Vetlanda in southern Sweden, cites her upbringing marked by the postwar years—a time when people recycled, recreated, and reused; before “consumption and throwaways”—as an inspiration. “We [at Nudie] believe that you should wear in and repair your jeans in order to create your own individual jeans stories,” she wrote on Nudie.com.
“When we started out, we wanted to do raw denim,” Levin adds. “The wear-and-tear story, make your own pair…This is very much the foundation we built this brand on.” Though raw denim hadn’t peaked in the U.S. just yet, the landscape changed by the early-to-mid-2000s.
Fok-Yan Leung, co-owner of StyleForum, an online community dedicated to all things men’s clothing, says the surge was a “post-modern reaction” to a few things. “It was this idea of authenticity, when process really became a thing,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it was the birth of hipster culture, but a lot of DIY culture was done. If you remember, everyone had a dry goods company. Everyone had an Etsy-style company.”
“Raw denim didn’t have the authenticity of the product, but the authenticity of the process,” he adds. He says it was the notion of having to work for how your denim looked—breaking it in, waiting six months before washing them. “That’s why [raw denim] really became popular. That and hype.”
Scott Mirtsopoulos, a merchandiser at a major retailer, agrees that hype played a part in the popularity of raw denim. “Raw denim was another vehicle to express you were in the know, just like how a [Supreme] box logo or Stüssy tee would,” he explains. “It was something people got really proud about.”
“Everyone was saying: this is the ultimate wardrobe; everyone needs a pair of raw denim.”
—Andrew Chen, Co-Founder, 3Sixteen
Back then, really deep denim heads, according to Mirtsopoulos, wore brands like Samurai, Skull, and Ironheart. But, with reasonable prices and a variation of fits, most opted for Nudie or A.P.C.
“Anyone can get into [Nudie],” says Leung. “The fits were democratic—you can get fits for fat guys, you can get fits for skinny guys.” As a result, Nudie and A.P.C. were often recommended for those buying their first pair of raw denim.
But how did Nudie become a go-to for raw denim, especially given that the Swedish brand rarely advertised its products? Word of mouth, for one, because Nudie wasn’t stocked in all stores, but the rise of forums also played a part. “Raw denim popped off once men’s fashion forum culture, like Hypebeast and Superfuture, really started to trickle into the mainstream,” says Mirtsopoulos. “Back in the day, the forums were overflowing with fit pics that had [Nudie’s] back pocket details.” He says social media, specifically Tumblr, also had an impact.
Andrew Chen, owner and designer of denim brand 3Sixteen, which is also known for its raw denim, points to the influence of the media and style bloggers. “There was a point in time, a few years ago, when customers were being told by various media outlets and bloggers—when style blogging was a big thing—that you need to build your favorite wardrobe and buy and invest in pieces that will last,” he says. “Everyone was saying: This is the ultimate wardrobe; everyone needs a pair of raw denim.”
“I don’t see raw denim becoming this trendy thing again in the near future but I definitely don’t see it being irrelevant.”
— Johan Lindstedt, Nudie jeans denim designer
Levin credits Nudie’s success to the designs and fits but also the timing. “There wasn’t that much competition,” he says. “All of these American brands hadn’t started yet, so we were one of the first ones to get in.” In the mid-to-late 2000s, Nudie was murdering raw denim sales in the U.S. “It almost got to the point where we were like, ‘Hey we’re only selling raw denim now,’” says Levin, who admits that back then buyers weren’t particularly pleased aesthetically because the denim shelves in stores were stocked with the same dark indigo denim. But Nudie embraced it.
“It’s what we want to do from a mental perspective,” says Levin. “In many ways, it’s just a better product. You haven’t paid someone to wear them down for you.” Nudie’s sales of dry denim in Europe differed, though Levin says it’s because jeans were seen as a more of an “everyday garment” than a “fashion piece.”
In 2014, it was reported that denim sales had been declining six percent year-to-year. NPD chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen told WWD in October 2014 that the drop can be traced back to the cyclical nature of the denim business. “The numbers have been soft in denim for long enough that we’ll see some improvement as they get ‘anniversaried,’ but the industry has the opportunity to make the recovery happen before the cycle gets us there,” he said.
Leung disagrees. He says there’s a periodicity about denim. “You see a lot more now, more and more people are going to use indigo and indigo-dyed stuff.” He says there’s been a dip in denim sales because of the rise of activewear and euro minimalist style.
Chen says menswear trends right now are more temporal. “Guys are wearing stuff that they probably know they won’t be wearing two years from now,” he says. Still, Chen says there are still customers who are learning about not only 3Sixteen but also raw denim, and that even though market trends have skewed away from raw denim it’s still a “growing and profitable business” for his brand.
Johan Lindstedt, Nudie’s denim designer, agrees with Chen. “I think there’s quite a big group of consumers that will keep buying [raw denim],” he says. “This is just how denim should be…I don’t see raw denim becoming this trendy thing again in the near future but I definitely don’t see it being irrelevant from both a fashion perspective or a commercial perspective.”
Levin understands the changes and fluctuations in the market, but he insists Nudie’s sales have been growing—not quickly, but steadily. “We’re working our little path,” he says. The goal for Nudie now, Levin and Lindstedt say, is to “widen that [reach].”
That’s where Nudie’s Repair Shops come in. At the back of Nudie’s Vallgatan store in Göteborg are close to 100 pairs of jeans stacked in seven piles nearly toppling over. All are to be repaired for free by staff members who’ve been trained to patch a hole in the knee or crotch (for some, this would be their first time sewing). “Instead of just throwing them away we give them a longer life,” says Carl Henrik Runesson, a long-time employee and store manager of Nudie’s Drottninggatan location.
Nudie currently has Repair Shops in Sweden, London, Spain, Germany, Los Angeles, and Japan. It’s become a huge part of the brand’s mission and business. Last year alone, 30,000 pairs of jeans were repaired (a location can average 100 repairs a week). But Levin doesn’t want to stop there. He says he wants Nudie to move deeper into second-hand projects.
In addition to free repairs, customers can resell used denim at Nudie stores in exchange for a 20 percent discount. Levin says he wants to see how far he can take their resell program and is thinking of stocking other second hand items in stores.
“We just want to do really good denim,” says Levin, “in a really good way.”