Swedish denim label Nudie Jeans recommends people don’t wash their new jeans for at least six months. It has also opened satellite repair stores around the world where customers can take their knackered trousers in for a free fix up.
Nudie wants to be a fully transparent company. “Caring capitalism” may be an oxymoron but Nudie appears to be shifting the public gaze towards something akin to responsible consumerism.
The website claims that they “do not envisage a trade-off between profit and people, or between manufacture and environmental responsibility”. Fashion is still very much an industry and you won’t find people screaming for the takedown of capitalism here. Not too loudly anyway.
I sat down with someone who was there at the start of Nudie – its CEO Palle Stenberg – and asked him to explain their business model. “I first met Nudie’s founder Maria [Erixon Levin] when she was working at a small shop outside Gothenburg. She’d been working with denim for many years.” Some years later, he adds, “she said ‘Palle, let’s do our own jeans’. She was fed up with the commercial side of things because everything was looking at the short term. Her idea was that instead of just looking at profit, let’s do the jeans the way we want them. I said ‘yeah, let’s do it’”.
Stenberg says Nudie started out with the ethical side hard-wired into the business model. “Those ethics have always been part of us … The look and the fit is important – otherwise nobody buys them. But the social responsibility and taking care of nature was also there from day one. We wanted to know that everyone who worked with us would go to sleep at night having an OK life.”
“We became 100% organic a few years ago, our next step is to be 100% transparent – to show everybody everything. We’re just working out the way to do it.”
In India, where Nudie gets some of its cotton from (it also sources from Italy and Turkey), Palle says they pay their workers living wages, not just minimum wages. He also takes great pride in Nudie’s manufacturing – 90% of which happens in Italy. “Italy is a part of the EU and we pay the same taxes, their salaries are like the ones we have here in Sweden. I think that’s where the big difference is. I think our margins are more or less like other brands … maybe even a little worse. But we’re a profitable company. Shoppers are really behind us because of our core values.”
Nudie Jeans are becoming popular and not everyone buys them for the ethics, but they soon get the hint. At a visit to one of their flagship stores in London, I was taken through their range, where their jeans came from and how to care for them. Their repair shop is in the front window next to the till.
You get the sense that the average Nudie customer wouldn’t be seen dead with a dream-catcher listening to the Grateful Dead. Everyone who worked there and who walked in was effortlessly cool. The price point is cheaper or equivalent to most designer denim labels.
“We have three shops in Sweden, one in Berlin, one in London, five in Japan, five in Australia, one in Zurich and one in Barcelona,” says Stenberg. “And then online. We also have distribution in 26 countries around the world. The cool thing is that the same people who started the brand twelve, thirteen years ago are still here.”
Stenberg acknowledges that Nudie aren’t perfect. It takes around 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans. “It’s no secret that the cotton industry is one of the worst industries in the world. We only work with organic cotton, and the people we work with reuse their water and they don’t use pesticides to grow it.”
When I ask about his own waste flows, Stenberg gets up and fetches an older-than-old pair of jeans. “Everyone wants to know what difference we make,” he says. “Here is a pair I’ve been wearing every day for at least two years. Can you see the repairs? If I turn it inside out … you can see repairs. That’s the idea. Buy a pair of organic jeans, never wash them and you wear them and wear them and wear them and they become like a second skin. You save water because you’re not washing them too.”
The Nudie business model is based around not washing your jeans? “Your jeans break, you come to the store and we repair them for free. You wear them for another six months at least, you bring them back, we repair them and so on and so on until you don’t want to wear them anymore and we take them off you. You choose a new pair and we use your old pair to fix other pairs or we sell them to people,” he says.
“It’s not about how much we spend to make one unit. It’s about how long you can make a single pair of jeans last. People sometimes say that we’d earn so much more if we didn’t have this service … yes we could, but that’s not the point. We think long term.”
• This article was amended on 17 March to add that Nudie gets its cotton from Italy and Turkey as well as India.
This article was first published in the Guardian, 17 March 2014.