Benno Cooper, Chain Stitches Co-Founder – Exclusive Interview
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably well aware of all the buzz coming out of South East Asia these days. We ourselves can’t get enough of the drool-worthy, picture perfect, and incomparable denim fades submitted from those in the Asian tropics, but if the crazy surrounding local message board, Darahkubiru, and Pronto Denim‘s Denim Carnival are any indication of the community’s passion and growth, it looks like the buzz will not be dampened anytime soon.
With all of this fervor in the region as well, it only makes sense that we’ve seen a number of new brands pop up or hit new strides. Old Blue Co. and Sage have certainly made their Fade Friday mark felt with readers, but there’s also Obbi Goods Label, Elhaus, Bluesville, Cheese Denim, and many others.
For whatever reason, however, despite all of this development, getting one’s mitts on some of the aforementioned brands in North American has been a challenge. Or at least that was the case until Chain Stitches opened up shop.
Founded and run by husband and wife duo, Benno and Kai-Helin Cooper, Chain Stitches is based in Omaha, Nebraska and dedicated to small manufacturers of denim and artisanal goods. For a shop that’s not even one year in and hails from the “Gateway to the West”, they’ve already had a big impact in bringing some of East Asian’s finest stateside.
We caught up with co-founder, Benno Cooper, to learn more about Chain Stitches’ beginnings, their thoughts on the scene in South East Asia, and where they’re heading.
Heddels: Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you and Kai-Helin met, and how you became involved in menswear / raw denim?
Benno Cooper: We originally met in Belgium when Kai was posted there at the time as a diplomat and I was working at the military base. Long story short, we started dating then I left to Afghanistan for some contract work. Fast forward a couple years, we made it official and got married.
As far as menswear and raw denim go, I have always had an interest in fashion. I come from a large family, so I’ve seen fashion change over the years first hand.
However, I think my first passion lies in vintage clothes. My brothers are much older than me so that style that they had is something I tried to mimic and that led me into vintage clothes, which is something I’m still very much drawn to.
RD: What’s the story behind Chain Stitches? When did the store launch?
BC: We launched the store at the end of 2014. The concept for the store started very slowly. I was thinking of entering the Heavyweight Denim Championships second round in 2012. I started looking for a pair of denim, but I wanted something different than what everyone else would be wearing.
I also wanted something that could produce great fades, leading me directly to Old Blue Co. Unfortunately, I could not get a pair in time for the competition because [Old Blue] was between runs. I went another direction for my competition denim, but it’s kind of like that thing you want that you can’t get. You only wanted it that much more and I wondered why nobody carried them. So, the seed was planted all the way back then.
Later on down the road, we started to discuss plans for our honeymoon and we knew we wanted to go to South East Asia. Most of the denim that I was interested in was being produced in this region, and I knew Kai also wanted to travel there.
I started making contacts, calling different companies right away to set up visits. I have to say that I was a bit inspired by my wife. She was writing travel articles and getting them published. I figured my passion was in denim, so why not try to write a few articles based on my travels?
Eventually I spoke with a few companies in Malaysia and decided that this is where I wanted to go. I negotiated the visit with Kai. During all the research and back-and-forth communication, I started to think that maybe we could represent these brands in the west ourselves.
But, it wasn’t until the visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia that we knew that an online store was something that could be made possible.
RD: Being located in Omaha, Nebraska, can you share with us what the community there is like? Do you feel it’s impactful in any way to be located somewhere that is a little off the beaten path?
BC: In terms of online-only, it doesn’t really matter much where the shop is located. Having a store front might be a different story. Omaha is the largest city in Nebraska; it has big businesses, agriculture, universities, and the downtown area is quite vibrant.
People have a comfortable laid back lifestyle, and they also wear a lot of denim. Maybe not so much raw denim at the moment, but this is where we see potential to raise awareness. People here are accustomed to the style that lends itself to this type of fashion.
There are a lot of working class people in Omaha, and most young men would still rather have a job where they can use their hands. Considering all of that, it’s my hometown so I’m very happy to represent the area.
RD: On the “About Us” page on your web shop, you state that you have a personal relationship with each of the brands you carry; all of which are based in Southeast Asia. With Chain Stitches being located in Omaha, Nebraska, I imagine meeting and getting to know these companies can’t be easy. How were you able to form close connections with these makers?
BC: I can tell you that it’s not easy, at least it was not in the beginning. It involves a lot of communication, and in the beginning it’s not easy to get people to respond to attempts to communicate.
I was in contact with these companies way before the website existed, and it’s not easy to get people to take you serious in that respect. Whether you are contacting them for an interview, or a business idea, people generally won’t give you their time unless you represent something that is already tangible.
At times I think some of these guys only responded so they could get me to leave them alone. But, during that process, the back-and-forth kicks off. At some point, fresh ideas are created between the two parties, the trust builds, and then the personal relationship begins.
For the partners that we were able to visit, the process was much quicker. For instance, when we met with our Malaysian partners we not only had the opportunity to see their stores, workshops, and witness their local denim scene, we were also able to interact with their families. It’s personable experiences like that that we appreciate the most.
RD: As touched on, all of the brands you offer are based across Southeast Asia in Thailand, Indonesia, or Malaysia. Although you don’t market yourselves as a specialist of Southeast Asia-only goods, it feels like an implicit move to sell wares solely from this region. Is that the case? If so, what is it about this part of the globe that has captivated you?
BC: Originally we were interested in speaking to South East Asian companies because of our travels, but it didn’t take long before we approached companies from other regions. It’s a difficult thing because we were not interested in representing the usual brands that everyone deals with.
There are a lot of great brands out there already, and if you want to be associated with them you have to get in line. For a startup like us, that means you have to play by their rules and, in many cases, they do not leave you much room for creativity. The ability to have a hand in creating collaborative products is important to us. We choose to focus on the companies that allow us to do that while offering products at our target price point.
There were also companies where the business models simply didn’t fit well together, and other situations where the timing was wrong for one party or the other. I can tell you that one part of that are minimal order requirements. We are a small company. We started this business with our own resources. Small batches of specialty products are the direction we decided to focus on. When minimum order requirements come into play, many times we have to back away.
We are definitely working behind-the-scenes to collaborate with other brands. Finding brands that are not already well represented is definitely a challenge.
RD: Digging more into Southeast Asia, the denim and heritage scene and community there seems to be in a league of its own. Many of our most high contrast, jaw-dropping denim fades come from climates that deal with year-round temperatures of +85F (+30C). Considering so many of these jeans weigh in at +18 oz. too, it’s hard to understand just how these guys do it. What do you feel it is about the average denim head from the tropical Asian countries that separates them from others; which (in turn) fuel many of the local upstarts?
BC: They have a lot of dedication. They not only love, but adore, their denim. From my own personal experience, it’s not easy to wear heavyweight denim in Southeast Asian heat and humidity, but the fades make it worth it.
Beyond the fades, there is a lot of local pride wrapped up in this as well. People there love American and Japanese denim, but they also support their local brands. They’ve had legit artisans producing denim for years and they have a strong following.
RD: What brand and model would you recommend to someone who has no experience with denim whatsoever? How about for someone who is a little more seasoned but yet to test-drive one of the brands you carry?
BC: If it was a person who had no experience with denim what so ever, I would suggest Old Blue Co. They have a range of denim in different cuts and with denim from various regions. You are definitely bound to find something unique.
To someone who is a denim vet, I would recommend Ceremony Fine Wear. This is a lesser known brand, but one wear will tell you everything you need to know about denim from this region. Very high quality and totally under the radar.
RD: What denim and non-denim clothing brands do you consider to be favorites of yours and why?
BC: My favorite non-denim clothing brand in probably Adidas Originals. I’m an ex-athlete and old school that way. As soon as I get home, I take off my jeans and get into my sweats. If I’m not in my jeans I’m usually on the couch in my sweats.
My favorite denim brand changes with what I’m wearing at the time. Right now I wear my collaboration Old Blue Co everyday, so I’d have to claim that as my favorite brand. Kai is currently loving wearing her Ceremony Fine Wear Ginsberg jeans, and in more informal settings and as she’s a yoga teacher, she always likes to wear yoga clothes.
RD: For those unfamiliar with the Heavyweight Denim Championships 2015-17, what’s the event all about? How are you involved and what compelled you to be a part of the two-year contest?
BC: Chain Stitches is one of the official sponsors of the event, it also includes being in the judges’ panel. The Championship is a tribute to denim, you can sign up and compete in different weight classes, there’s also a separate competition for kids’ denim. Ideally a contestant should wear the pair they’ve chosen to compete in for the duration of the competition, photo chronicling it’s lifespan.
It’s all about the denim lifestyle, living your life in denim and getting those unique fades through your everyday activities. I was involved with it originally because I wanted to see how a multitude of different denim brands and models would fade during a marked time period. I personally learned a lot through that process and enjoyed taking part.
RD: What’s in the pipeline for the rest of 2015 and over 2016?
BC: Right now we continue to focus on the brands that we currently represent. We have a few collaboration projects in development through them that should follow the same vein of what we released earlier this year. We always keep our eye open for the underrepresented brands that we believe in no matter what region they originate from.
To get a better sense of Chain Stitches and shop their offerings, visit their website.