How to Get a Denim Education – White Oak Economy
White Oak Economy is a monthly column by denim journalist veteran, Amy Leverton where she examines the interplay between the worlds of high end artisanal denim and the mall brands behind them.
So you guys know that Heddels is no ordinary blog. Its aimed mostly at the consumer but as we will all agree; the serious denim enthusiast is not like most other consumers out there: you guys are addicts, experts and aficionados.
Even if you’re a consumer reading this, you know a lot about the industry and you like to be talked to in a more business-minding style, right? You care about manufacturing, mills, minimums and ‘menpu and you know your Kurabo from your Kuroki.
But I wonder how many of you readers are consumers? Like…what percentage? I know designers, buyers, store owners, vintage dealers, and all kinds of industry experts read Heddels but how many of you out there don’t work in the industry directly? And how many of you would like to??
Today I’m going to talk about denim and education because there have been some big shifts over recent years meaning that more people can access reasonably advanced denim training. Finally, it looks like some decent courses are emerging and big names are getting involved with nurturing new talent. It’s very heart warming to see the industry rally together like this and it’s opening up opportunities to people who previously may not have known where to start.
But let’s start with the fashion industry as it stands now: thousands of fashion students graduate every year with a certain skill set: they’ve learnt how to drape on the stand, how to tailor a jacket, pattern cut, illustrate, and fabricate but have no idea about the intricacies of denim design.
Speaking from my own experience studying fashion at Kingston University (which had a reputation for shaping very employable, commercially minded graduates) it was surprising how little focus was given to denim. I remember a rather embarrassing conversation with a tutor called Steve. He painfully laid into me as none of my jean sketches contained ANY BELT LOOPS. At. all. “For god’s sake Amy, go home tonight, look at a jean…. really look at it and draw it” Sound advice, thanks Steve. Funny how after all these years I remember him and that moment so clearly and how it shows us the importance some of these interactions have on our future.
It was the same for Mohsin Sajid, a mate of mine and owner of Endrime who was at Westminster (another fantastic London university) whilst I was at Kingston. As he tells it, “Because I had really good outside tutors when I was studying, I said to myself, ‘I want to be one of those guys who mentor younger generations of designers’ so since 2005 I have made a point to tutor.”
He’s taught at UK universities Plymouth, Westminster and Falmouth, Laselle in Singapore and most recently at Ravensbourne and the Royal Collage in London. Mohsin rates having a good mentor who actively works in the industry as being the key to a young enthusiast’s success. “Because I’m still in the industry I can pull in favors: fabric sponsorship, internships, etc.” But if he wasn’t there, would those students be learning about denim specifically?
“If I wasn’t there they wouldn’t know anything much about denim at all! Most of them only know denim from the catwalk so a lot of the stuff they do is quite flamboyant, which is great and really refreshing for me to see, but I make a point to teach them about the real industry: one of the modules focuses on denim from an historic point of view because that’s something that’s integral to denim design. There is a theory project, looking at trends, market research, etc.
“My second ever lesson with them we made a pair of jeans from start to finish and they all freaked out completely! They were so worried beforehand, but something that they thought was complicated, really wasn’t, so it gave them confidence and understanding”
Being lucky enough to get a visiting tutor like Mohsin is pretty rare. I look back on my fashion training and the lessons that really stood out to me were learned from visiting tutors who had been in the business for ten to twenty years.
So I talked to Donwan Harrell, owner of denim brand PRPS and founder of a new Jeaneology course about this problem. He told me about an experience he’d had last month,
“I spoke with a teacher at FIT and he communicated to me that he was teaching a specialized denim program at the university. I asked him how long he has been in the industry and how often he spends time at his wash facility for his job. He said, ‘four years designing and twice at the wash factory,’ I feel like if you’re going to provide a program of that magnitude to students, the teachers should be well equipped, up to date, and experienced.”
So in 2015, Donwan started a four-week program that he’s going to be repeating every summer. “I felt the need to conjure up some sort of comprehensive educational denim system to enlighten potential up and coming designers on the industry. It’s a 15-billion-dollar enterprise in the US alone that is ever growing, yet there is a significant lack of originality and new talent”
The program is aimed at sophomore and junior-aged college students and is totally run by the man himself. The first week starts with denim history, taught by Donwan and of course featuring his vintage collection, which happens to be one of the largest out there, as he’s been collecting so long. The second week he talks about the business: how to get a job, what kind of deals you can sign, what employees are going to expect from you, how to do a tech pack, how to drape, the different types of washing, terminology…
The third week they come and spend in Donwan’s design offices in NYC.
“I force them to watch the buyer buying jeans, so they learn how to separate themselves from the design, they can’t get emotional if it doesn’t sell. I tell them: you have to understand that the buyer comes in, they see a hundred other denim brands… don’t think for one minute that your stuff is the best stuff out there! I want them to watch this process and of course they get to ask the buyer ‘why didn’t you buy that? What made you buy this?’ How invaluable is that to a young designer?! Its priceless!”
The final week is spent in a wash factory in Europe where they work from start to finish making and washing a jean.
Donwan’s course was so successful last year that it’s expanded this year to include students from Europe as well as the US. When I went to visit him in December, he had a stack of applicants on his desk nearly a foot high and that was just the hopefuls from Europe. But of course, why wouldn’t it be popular? To get a first hand, four-week tutorial from one the the most successful denim designers of our generation is such a rare opportunity. Donwan realizes this:
“What makes my program unique compared to others in the US is that I’m running a current successful denim brand at the market now and have been uniquely relevant for the last 20 years. I have strong relationships with the Japanese and Chinese denim mills, international wash factories and buyers around the world and can give them real exposure and experience”
Students from Europe get a scholarship, the ones from the US have to pay (and it is $10,000) but Donwan personally chooses one kid to sponsor himself. If that’s not investing in the future of denim, I don’t know what is.
Another course that has grabbed attention lately is the House Of Denim in Amsterdam. This diploma course started three years ago and you can read all about it here. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the students a couple of times at class and see them around every time I visit Amsterdam. The first graduates finished in 2015 and I spoke to James Veenhoff, a founding member of the course about what he’s learned from one whole cycle of students.
“We learned a truckload of stuff and we’re still learning all the time… I think the good news is we’ve realized you can really train young people (our students start from 17 years old) to be pretty knowledgeable about denim. Especially now our laundry facility at Denim City is up, we can connect them to some useful experiences and people. It was amazing to see them get internships at places like Momotaro/ Japan Blue, FG Izmir, Royo and even Eureka Lab at Levi’s.”
I think this point is key, since the initial foundation was set up in 2009, the whole industry has rallied round and become involved, which has made the school a recipe for success. In 2015 they set up ‘Denim City’ which is a huge space in De Hallen that includes meeting rooms, an archive, a micro wash facility and has become Amsterdam’s denim hub. James tells me about how the network came about: “When I started out I asked everyone: who is the best school to collaborate with? And they all said ‘the best school is… shut up and go and work in a mill or a laundry.’”
Something I have to agree wholeheartedly with. I was a designer for a couple of years before I first visited Cone Mills in 2005. Back then they offered a denim college to their customers and my colleague Mohsin and I (yes, we go back a long way!) attended. There we met Ralph Tharpe, a denim veteran and still a great buddy I owe a lot of my career to. Mohsin feels the same:
“It all kicked off for me after we did that Cone course in 2005. And that was all down to Ralph Tharpe. He opened that whole world up to me: understanding the weaves, left hand twill verses right hand twill, open end v’s ring spun, indigo dying…If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
James had a similar epiphany with Denim School:
“I’m a marketing guy so when I look at the denim world, I used to define it in terms of the brands. Now I’m more of an insider I’ve learned that the real industry is the mills, the cut/make/sew people, the laundries, the chemical people, the machinery guys. Being able to connect our students to the very best of all these industry ‘phases’ is very rewarding. Its both crucial and fun and it’s a two-way relationship.”
Denim City is becoming an extension of the school but more importantly, the European industry:
“On a single day, the CEO of Tommy Hilfiger, Daniel Grieder walks in to talk to his denim development crew who are there with Candiani. At the same time, three interns from the Jean School are finishing some designs, new jeans arrive at the archive, C&A’s denim MGT team are in for talks about collaborating with Jean School and an indigo dying master class is going on in the blue lab. That’s exactly how we dreamed it up.”
Time and again, it comes up that to truly learn about the industry, you need to get right in, behind the scenes and learn hands-on. You need to involve the denim industry as a whole and rely on real industry experts. Without direct industry cooperation, that’s hard to achieve and so many graduates like myself, Mohsin, even Donwan learnt on the job.
We, as an industry need to learn to give back as much as possible, to work together and collaborate on educating the next generation, to give them more opportunities for success. People like Donwan are integral to the success of the next generation, “I’m doing this for the good of the industry and to help push the envelope of denim design with fresh young, educated talent.”
If you’re reading this article and have a dream to work in the industry, to be honest, it’s never been a better time.