Kurt Chen, owner of denim-and-more shop Faith Co. as well as brands S.F.K. and the W & Anchor Bros., has a problem: he sometimes has to turn his customers away. He runs his shop-office-showroom, in the heart of Taipei, Taiwan, in an unorthodox manner. That is, he wants his customers to enjoy their products for some time, rather than continuing to collect more, or to double up on the kinds of items they already have.
“I don’t like my customers to buy a lot in my store,” he says, between rolling cigarettes outside his hidden basement shop. An odd statement perhaps, coming from a shop owner, but Chen truly hopes people can appreciate his products more by using them often.
“I have one customer who is 80 years old. Once a year he comes into the shop and says, ‘I want to spend some money.’ I tell him, this year you should buy two or three products,” he says. “The man can’t believe it. ‘I’ve never had this kind of experience! You’re stopping me: why?’”
Chen explains: “You don’t have that much time to try a product out. You need some time to get a feeling for it.”
Actually using the products you buy is something Chen believes in a lot, and is the driving mission statement behind his two brands, S.F.K., and the W & Anchor Bros.
“I don’t really care about trends, I just want to make something that I really like,” he says. “At first I just sold American Casual style things, but with my brands I don’t want to just focus on that. I want to make something for my lifestyle. Even if you’re not a fashionable guy, when you need something, my product can work for you.”
Among those products are vegetable tanned and black, tea core leather belts, wallets, glasses cases, and bags, many featuring deadstock hardware, including WWII-era US Navy brass fittings. Chen has also produced canvas travel bags, mugs and plates, glasses, and his own 1940s-style postman leather work shoes.
“The style is not so strong,” he says, which is why it appeals to many different customers, from 20-something women to elderly men and everyone in between. If there is a common thread in the style of the products is that they’re largely subdued, classic, and high in quality. The overall aesthetic at Faith Co. includes elements of workwear, biker, and even city dandy, yet it’s really none of those. Instead, it’s something more forward-thinking.
An Exercise in Branding
Starting his own brands has been a challenging odyssey though, that belies the subdued nature of Chen’s designs. The idea to make his own products was first suggested by his friends in 2005. Until then he ran Faith Co., stocking such brands as The Real McCoy’s, Mister Freedom, Sugar Cane, Iron Heart, and UES.
“I spent a few days thinking about that,” he says, before embarking on making his first item, a leather bracelet. Then, he started making belts and bags. He created the name “S.F.K.” as an acronym from the name of a friend, Spy, “Faith” and his own name, “Kurt.” Customers liked the products and they started to sell, but Chen didn’t turn a profit from his own brand for the first three years.
“I wondered, ‘Are they good enough?’” Chen says. “I don’t think I am a smart guy, and as a student I didn’t study this kind of thing in school. Really, it’s just difficult to make a good design.”
Chen spends a lot of time even now on his products, hunting down leather, buttons, buckles, and more. He also largely works alone, which means he produces about two to three original designs per year.
“Many brands can make 20 to 30 designs each new season, but because I work alone, I can’t do that,” he says.
What’s more, Chen insists on using his own new products anywhere from six months up to even two years before offering them to customers. This way, he can ensure that the designs and construction quality hold up to daily use. He wore his work shoes for two years, just to make sure they were up to his standard.
These days, Chen is trying to create a small team for S.F.K. and the W & Anchor Bros., to help him out with all his duties. He still designs his products, and then makes both the first and second sample himself, before letting two craftsmen, and select factories, make larger orders. He needs the extra time, too, as dealing with factories is often anything but easy.
“The factories in Taiwan usually want a huge order, and quick money,” Chen says. “It’s difficult to make a small order with many details. For them, I’m always a trouble maker.”
Factories have quit on Chen because of his insistence on small, high-quality orders, but he still prefers to make all his products in Taiwan. Convincing customers and stockists abroad about the quality of Taiwanese products is another story, though.
“For Taiwanese brands, this is the biggest problem,” he laments. “People say the product is good, the design is good, but they can’t see the difference between something made in Taiwan and China. They guess your product is a copy, or the quality is not good.”
For buyers, it can also be difficult to explain to customers the difference between Taiwan and China, especially Japanese buyers. After showing his wares at the esteemed Clutch Collection trade show in Yokohama, Japan, four years straight, Chen only picked up his first Japanese account this year.
Discerning eyes would have a hard time looking at Chen’s products and saying their quality is lacking. At one point in the interview he took off the belt he was wearing to show how it’s made of Shinki horsehide from the horse’s strip, the area right above where the famed “shell” comes from. Because the strip is so narrow, one horse’s strip can be made into only one belt. The leather was waxed, similar to UK bridle leather, per Chen’s specifications, and the brass hardware is deadstock.
Chen has also been pounding the pavement in his search of the best selvedge canvas for his bags, which he found at a factory in the southern city of Tainan, Taiwan. He chose a natural white color in a robust 33 oz. fabric, and customers soon asked about dyed bags. Chen was careful about this, even though he does listen to customer feedback, because he wants his products to remain ethical.
“Dyeing causes a lot of pollution, especially in Taiwan,” he says. “Factories might also look to drive the cost down. I don’t want to be involved in anything illegal.”
Chen knows well that factories can cut corners, but he doesn’t put up with it. When the factory that provided his black, tea core leather supplied him a few years ago, the leather looked the same as always. However, after using it for a short while, it began to crack in a very odd way, making Chen believe the factory skimped in production. As a result, he recalled all of the products he sold that used the substandard leather.
Keeping the Faith
Chen is in a good place in life right now. He loves his job, has two original brands under his belt, and his own shop in the hippest part of Taipei selling some of the best heritage items money can buy.
Yet exactly 10 years ago, he was ready to walk away from his career, ironically because he had lost faith in himself. A decade ago, when Kurt was 32, he worried a lot about how people would perceive him as he grew older while working in a clothing store, something he had been doing since he was 15.
“I thought people would wonder, ‘Who is this weird old guy in the shop?’” Chen says. “I thought to quit this whole thing and try to find a good-paying job.”
Then, while in Japan, he told his feelings to Christophe Loiron, owner of the brand Mister Freedom. Loiron told him, “Hey look, I’m older than you. You have to change your mind.” Loiron and others asked Chen why aging in the denim scene bothered him so much. Soon, Giles Padmore of Iron Heart, and his wife Paula, began to take Chen under their wing. Padmore had taken a liking to Chen’s products, and they fast became friends. Padmore even became a father figure to Chen, and would insist on Chen staying at his home while in England, instead of a hotel.
“Christophe and Giles really helped me a lot, I’m really lucky,” Chen says. “Now I don’t worry about my age. I know that I have to keep my faith, find new things to do, and that way I will survive and do something good.”