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G-Star's brand of outrageousness is typically more mercurial than monetary. "You need to have some fun," says Van Tilburg, who believes one way to stand out in a slumped economy is to deck retail spaces with, say, a patchwork denim rhino or a 26-ft. denim shark. Such crazy creations also have a serious purpose: they motivate those charged with the sartorial equivalent of reinventing the wheel to keep coming up with new ideas. This can be a challenge in an environment where the sales teams look on as the creatives design at their computers, with a row of vast plasma screens on the wall above displaying their works in progress. The sales teams can then propose changes in color and style. "There's no point in making a product if the retailers can't sell it," says Remco de Nijs, senior p.r. representative, who today wears jeans featuring a distinctly low-slung butt. "From the outside, we look like a rock-'n'-roll company. From the inside, it's like Swiss clockwork."
G-Star's rock-'n'-roll ties include its current campaign, which features Alexandra Maria Lara (The Reader) and Toby Kebbell (RocknRolla), stars of the 2007 cult music film Control, and was shot by the film's rock photographer-director, Anton Corbijn. Among the company's philanthropic endeavors is a collaboration with the U.N. Millennium Campaign to help raise awareness of global poverty.
As to G-Star's Dutch DNA, "I guess you could say we are good listeners, which is why this country has always been so good at trade," says De Nijs. While it is common for native Dutch speakers to be fluent in at least one other language, those in the department that deals with the company's growing number of retailers around the world switch seamlessly between four or five languages each. "When you come from here, you have to be able to engage with the world," says Scheffer. It's impressive.
Less impressive and everyone in the jeans game faces the same challenge is that denim is derived from one of the most rapacious crops on earth. "When we started, cotton used to seem friendly," recalls Van Tilburg, who acknowledges that although organic cotton may be the holy grail, there is nowhere near enough of it to meet global demand. What's needed right now is sound manufacturing practices, hence G-Star's creation of a dedicated department to ensure that the factories the company uses in countries including Bangladesh and China operate in an environmentally and socially responsible way. Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, the company is experimenting with weaving with eco-friendly nettle.
This sounds less weird once you are reminded that until 1873, when a duo named Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss introduced the world to riveted denim work pants, the hard-wearing garb of miners and railroad workers came from cotton duck cloth or hemp, nettle's close relation. Few product categories are recession-proof, but jeans, having already weathered countless tough times, look like a wise investment.
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