Friday, Apr. 24, 2009

G Major

There's a rumor that an accountant employed by G-Star, which is headquartered across several low-rise buildings on an industrial estate southeast of Amsterdam, once came to work wearing a suit. But no one has seen him in it since.

It should be no surprise, perhaps, that everyone at this dynamic Dutch denim company wears jeans to work. Jos van Tilburg, CEO and founder of the private firm — which has a turnover in excess of $1 billion — teams a businesslike chalk-stripe tailored jacket with tapered, dark denim jeans (one of at least 60 pairs he has in rotation). Global brand director Shubhankar Ray is wearing handcrafted Radar Narrow jeans in a raw denim that was inky black when he joined the company two years ago and has now weathered to a soft, dark blue. Susan Scheffer, who oversees 5,860 points of sale in 70 countries — including just 12 monobrand stores in the U.S., where G‑Star's presence is small yet set to rise through 2009 — is sporting a silhouette known here as the Carrot, given that it is wide at the top and narrow at the ankle.

Denim is a competitive field in which newcomers face not just the big guns, with all their heritage, but also the much younger crop of premium brands. Plus, there are the fashion designers who include jeans in their collections (or collaborate with jeans companies — think Alber Elbaz of Lanvin and Acne of Sweden). So many styles, so much denim. G-Star, which sells 65% of its products to men and 35% to women, is blessed with what every company wants: a hero product. In this case, it is the G-Star Elwood, conceived in 1996 and inspired by the way motorbike leathers take on the form of their wearer.

With more than 10 million pairs sold to date, the G-Star Elwood was probably the first truly "3-D jean" in that below its kneepads, the lower legs are curved to follow the contours of the body. This style, which now comes in multiple variations of wash, cut and detailing, has catapulted the Dutch company into the global league and has also acted as a catalyst to more radical design. You want extra rivets with that? Or hand-stitched details to rival those you might find on the interior of tweed pants made on Savile Row? G-Star is the place to go.

In these tough times, multiple riffs on a work-wear staple born of a harsh environment seem somehow right. There is little in the way of a barrier to entry based on snobbery, giving this clothing category a distinct advantage over the luxury brands. As for price, G‑Star deliberately holds down the real cost of those garments with the most hand-detailing so that everything in the stores stays in the realm of the affordable. "We can't be all about the money," Van Tilburg says with a shrug. This is easier to say when you founded your business in 1989, declined all subsequent approaches from private-equity firms and have a company that is now, as Van Tilburg puts it, "healthy and not heavily leveraged at all."

Once in a while, G-Star is indeed about the money. Keen on keeping its name in the high-fashion game, the company has released a limited collection for summer designed by longtime collaborator Marc Newson. The items will be sold at chic outlets like Colette in Paris, Moss in New York City, and 10 Corso Como in Milan, bearing recession-shunning price tags of $1,360 to $5,430.

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.