I’m not an artisan. I think the term “artisan” is overused.
UK-based designer Simon King, founder of London Denim, definitely doesn’t call himself an “artisan”:
“I don’t think you can call yourself an artisan. I think it’s something that other people call you. I’m not an artisan, but I do work with them on London Denim products, know a few I’d like to work with and a few are my friends too.”
Simon has a very clear and strong vision on what a true artisan is, or should be. In a world where Tesco sells “artisan bread” and the local coffeeshop has an “artisan barista”, it seems that people use the word “artisan” to describe a person who cares about what they do or is passionate and can wax lyrical about their product and what they do. But for Simon, being an artisan is something different. To him, an artisan is identified by their product and the means used to create that product. If a product is artisanal, then the person/business who made it is an artisan.
London Denim isn’t a run-of-the-mill, one-man denim brand. Over the years, Simon has built a sort of coterie of businesses around him to support his vision. Working with both local independent craftsmen and international companies alike, Simon has carefully selected the ingredients needed in order to cook up his vision into a denim dish well served:
“The soul in a product is not endowed by the designer but by the team involved in product creation. I sought out the very best people to bring my Jean 1 to life. The denim is predominantly from Japan, the hardware from Italy and the pocketing is the work of a British weaver and Italian mill. The embroidery elements on my jeans are completed by Andrew and Lucie of the London Embroidery Centre. The window dressing for my jeans can be found in the brand tags and the wash labels. Two other businesses and some traditional handwork in the studio is involved to complete that stage. Dawes Weaving created an exclusive canvas for us which is tea-dyed by hand in our own studio, and National Weaving whom weave the wash tag for us. My jeans are cut and put together in a small factory in Italy, which is the same country where I decide to work with washes. I prefer working with premium Italian denim for that process as it would be a crime to use selvage denim for it. The elite team of the wash house who live for doing these types of finishings and in my opinion are much more creative than their Japanese counterparts.”
Nowadays working with a dedicated network of people, Simon is able to put his vision into place, but that hasn’t always been the case. As all of us, also Simon had to start somewhere…
JOURNEY INTO THE DEPTHS OF DENIM
Simon saw an evolution taking place in the late 90s, which sparked his desire to explore the fabric and begin London Denim. At first, the “bumsters” by Alexander Mcqueen which weren’t about being frivolous but more about being different. The second evolution that sparked Simon was the introduction of Suzanne Costas Earl Jeans, the once reputed and very popular low-rise bootcut jean worn by celebrities and embraced by many. Simon took inspiration from those designers, who dared to take something so iconic, twist it and create it into something fresh. This was the moment when Simon’s appreciation for denim started:
“When you see something special in its early stages than it’s hard not to be moved, and I was moved to start making a product. I kicked off making jeans in London in 2000, with the local denim industry being decimated due to factories moving overseas. Luckily I was able to cooperate with one of Burberry’s (link) old factories and using a single needle stitch Juki and experiencing some painful first lessons: “Don’t nic’ the pattern, overlock everything and mind shrinkage.”
They were the first real artisans I ever worked with, a team with real “old school” talent used to working with heavier fabrics, not bothered by getting their hands blue with unsanforized denim and willing to work with me and the genius designer/pattern cutter Julian Roberts, who cut my initial patterns.
What did your vision look like back then and how did it evolve moving forward?
“I had my mind set on using the architectural qualities of denim to create new shapes, it’s a core desire which stays with me to this day. Cone Mills bought into the idea and gave me access to their latest developments, allowing me to order in small quantities.
Those first two years totally killed my back. Denim came in 30 meter rolls and constantly lifting them onto the cutting table knackered me. By 2006 I had 30 accounts around the world and started working with an Italian factory to ensure access to wash houses. They went bankrupt before delivering the first season, and I vowed to myself I would never be screwed like this again.
Between 2006 and 2014 I’ve been to Japan several times to meet the weavers, production facilities and wash houses. Looking at how Kapital and Momotaro were approaching the repro side of Americana, I decided I want to do something truly different. The Japanese were producing “heritage” brands by the boatload, some inspiring and some very awful and the Americans caught on to as well, propelling a great product with a great heritage but adding nothing new to the world.
That’s when the seed got planted again. Seeing something in its embryonic stages and thinking I have something to add to this debate. I began creating a jean for myself, simple called the Jean 1. I wore this for six months straight before making amendments and after a whole load of sampling, the jeans were finally born as my vision and take on the jean.”
FINDING INSPIRATION IN OTHERS
Like many creative souls, Simon too finds most of his inspiration in the people surrounding him now or in the past. From the early days in which his uncle and his team of cabinet makers introduced him into the reproduction of antique furniture (which were sold at Harrods) up onto the artistic vision of artist Amie Howarth, who works collaboratively with London Denim in the London-based studio. Perhaps exemplifying it best is how Simon speaks highly of one of his greatest inspirators, Chris Hewitt of Somebody and Sons:
“He is the weave Ying to my design Yang”
With the journey of London Denim, planting its seeds and growing over time, I asked Simon what he considers his biggest success so far?
As a designer I strive to create a product that stands out from the crowd. That’s a pretty tough job in jean design where so many of the design cues are common place. Jean 1 defined my approach to jean design and the designs of other London Denim products. Establishing that root of the product is the biggest success. A close second is when I sold a pair to a bloke I didn’t know and when he came back for a another pair a few months later.”
And what do you eventually want to achieve with your work?
“Establishing a larger customer database would be great, as it will give me the ability to construct my own fabrics to a specific standard. I recently had a chat with the design director of an internationally established brand, discussing about mounting a loom on a programmable shudder mechanism to “fake” different kinds of chatter in the denim. Having the freedom to run projects like that would be a very fine achievement.”
Discover more on London Denim here