Hunger Denim Week
When it comes to denim nearly anything goes. We’ve had double and triple denim looks grace the catwalks at both men’s and women’s fashion weeks, and it’s not uncommon to find a woman borrowing her boyfriend’s jeans or a man squeezing into his girlfriend’s size 8 skinnies in search of the perfect rockstar drainpipe. So why then, has it taken so long for the lightbulb to go off? More and more, jeans are becoming unisex and we’ve been waiting for a brand to grab this idea and run with it for far too long. And then along came Bethnals.
London born and bred, Bethnals are a new denim brand creating unisex pieces that blur the boundaries between what is constituted ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ denim. Founded by Melissa Clement, who has over 14 years experience working with some of the biggest names in the industry, Bethnals recognise that people no longer shop – or dress – in conventional ways, and are creating a product to facilitate this new lifestyle, cutting jeans to suit the silhouette of men and women while keeping the intrinsic essence of ‘London cool’ in every thread, hence the name. Initially funded through Kickstarter, Bethnals is now well on its way to becoming a staple in London’s denim landscape, and with the promise of “delivering the faithful London uniform” long may they stay.
WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND BETHNALS? WHEN DID YOU REALISE THAT THERE WAS A GAP IN THE MARKET?
I’m a tomboy, and I have always worn authentic ‘boys’ jeans; I used to work for a fast fashion giant and the whole time I was there my male friends were wearing my women’s jeans… So I guess over a number of years the whole concept behind Bethnals became too obvious not to do: why can’t people just buy the jeans they want to fit them from the same place? Conceptually it really was that simple. At that time, I was also feeling ‘creatively frustrated’ – we all know that in a big company there’s lots of red tape – so it was important for me to get out and be creative again. I wanted to make the whole process more collaborative between myself and the producer, so Bethnals was my opportunity to do this, and hence the perfect move for me.
WHY DO YOU THINK NO ONE HAS DONE THIS BEFORE?
Well, honestly, some denim brands have featured the odd unisex fit within their collections in the past. Bethnals is however exclusively unisex, with every piece being designed with both genders in mind. We are non-trend led, and I think this is why people shy away from such a bold brand ethos, because there is lots of money in trends. If, say, prom dresses are hugely popular one season we won’t be compromising our brand identity in order to capitalise on this consumer desire. So I guess there’s an element of risk, and fear (it’s damn scary), in what Bethnals is doing… but that’s all part of the fun!
WHAT WERE THE INITIAL RESPONSES THAT YOU GOT FROM PEOPLE WHEN YOU DISCUSSED THE IDEA?
A mixed bag one could say… A lot of industry people wondered why I was giving up such a perfect job. People in my personal life were very supportive however, although I think secretly worried that I was taking on too much. Starting a brand when you have a million pounds and huge backers is hard, starting a brand on a shoe string is even harder… we are most definitely the latter!
HOW UNISEX DO YOU THINK FASHION HAS BECOME? AND WHY?
It really depends where you look. The high street is still totally divided, and unisex ideas are creeping into the high-end more and more frequently. Although use of the term ‘unisex’ can be quite a thorny issue because you find that a lot of people’s idea of that is taking signifiers of one gender and applying them to a collection designed for the other, rather than totally blurring boundaries between two genders. We are unisex, but we are also a minimalist brand striving for the best quality and fit for everyone. As for why, the cultural zeitgeist right now is focused on gender and fashion, as ever, listens.
TALK US THROUGH THE DESIGN PROCESS FOR A PAIR OF BETHNALS JEANS.
It all starts with fabric. I have a great relationship with the leading mills in the industry, and I look through their newest developments monthly. I take my knowledge of the best looking, best selling, fit and put the two together. I am not reinventing the wheel – the five pocket jean has been around since the turn of the twentieth century. What makes Bethnals stand out, however, is the simple washing and styling which surprisingly takes a lot more work to get perfect because it is so pared down. One mistake on a ‘clean’ pair of jeans can make the whole garment look terrible.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE ON DIFFERENT STYLES, AND DO ANY CHALLENGES ARISE FROM A DESIGN PERSPECTIVE?
From my background, where I could fill 400 stores nationwide with a whole denim range each season, it was pretty easy to cover any mistakes or bad decisions (although rare). With a startup brand, however, every single style counts. You have to be totally sure of each fit which will feature in the collection. There is no hiding, and no team to tell you they look perfect. You hit a bad wash and you are sunk! I’m learning to trust my instincts.
YOU FUNDED THE PROJECT ON KICKSTARTER – HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO START A NEW FASHION COMPANY THESE DAYS AND WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED SO FAR?
Strangely, the design process, branding and product development has been the most natural part of the whole process. The hardest part has been spreading the word, and getting the brand in front of the ‘right people’. People are either incredibly supportive, or nervous of taking on something so new. Previously I worked for a name that people trusted, we had a PR team, press links, and a massive budget. At Bethnals HQ we are small, but I guess big dreamers: it will be all the more satisfying when the brand is where we want it to be… that’s really exciting!
HOW DO YOU PLAN TO EXPAND THE BUSINESS IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
For this season’s collection we are exclusively stocked in BAD DENIM a great new denim store on Lower Clapton road and we are signing leases to personally pop up across London until Christmas so watch this space! The website is launching next month, and we are in talks with some amazing boutiques for the upcoming SS15 collection. We aren’t aiming to be giants though, we want to remain unconventional and cater to the real denim lovers out there.
WHAT MAKES DENIM SUCH A VERSATILE MATERIAL TO WORK WITH?
Denim has come a long way since even I have been in the industry – which is eight years I think. The innovation coming out of the mills is incredible. You can do anything you want with it. For the trained eye you look at a rail of blue jeans and see thirty different options; there are so many casts of indigo, ways to launder and wash to create a unique shade, constructions of the denim, pattern/silhouette – the list goes one. It is such a versatile material to work with because the fabric itself is so versatile.
WHY DO YOU THINK DENIM NEVER GOES OUT OF FASHION?
Different fits and washes will of course come in and go out, yet if you walk down the street, 90% of the people will be wearing jeans of whatever style. I guess they are such a go-to-garment– they are easy to style, comfortable and still fashionable – so why not? Jeans are also a gender neutral product that boys and girls can wear. There is also a practical element to denim – it is hard wearing, so an investment as well as a fashion staple. The London Uniform has, for so long, been a pair of well fitting jeans and a tee, and it continues to be for all of these reasons.
GIVE US YOUR TOP TIP FOR BUYING A PAIR OF JEANS?
I would always start with the wash – and even with the same wash in store every jean will look different – so don’t just look at one pair. The laundry process is all hand made so each jean will be unique. Once you’ve found this try on three different sizes, because although the fit is specified, it is how you want to wear them that makes jeans totally personal. I wear a 33” waist for example, which is not my size at all, but I like them to look like they’re about to fall off. Other people would wear the same jeans pulled up to the ribs with a big belt or skin tight. Always buy good skinny jeans a size smaller, there is stretch in the garments for a reason, use it! Jeans are yours, they are a garment for the individual.
WHAT IS YOUR STANDOUT DENIM MOMENT IN HISTORY?
It wasn’t necessarily a single moment, more a slow transition. When I first got moved to denim at my old job, I soon handed in my notice. I thought jeans were dull – all I saw was a sea of indigo and I definitely didn’t want to swim. They told me to give it nine months. In that time I learned about the vast world of denim: the potential versatility, the consistently new developments, as well as the wonderfully friendly and genuine denim community. I did a 180 as they say. I also remember the time a pair of my jeans hit the one million mark in sales… that was pretty monumental for me.
See the whole story here.
photo: Thurstan Redding