Karl Thoennesson loves denim. His passion, or perhaps obsession, led to the founding of Rogue Territory. The brand stems from three core values – use high quality fabrics, adhere to the highest standards of manufacture, and share knowledge of denim with customers.
Thoennesson, at just 27, has fully immersed himself in denim since his arrival in Los Angeles a few short years ago. What began as a fully custom opperation has blossomed into the ready-to-wear collection that is Rogue Territory. We caught up with him to pick his brain about the transition from denim fan to denim maker.
Our Q&A after the jump.
SL: One of the core hooks to Rogue Territory is the custom program.
Karl: Yeah. There are ups and downs to custom. People are paying for a service and I’m offering a service. It iss what made me get into denim. That passion and the desire to be hands on and be involved with customers. I love that part of it.
But, when things don’t go right or don’t go the way you expect, then it messes up a lot of scheduling and the regular flow of business. It does get frustrating. It is one of those things that makes you step back and remind yourself what you love about denim and why you are in it. There are bumps along the way.
With a current customer, I’ve already made jeans for him, the issue lies in that I’m doing a custom wash. When you are doing a custom wash there are a lot of variables – shrinkage, for example, is the original fit going to altered after wash? It is a work in progress.
SL: One of the variables I wanted to ask about is fit. A custom shirt, for example, one has a pattern cut and there is discussion of how the shirt will be used to account for individual taste and movement. With denim, it seems the personal preference is occasionally less geared to the body.
Karl: People always ask, what’s the percentage of men to women as far as customers are concerned for denim? It’s essentially 99% male for custom. They are actually harder to fit than women. Men have an idea of how jeans should fit them and look good, and it is always different. Some guys like their asses to be fitted, others like that the fit be a little dumpy. Every guy has a different idea about the fullness of the leg and where the waist should hit. For women it iss really about stretch fabric, fitting the ass perfectly and legs great, and the waist band is usually low or mid-rise. It is pretty much check, check, check. With guys they either don’t know what they want or are super particular.
Especially working with denim, where some guys like pre-washed and others raw, if you have a 14-oz raw denim it is actually hard to understand what the fit will be a month into wear. The denim is so rigid it may look odd in some places off the bat, but eventually will form correctly.
SL: Are you primarily using sanforized denim when you do a raw custom?
Karl: Yeah. Most of the stuff I use comes from the bigger mills in Japan. It is all usually sanforized. The stuff that gets tricky is the stuff from Cone, because even if they say it is sanforized it tends to shrink in crazy ways. The one rule to custom is – if you are going to wash your jeans and you don’t want change, you need to dry clean. Otherwise if you wash them and your unhappy with how it looks you are S.O.L.
SL: Do you ever have customers who are really particular about where they want their denim sourced from?
Karl: There is definitely a greater knowledge base amongst my customers. I just had a customer pick up who was super particular. He ended up going with a non-selvedge 14-oz, really dark indigo from Kihara. Then there are guys looking for Japanese selvedge, but don’t really know why. I have guys that are asking for natural indigo dyed, hand woven, 15-oz, slubby, selvedge. That is a little specific for me. I can only source so much. I’m able to offer a great range of fabric from both the US and Japan, just because I am in LA and it is readily available.
SL: To step back for a second, what is your background in denim? How did you come to the business and to custom?
Karl: Up until two years ago I had no background in denim. I’m 27 years old and I graduated from a small school called Johnson & Wales with a marketing degree. Junior year of high school I got my first “premium jeans,” a pair of Diesel Jeans bought from the Diesel Style lab for $120. I thought they were the coolest thing ever. None of my friends cared why jeans should cost more than $50. I was wearing them, I bought another pair, I was really intrigued with “premium” and the price tag. I researched more. I came across Evisu and other brands. My eyes were opened to the varying degrees of denim as I got more interested in it. From there, I graduated college and I moved to San Diego to work for a small marketing firm. I was managing street teams and had to be on top of clothing trends. I was doing more research into what they were wearing and introducing what I was interested in. That sparked me in wanting to develop my interest and passion for denim.
I decided to quit the job and move to LA to try and get into the denim industry. I came across the cut out in American Rag with a sewing machine and a pair of jeans on a mannequin. I asked a sales associate about it, and they told me there was going to be a custom jean shop. They gave me the person’s phone number, I tracked them down and offered to apprentice.
Basically, I came on as an apprentice for two months and learned to draft patterns, fit people, and source fabric. The guys investors didn’t want to put more money into the business and he had to close his doors. I came to a point and decided to contact American rag and offered to do all their tailoring in exchange for doing business in the denim bar. That’s how its gone for the last two years. They are very supportive in allowing me to do my custom work and supporting my ready made collection. I’ve been learning along the way.
My first customer at American Rag was a 50-year old women who wanted a very specific style in a non-stretch fabric. She was really curvy, and I had to learn really quickly how to do things on my own. What drove me is the idea of educating the consumer. That really turns me on – learning about a fabric and passing the information to my customers. They get really excited about it. They really, especially men, like to have that information. If they don’t have the information, they can’t tell others or justify why they are spending money.
SL: I think that plays well into what interests me about Rogue Territory. One, the inspirations from American workwear and two, the heritage of the denim industry in Southern California.
Karl: Until I moved here and started my apprenticeship, I had no idea the scope of the LA denim scene. It’s amazing how you can go from downtown out in any direction for 15 miles and there will be someone that has laundry or manufacturing or a distribution center for the denim industry. It is no huge surprise because the Port of Long Beach is a huge port, but it is still amazing. You don’t have the same scale in New York. It is really inspiring and also daunting, because you know you are a small fish in a big pound. You have to network and meet with the right people.
As far as workwear is concerned, it was a natural progression to go from custom to producing a ready to wear line. The shirts were a bit out of my element. But, I felt if I was making jeans I would have to represent my business and should wear some nice shirts in the mix. As far as denim is concerned, it is strictly raw for now.
With workwear, I was more attracted to the manufacturing at the turn of the century and interested in the quality of the pieces. The details reflect an understanding of how to make the most long lasting garments. Stuff like that turned me on. It just happened to be workwear that displayed the details in a way that spoke to me. On an everyday basis, I wear jeans and a white t-shirt and Gazelles. I don’t wear boots everyday. I’m not super tied to the workwear image, more to the part that denim has played in the evolution of fashion from workwear. Moving forward when I design, I’m not going to do a choir coat or a denim coat. That stuff is cool, but I wouldn’t wear that. I’m doing more what I would wear and what I think others want. When I designed the trouser, I really just wanted a trouser for myself and have it be anti-fit. It just turned out to look workwear inspired, and I was getting a good response. It kind of progressed from there.
I guess that’s why I don’t call Rogue Territory a work wear brand. It was created out of my passion for denim and not necessarily for the fashion that is denim, if that makes sense. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think to myself “what can I do to make these jeans better,” and it might be something as silly as changing the SPI (stitches per inch) on the single needle stitch on the inseam or the waistband or changing the width of the belt loops. Things like that get me excited. I get inspired not necessarily by the fashion, but by the function and the attention to details the smaller the better. When people ask me how they should care for their jeans I say wear them, play in them and beat the crap out of them, they’re jeans that’s what they’re made for. The funny thing is, in the last 3 years I haven’t worn a single pair of jeans for more than 3 months straight. I just always want to create something new and add or modify some little detail. I guess that’s ironic.
As far as the near future is concerned for Rogue Territory, I’m really working on building strong relationships with a few stores. Having a tight knit group of people that share my passion and are excited to be a part of developing the brand over the next few years is really important to me. My plan for Rogue Territory is to keep the line small and manageable for now. I just released a lower price point slim straight and am planning on introducing a new style that will be a true straight leg. That’ll be it for awhile. Of course there’s always room for some small scale production pieces, limited offerings and a unique style thrown in the mix from time to time but as far as expanding my line I’d like to keep it small so I can hold to my core values and grow organically.