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A brief history of Amsterdam as a denim capital

A letter from James Veenhoff, co-founder House of Denim Foundation

12,5 years of House of Denim, 10 years of Jean School, 7,5 years of Denim City.

OK, Something has to change. And why not start in Amsterdam?

This is a summary of a discussion between Mariette Hoitink and myself, James Veenhoff, in 2008. We were part of the booming Dutch denim scene, that had grown out of almost nowhere since Gstar and Pepe Jeans had laid its basis in the late 90's. Everything was going great. Except obviously it wasn't; not from an environmental perspective.

If US brands like Levi's, Lee and Wrangler had founded the denim industry, and Italian labels like Diesel & Replay had taken over their lead in the 90's... Amsterdam had taken over since the 00's. Home to brands like Gstar and Pepe Jeans, but also premium players like Evisu, Blue Blood, Denham and sustainable innovators such as Kuyichi, Kings of Indigo and MUD, to name just a few, Amsterdam is generally considered to be the (at least European) Capital of Denim, especially now it is also home to global powerhouses Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.

But back in 2008, there were just a bunch of ambitious brands... and then came the extremely alarming, impossible to ignore reports of pollution and devastation caused by our industry from the likes of Greenpeace and other NGO's. Reports and articles had raised the topic of sustainability before, but 2008 was a turning point for many professionals. So something had to change, and we couldn't find any excuses not to start in Amsterdam. We started talking to our friends, colleagues, bosses. One thing came from another and on January 10th, 2010 we brought together a crazy mix of designers, teachers, government people, marketing, manufacturing and ngo experts at an offsite venue of Amsterdam Fashion Week.

The question we set out to answer was: how might we save the (denim) world? More collaboration, more research & development, new enterprise and networking... and a new school to train a generation of talent trained in craftsmanship and sustainability. We started dreaming of ways to put Amsterdam's booming denim scene in the driver's seat of transition, rather than ngos and government. We conceived a cool building, where innovation and enterprise could cross-inspire each other. Where students and experts could mingle, and importantly: where the transition to sustainable practice could be cool, fun, rock&roll (and not just a bunch of serious meetings).

House of Denim Foundation

In spring of 2010 saw the launch of our organisation: the House of Denim Foundation. On a mission towards a brighter blue (brighter, get it? dryer, cleaner, smarter, fairer etc), we will Advocate the Good, Collaborate for the Better and Educate the Best.

Having talked the talk we couldn't really sit around without also walking the walk. So off we went, presenting to everyone we could find. Work time, evenings, weekends, holidays. Berlin, Milano, Valencia, Istanbul, Izmir, Mumbai, Tokyo, Osaka, Hongkong. Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro. Sounds super glamorous, but in fact it was totally unglamorous. Hustling favors, hitching rides, blagging meetings. We must have presented over 100 times; this sounds like a start up, but without the millions and pizzas. What have you been smoking? If you want a job, just ask. You will never make any money, dude. Collaborate? With the guys from xxx... you're joking, right? This was just some of the wonderful feedback we got on our travels. But as soon as they had dismissed us as nutcases, most people were also excited. Excited at the prospect of a collaborative step forwards. Of a school inspired by the Fame Academy on TV, where bad-ass new colleagues would be trained and inspired by the industry's greatest.

students of Jean School during Denim Days

Jean School

As we felt momentum growing, we decided to start with the part of our plan which inspired us the most: the JEAN SCHOOL. To our astonishment, there wasn't one yet. Not here in Holland, but not anywhere else either! An industry that turns over an estimated one hundred billion dollars a year... and no school. So we called our contacts over at ROC van Amsterdam, who take care of all the best professional training courses and they (Mira Copini, Mirjam Riethof: we love you) instantly said: Let's do this. How do you start a school? Nobody knew, so we did a pilot programme: 20 students, 2 teachers, 10 weeks. Every week saw a different project, challenge, guest lecture and/or site visit. Denham the Jeanmaker, Gstar Raw, Levis Vintage, Tommy Hilfiger and many other teams took part. The energy was electric, the vibe was great. We looked at each other and said: that's it, now we have to do it.

So with the support of local government, key roc people and a bunch of industry heroes we developed a curriculum and opened a totally cool new school. In the summer of 2012, just before we opened, the New York Times ran an article about us 'Jean Genies - Amsterdam is Europe's new Denim Capital', featuring a picture of industry icon Miles Johnson (of Levis Vintage) surrounded by admiring students, mid-lecture. BAM; in one swoop, the entire denim world knew what was happening. Within a few years, Jean School was rated among the world's best 100 fashion schools, exciting even more professionals to contribute to lectures and attracting students from all around the world (India, Australia, South Africa, Switzerland) to our humble little school.

The first Jeans School students

But however happy we were about the school's energy and success, we still couldn't sleep. Were we really changing the industry? Were we really connecting and inspiring the industry to move towards sustainability? Not yet, not really. So in a bold and decisive move, we asked the Mayor for help. At the invitation of the great, sadly late Eberhard van der Laan, the most important people from Amsterdam's denim scene came for breakfast at the mayor's residence. For the first time ever, our industry's leaders sat at the same table and collaboratively decided to go for it. Our wish list: an international denim school, a knowledge center for denim & sustainability and a world-leading trade show, all in Amsterdam. So there we had it: a clear assignment and backing to pursue our dreams. Denim City

At that time I lived on Bilderdijkkade, one block down from the Tramworks that had stopped working in 1996. Leaking roofs, broken glass, mice, pigeons, rusty steel and cracked concrete: a hidden gem waiting to be polished. Every day Mariette and I cycled past, our conviction grew stronger: this would be Denim City.

Denim City in Amsterdam

With a stroke of luck, deputy mayor Caroline Gehrels introduced us to visionary architect Andre van Stigt and his team, who embraced our concept of education, craftsmanship, sustainability and was probably as crazy as we were. We became a magnet for other 'crazy' believers, like the Candiani and Jeanologia family companies, the people behind fashion retailer C&A and textile innovator 'extraordinaire' Fuat Gozacan. Together, we embarked on a crazy adventure, tap-dancing for money and surviving the 1000's of mind-numbingly detailed meetings that are the reality of realising your dreams.

opening of Denim City Amsterdam

Our facility, featuring classrooms, workshops, showrooms, meeting facilities, an archive and a fully functioning sustainable industrial laundry were realised and opened, with support from all leading players in the industry and government, in 2015. It was a great honour that Mayor van der Laan opened our facility in person, bringing his unforgettable sense of humor, importance and pride to make the day unforgettable.

students at work in Denim City

Denim City is our community's clubhouse, town hall and church. It's where we speak the blue gospel and make plans for the future. Where leaders come together and students come to learn. Where coalitions are made (like the denim deal) and collaboratively, we raise the bar and clean up our game.

Kingpins trade show


Alerted to our existence by the article in the New York Times, kindred spirit and denim industry connector/visionary Andrew Olah decided to organise his Kingpins trade event in Amsterdam, just as we were in the final stages of realising Denim City. Since 2014 - with a short hiatus due to COVID - Kingpins has brought the denim industry's avant garde to Amsterdam twice a year. Mills, laundries, brands, designers, developers, media : everyone now knows that Amsterdam is the place to be and the transition to a cleaner industry is the topic for discussion. There is no trade event like Kingpins: it's like a family reunion, buzzing kasbah and united nations all thrown into 1. It couldn't have come to a better place at a better time, than Amsterdam in ours.

Let's Dance, Amsterdam

Turbo-charged by cool consumer-and-professionals-facing events like Denim Days, the denim & progress festival, Global Denim Awards, legendary store parties at Tenue de Nimes and other brand-organised events, Amsterdam's denim ecosystem is growing from strength to strength.

Global Denim Awards

Generally quite down to earth, hard-working and humble, denim people aren't really ones to brag or ask for attention. But this week, for once, I DO want to.

I want to ask for attention and I want to brag. I want to tell everyone about the amazing industry that denim is. Because this week, we celebrate, recognise and thank.

We celebrate 10 years of Jean School We celebrate 7,5 years of Denim City And 12,5 years of collaboration for a cleaner industry under the flag of House of Denim.

Lets collaborate to change our industry for the better. Let's be an example to other industries Let's create beauty and kick ass. And just for a few days in this crazy world, despite everything: Lets DANCE.

James Veenhoff

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