Talking sustainable denim: Nudie Jeans founder interview

Couple sitting on Volvo estate car wearing Nudie Jeans

Talking sustainable denim: Nudie Jeans founder interview

I had the extreme pleasure of talking to Joakim Levin, co-founder of denim brand Nudie Jeans, the other day.

They are based in the small city of Gothenburg. Sweden’s second city joked Joakim, not quite as polished as Stockholm but with an incredible charm. I get it I told him, I’m from Manchester!

Raw, repairable denim

Nudie Jeans are famous for their raw or dry denims. This means they’re unwashed and you get to break your new pair of jeans in yourself. And you may have seen some Nudie Jeans repair shops on your travels. They’re present in 12 countries around the world from Los Angeles to London and Tokyo to Aukland, providing a free repair service for your old pair of Nudie Jeans.

If you don’t live close to a repair shop they’ll send you a free repair kit, or you can check out if their mobile repair service will be in your city soon. Pretty cool right?

So apart from producing beautiful jeans that give you a uniquely worn-in look from dry denim, and free repairs for life, what else? Well they use organic selvage denim. Knowing that your jeans are made from 100% organic cotton gives you a lot of reassurance that they’re good for the planet and good for you.

But what is selvage? Also spelled selvedge and in various other ways, this is denim produced using old fashioned shuttle looms. They work a lot slower but create finished fabric edges meaning that all of the denim can be used. Less waste and a more beautiful and vintage finish.

Transparent processes

Nudie Jeans production in Tunisia

What also makes Nudie Jeans stand out to me are their transparent processes. Take a look on their website and you can get a full list of all of their suppliers, with exact details about what they do and where they’re based. Plus they go into detail about how far down the supply chain they go in sourcing all of their fabrics. And admit where they still need to go further.

Transparency is so important in the fashion industry, and this global brand own their truth. Good On You rate them a coveted “excellent”.

And one last, and important, thing. Nudie Jeans stand for living wages (more about this below). They operate with fair-trade principles and are a proud member of the Fair Wear Foundation.

I asked Joakim why he thought there were so many sustainable fashion brands with Swedish roots. It’s true he admitted, it’s definitely a cultural thing. But more than anything it just makes sense. Create great products that people love, designed to last.

The Nudie Jeans interview

Nudie Jeans co-founder Joakim Levin

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1. Tell us about your sustainable fashion brand and what sets you apart

When we founded our brand in 2001 premium denim wasn’t really around. We focus on dry (unwashed denim) which is much more sustainable because of the reduced water and chemical use, hence also reduced water pollution.

Our basic ethos is that you buy a pair of jeans and wear them a long time. Logically they will break and need repairing, so we repair jeans for people in one of our many stores worldwide.

We’ve repaired 65,386 pairs of jeans worldwide in 2022. And when people have finished with their jeans they can send them back to us. We either mend them and sell them as Re-use Jeans or use them for patching.

We focus more on repairing. No other brand does it so much except perhaps Patagonia who do it on an industrial scale. It’s very sustainable but it’s not that complicated.

We’ve become quite famous for saying that you shouldn’t wash your jeans for the first six months! The reason for this is that with unwashed jeans, they take on the life of their owner so will get their own wear marks depending on how you wear them. The sooner you wash them the less wear marks you can get. Materials get more beautiful when they age.

And of course washing your clothes too often wears them out, people are basically washing their clothes away!

Also, when we started out, sustainability was talked about in terms of CSR (corporate social responsibility), which has always been really important to us. We were one of the first brands to make this such a big priority for our business. Environmental sustainability and ethical production is still at the core of what we do.

2. What is your background and what made you decide to start up your brand?

I founded the brand with my then wife Maria Erixon and we still run the company together.

She worked in the denim industry (JC Jeans in Sweden and then Lee Jeans) and was disillusioned and wanted to do something else. I was a drummer in a punk band. Starting a new fashion brand was like starting a new band to me!

We started it as a very small thing and got a lot of interest from a lot of retailers from day one. A third partner Palle Stenberg came in as our sales manager a bit later. He left a year ago.

Person running wearing Nudie Jeans

3. Tell us a bit about how you source your fabrics and base materials

In the beginning we sourced our products mainly from Italy. From 2008-2011 we phased out all conventionally grown cotton and moved to organic cotton. For our denim collection we achieved 100% organic cotton in in 2012 and for the rest of our collection we managed to reach 100% organic cotton in 2017). I have to say that the last 4-5% was very tough.

So, most of the cotton is Turkish. And we are now moving into regenerative organic cotton which protects soil and water health and biodiversity.

Overall we now have Italian and Turkish fabric suppliers and two Japanese denim fabric suppliers.

We are also gradually using more recycled materials. However if you use more than 15-20% recycled content you get quality problems. Recycled fibres consist of post consumer waste, plus faulty goods, plus our own post production waste.

4. Do you take into account the recyclability of your products?

Absolutely. Although you could say the repairability. In 2012 we started into retail and our retail shops are all repair shops too.

But for the products that people no longer want they can send them back to us. We will repair and re-sell them, make them into new products or use them for patching, which requires a lot of old jeans.

5. Who makes your clothes/products?

Our denim products are currently made in Italy and Tunisia. For other product groups we also work with factories in Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Turkey and India.

For us sustainability is about doing. Our local team members visits factories on a regular basis, it gives us control over what happens there. We also have external audits to make sure that they are complying with our ethical and sustainable criteria, with the likes of the Fair Wear Foundation.

With regard to the living wage, people said it couldn’t be done and we said how hard can it be? We currently pay our share of living wages to three producers in India and one in Turkey. We started working with paying our share of living wages in 2012.  

For those suppliers, such as in the EU, where collective bargaining takes place, workers can negotiate their wages. However, for those where it doesn’t, we pay a living wage top up for our portion of the work.

With suppliers it’s about trust and transparency. The key is to have very few suppliers, visit them and have a long-term relationship.

Production of Nudie Jeans in Tunisia

6. Are any animals used in the production of your products and if so how do you make sure that they are treated ethically?

This is a subject that we debate heavily! We are not a vegan brand and we do use some leather. We have leather belts, jackets and some wallets. For our leather jackets we work with a Leather Working Group Gold rated supplier in India.

We also work with wool, recycled wool and Eri silk which is harvested once the moth has left the cocoon.

However, we removed the leather patch on our jeans 10 years ago and that was very controversial, some people really wanted their patch to be leather.

Although we’re not a vegan brand we do have some vegan products. Our denims are vegan. But it’s a very very big debate for us!

7. What else makes your brand sustainable/ethical?

We don’t sell sustainability; we sell great products. They are made to be loved and kept for a long time.

8. What are the biggest challenges in operating as an ethical and sustainable fashion brand?

The hardest thing: love the prison you’ve created for yourself!

The rules we’ve created for ourselves can be very frustrating at times. For example there are a lot of fabrics that we can’t use. It can make things difficult, we have to have a lot of discipline to live within our own rules.

9. What one thing could fast fashion brands do to improve?

I honestly don’t think there is anything they can do unless they fundamentally change their business model. Some brands such as H&M here in Sweden have a lot of great initiatives to improve things in the fashion industry. But ultimately they are the problem because their entire business model is based on overconsumption.

10. What are your favourite products in your range right now and why?

The Tuff Tony snake eyes Selvage is a personal favourite. Our Tuff Tony fit is, in my humble opinion, more or less the perfect loose five pocket denim out there and the Snake eyes selvage from Kojima, Japan, ages and fades beautifully. Regarding tops, I think I’d go with our Robby nubuck jacket. Fantastic product made to age and truly gets more beautiful with time.

To get your hands on some Nudie Jeans kit, check out the link below:

Thanks so much to Joakim for taking part in this interview and we wish him and the team at Nudie Jeans many many years in business creating these fantastic sustainable, repairable and re-usable jeans!

For other articles you might be interested in, see:

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