The global denim business is a $100 billion dollar industry and is a staple in our wardrobe. We had the chance to talk with Andrew Olah and his daughter Emily Olah, who are luminaries in their industry. Together with their team, they run a series of businesses that further the denim industy from Olah, Kingpins (which we attended earlier this summer) and Denim Days. We sat down to find out about the upcoming Denim Days taking place this fall.
ATHLEISURE MAG: We enjoyed checking out Kingpins and are looking forward to Denim Days in NYC this fall. We look forward to being media partners this year. Tell us about your backgrounds and how it led to where you are now.
ANDREW OLAH: Well we’re really excited to talk with you about Denim Days! Let me share a little about me first. I’m second generation in the textile sales business so early on I kind of changed it and switched to denim. We’re from Canada and we used to do every kind of fabric.
I grew up in jeans and in the 60’s, jeans weren’t so accessible and they didn’t have any connotation of any kind of social position. In my culture they did, but not in the rest of the world. I couldn’t wear my jeans - some schools wouldn’t allow you to wear them etc. So it’s all I wore and when I got to represent companies that made denim or corduroy I loved it because I knew that I could wear it – how could you not wear what you were selling? Even in the denim industry back in '97 when I was thinking of moving to NYC, I had to think about it because I would have had to wear a suit.
Eventually, we moved the business to fabrics in denim. I worked for the first denim mill ever outside of the United States which was a really lucky job. It was an Italian company – the Italians impacted the denim industry really really early on being the first ones to use denim in non-traditional shapes. In the American history of denim if you look at vintage pictures, it’s all workwear related and very traditional styles.
The Italians were the first ones to say, let’s make a sexy top, a sexy dress etc. I don’t know if you have ever heard of a company called Fiorucci that’s what they did – fashion tops and fashion bottoms in weird shapes. No one had ever heard of that or thought of it in America really. Obviously there were no fabrics in the United States to do that and when people were sourcing they realized it was cheaper for them to make that shirt outside of the US and to do it in Asia so this started to happen there and this started the denim industry in Asia. The Italians impacted the industry because they enlarged what was seen as a jeans industry by the shapes and the sizes and by women's wear.
The second job that I got was to work with a Japanese company. Again, the Japanese have a huge impact on the jean industry globally – I’m talking about global business and not just American. So the Japanese recreated vintage. Their emulation of vintage was better than the original vintage. It’s like someone copying a Mustang from ’65 and making it 10 times better than the original one and yet looking the same – that’s kind of what they did. They’re obsessed with the components and application so their obsessions make them uncompetitive. They have their own cache. So the company moved to NY in ’98 and we wanted to meet customers and we already had 20-30 customers but we wanted 70 so we started Kingpins as a tradeshow because we wanted to meet more customers and have them come in, hand out their business cards and say hello. When we first stated in the beginning, we used to do personal introductions to everybody because the shows were small.
Kingpins started in 2004 and we never even charged anyone for it, it was just a party and we did it for 2 or 3 years, until 2007 when the recession hit, and we switched the business model to being for profit and now Kingpins is the largest tradeshow in the industry for supply chain – not to boast and quite accidently. It was never our aspiration but it just happened. Our Amsterdam show is really really huge.
AM: And why Amsterdam?
AO: We picked Amsterdam because the community in Amsterdam loves jeans. The late mayor of Amsterdam was a believer in jeans and he felt it was the business for his city. They did a study and they found that Amsterdam had more jean brands per capita than any other city in the world. Which is easy when you have a population of 700,000 – a little more difficult if you’re a city like Tokyo, Istanbul, Sao Paulo* or LA even. That was their mantra and the fact is the fact that that is their business in Amsterdam. They have a lot of brands there and they made it their business to celebrate that to go with what was working for them and to try to get brands in this vertical to move there because they have an industry. They have the culture there and the population loves it there!
Do you ever notice that when we’re there people wear more denim there then here?
EMILY OLAH: Oh yeah 100%.
AO: It’s kind of weird because we’re jeans people and you go there and everyone is wearing jeans. Even in hotels the people working in the hotels and the restaurants - even the uniforms are jeans or denim! It's kind of weird whe you first see it. When we first went there, we stayed in this brand new boutique hotel and ever since people wore jeans and even their aprons were denim!
But anyway, we decided to do it in Amsterdam and there was also the issue of the House of Denim – have you heard of that?
AO: Over the course of my career, of 40+ years I was frustrated that there wasn't a school for those in the denim trade. We all got jobs and we had to just learn o the job, but there ws no place to learn outside of that.
I have produced a class on jeans for 14 years at FIT which is known as the Capstone Course and they're preparing for their 5th year anniversary. Recently it was announced that there would be a New Jean School in Milan - so this is the start of a big difference in our industry as we grow up!
Now the House of Denim in Amsterdam started the first jeans school in 2012. They're also planning on putting a laundry in the city so that people can wash their jeans.
So in doing our supply chain tradeshow Kingpins there, they said that they wated to do a festival known as Denim Days which led us to doing it there.
What we didn't realize was how many people all over Europe and Turkey and other countries liked Amsterdam and loved shopping there. They loved going there and being their for inspiration. It was an amazing decision.
AM: So Emily, before we delve into Denim Days, how did you get into the denim industry?
EO: I went to college for biology. I was not a good student so I went and had various jobs. One day I got a phone call from my father and his friend – they were in a taxi. He said I needed to go to Portugal and learn the business with our family friend. I had to get my life together, learn Portuguese in 6 weeks if I was serious. I said yes. I packed up my life, learned Portuguese in 6 weeks (I went to language school 4-5 days a week) and moved there about 6-8 weeks after.
I worked in a garment factory and worked in our friend’s shirt factory. I worked in every department learning each component of it together through it’s complete process. I had to make a garment where the pattern was made by me, sewn by me, finished by me and it had to be approved before I could work from the office.
AO: They wouldn’t let her out of the factory until it was approved.
EO: I was failed like 20 times. I sewed my finger, it was like your sleeve is a centimeter shorter then the other sleeve, try again So I eventually passed my production sewing job and I started
working in the office.
AO: Who were your customers?
EO: My customers were Paper Denim, Burton Snowboards, AG and Marc Jacobs. So I had the American market and the factory that I worked for was a boutique factory so we did small runs. We did all kinds of products and not just shirts – it was shoes, bags, sweaters etc. In Portugal, all of the factories around us did small run production so I would just have to drive in a 50km radius to go to factories that did any kind of production. And then when I was ready to leave from Portugal I had been working with Rogan for awhile and got an internship with them here in NY.
AO: At that time, he was one of the most renowned designers in the industry.
EO: He was growing his business really quickly and there was this small staff of like 6 people when I went there as an intern. They had me running to midtown to check on their garment factory and whether their production was going ok and in 2 weeks they were like, “we have this new brand and we want you to run it.” I was like, “really ok”. They said, “it’s a really big opportunity, we’re going to do jeans and t-shirts. Production is already set you just have to deliver the goods.”
AO: And that was Loomstate.
AM: Oooo we love Loomstate wow!
EO: I did all of the product development and the production. Jared who works here now, also worked there and developed the sales. That’s how I got started in the business.
AM: Wow everyone loved their jeans and the shirts were great! So how did you make your way here?
EO: So I worked for several brands in the premium area on the production side. I eventually moved to LA because a lot of them were there and I wanted to come to NY. I had an opportunity to work for the factory that I stated with and that brought me back to NY and I worked out of the Olah office. That’s sort of the beginning.
AO: A few key things happened that led to her being at the Olah umbrella. We never hired her.
EO: Yeah his business partner hired me.
AO: True, what happened was she was working with AG and Rock and Republic and then she moved back to NY to work with the Portuguese guy that she started with and we paid her salary because they weren’t going to pay her enough so we said there are things to do around the office and she had her own world and it had nothing to do with me so I thought that that was cool. Then he and I had some issues and the relationship got funky and one day when the relationship ended, she had no job, but was in our office. So we tried to see what she could do to justify her being her.
My partner kept telling me that she was really smart and I was glad to hear that, but I didn’t think about it.
EO: And now 11 years later, here I am haha.
AM: So what do you do here?
EO: So our business is segmented into 3 areas and I straddle all 3 in an operational way, but I spend most of my time in the events world like Kingpins and Denim Days.
AM: So how will Denim Days this year be different then Denim Days last year?
AO: One thing that we will do which is different is that we are changing the speaking. We had people speak last time. The day before we did Legends. But this year we will have something everyday on Sat and Sun all day long so the speaker element will be amazing.
EO: Right like speakers and workshops that will be engaging to the consumers that come in and it won’t be on a separate day. Quite honestly, our Legends last year were a bit more B2B. The access to the attendees will be a lot greater this year.
AO: If you come in and feel what’s going on, it will all be in one big room. It’s going to be much better this year!
EO: I think 2019 will be a big evolution because we are going to move Denim Days to be the same week as Kingpins so it allows us to have denim events for 6 days in a row as opposed to being segregated.
AO: Then it will be a proper festival because it will be 6 days in a row with B2B and B2C.
EO: It will be a lot more dynamic that way and will engage a lot more people.
AM: What made you want to introduce Nashville to Denim Days?
AO: They asked us. But they have started the Nashville Fashion Alliance* and the NFA people are nice and their arguments for the fashion industry to move there to me is compelling. They remind me a lot of Amsterdam.
EO: Yeah their local government is very similar to Amsterdam.
AO: Yes you have access to the mayor, the Senate, Senators, the governor – there is a whole level of community. When you have academia, politics and commerce mix, it’s like the perfect moment. It’s like nirvana – it doesn’t happen here, but when it happens, everyone is on the same page. All the people are not competitors you’re doing the same thing and it becomes a community. Amsterdam has nailed it – accidently – but they are in this status and if they don’t screw it up, it’s brilliant. Nashville sees it and is trying to create it and I believe that they will. Then they have the music industry and so when they came to us, we said yes. They said they would help us with the media. Little cities in many ways are the future. So it’s interesting for us.
AM: So what trends are you seeing in denim that we should keep an eye out for fall of this year and more specifically for Spring 19?
EO: It’s about fiber and performance.
AO: The biggest thing – everyone wants something special. In the old days, if you wanted something special it was about having the Jordache name on it and that was something special.
EO: And that was enough.
AO: I remember I had a friend telling one of the Hilfigers at the time that they should just sell their label at the checkout counter because you have all the same jeans. So Polo could be $5 for the label and Tommy could be $6 and this one is $10 and Levi’s could be $3 and you just stick it on because it’s all the same stuff. That’s the history of the jeans business.
Exceptional jeans products right now – I think that everyone makes exceptional jeans products so then the issue is what is the company like. Everlane has done really really well with jeans and they’re not a jeans brand – but they have done well. It’s about the company and what’s
inside it and most of all how it fits and performance. Performance is everything and that means that you have to step out and find new ways of doing things.
EO: I completely agree. People know more about the product and want to know more about it. They have to have a reason for its existence and it just can’t be another piece that’s lined up
on the shelf. Something in it that’s different than something else and that’s outstanding.
AO: Like, when you go to Selfridge’s. The jeans shop is huge and there isn’t one sign but the brand name – what is that? That is like having this table with bananas and then saying, which one do you want? This one is $105, this one is $98, this one is made in LA – I mean really? They’re bananas!
AM: Just so our readers are clear, in addition to having your tradeshow within the supply chain - Kingpins as well as a festival denim show - Denim Days; you also work with brands that want to become denim brands?
AO: Yes, we have 3 actual business models. In addition to the shows, we develop fabric and then we sell the fabric. That division would help small brands that we believe in. Scott Morrison he was doing Paper Denim – we helped him with that. We’re happy to help those that are looking to get into the business - to a point. You can give someone food, but you can’t help them chew it!
PHOTOS COURTESY | Olah Inc.