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How Scandinavian denim brand Nudie set the benchmark for sustainable jeans

Photography By Nudie Jeans

“When we started Nudie Jeans in 2001 we had decided that an awareness of the environment and human rights would permeate everything we did,” writes Maria Erixon in Start Your Own Fucking Brand, the book she wrote tracing the “backstage story” of the brand she co-founded with Joakim Levin.

“At the time we were virtually alone in building a company based on such keenly present core values.”

For those of us who still feel like “sustainability” is in its infancy, a niche way of doing business that is only now gaining mainstream traction, it’s amazing to think Nudie Jeans started having these conversations 20 years ago. The Swedish-born brand was one of the original outliers of sustainable denim and from inception turned the “pursuit of doing the opposite” into their raison d’être.

Nudie is now a global leader in denim design and manufacture and over the last 15 years have cemented themselves in the international market, including in Australia. It’s the reason I found myself driving to Zetland in Sydney’s inner-eastern suburbs one Friday morning, en route to meet Bryce Alton, the CEO and distributor for Nudie Jeans Australasia.

Alton emerges from behind a heavy black door dressed in a long-sleeve plaid shirt, faded black Nudie Jeans, high white socks and leopard print Vans. Reading Erixon’s book later in the week, I would be reminded of this first impression: “Throughout the years, whenever interviewers ask Joakim what defines Nudie Jeans, he answers: Nudie Jeans is both eco-OK and rock’n’roll. It’s both fashion and so in-your-face it’s not fashion…it’s both excellence in operations and damn rock slackers — all of Nudie is a huge damn paradox.” (Erixon’s summation is much simpler: “Nudie is, above all, alternative left meets Milton Friedman.”)

We start with a brief tour of the headquarters, an industrial building that has been converted to include a distribution warehouse, retail storefront, repairs shop, showroom and offices. Settling upstairs in an open space that (pre-COVID) might’ve been a showroom, one of the first things I ask Alton is what he’d like a new customer to know about the brand and their products.

“I think it’s super important that people understand where their money is going,” Alton replies. “First of all, the product is being sustainably made, using organic cotton.”

A decade after launching, Nudie Jeans reached its goal of making all denim products from 100 per cent organic cotton. Cotton accounts for 94 per cent of the fibres used in Nudie’s garments and they’ve recently begun exploring the use of new sustainable fabrics and fibres. “Like TENCEL Lyocell,” Alton says, reaching for a shirt hanging on a nearby rack. “This fabric is apparently the most sustainable man-made cellulosic fibre in the world right now.”

Purchasing a pair of Nudie jeans also comes with a lifetime guarantee. “We offer free repairs forever, so you get longevity out of the product,” Alton continues. Nudie Jeans repaired 45,900 jeans globally in 2020. In 2019, Alton says they repaired 14,000 jeans in Australia alone. “Then it’s a valuable piece of clothing at the end because you can trade it in and get 20 per cent off a new pair.” If the garment is still in good quality, it will be resold. If it’s beyond repair or reuse, then the raw materials are recycled into other products, like garments for the Rebirth range.

Alton stops to pick up a thick grey blanket hanging on the back of a leather settee. “I think I mentioned the rug. Can you see the orange threads from the Nudie Jeans? There’s like four pairs of jeans in one blanket.” Made from post-consumer jeans, recycled polyester and wool waste from the shearing floor, The Ture NJ X Waverly Mills Recycled blanket is but one example of the brand’s commitment to closed-loop production.

Nudie Jeans

Nudie Jeans

We head downstairs to the storefront where customers bring their jeans for repairs. Alton’s office is positioned directly above with a floor to ceiling window looking out over the car park, “I can see customers pulling in and bringing their jeans in for repairs every day,” he says.

It’s a beautiful space, but I had originally planned to meet Alton at the Paddington Nudie Jeans shop, which was the brand’s first international store. “You could feel the energy in the Paddington store back in 2004 when we opened it…[the jeans were] a different aesthetic back then but it just spiralled into a cult following,” Alton says. “We opened the second store in the world in Melbourne a year after that…15 years later we have eight stores in Australia.”

Alton began working with Nudie Jeans about a year and a half after the brand launched in Sweden. At the time, he was running a multi-brand denim store in Manly Beach with his business partner Jason Alton (also his brother) selling brands like TSUBI, G-Star, Diesel and Sass & Bide. They discovered Nudie Jeans in a catalogue that Jason brought back from a trade fair scouting new brands to add to their store. “I said yes, go, go, go,” Alton says. “We contacted Sweden and put Nudie Jeans in our store and they took over 50 per cent of our denim sales.” Six months later, the Nudie Jeans Paddington store was opened.

Towards the end of the hour, standing by the repairs bench watching Kevin work fastidiously over the back pocket of a pair of jeans, I ask Alton who Nudie Jeans see as their biggest competitors. “Maybe it’s a narrow perspective to be looking inwards all the time but never in nearly 20 years of being with this company have I been in a meeting with top management and heard another brand mentioned. We’re not comparing,” he replies.

Rather than compete, Nudie Jeans want to open up conversations; sharing their progress, how they’ve achieved their ethical goals and what they think can be implemented to see the denim industry have a better social and environmental impact moving forward. “You also can’t expect one brand to [dictate to] other denim labels,” he adds. “Instead, it’s great to have conversations about how we’re working towards the same goals [and] it’s super inspiring to see brands working together to share their wins or achievements.

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