MATS ANDERSSON of Indigofera
Joined: 12 Jan 2012
Posted: 23 Jun 2016 at 7:45pm
Mats Andersson (left) and Kari Salmela of indigofera
Over the last seven years, Swedish concern Indigofera, run by Mats Andersson, has been making inroads into the high-end denim markets of the US and western Europe.
Indigofera walks many a fine line: incorporating a vintage sensibility into their clothing line that avoids the potentially hokey or anachronistic pitfalls of straight reproduction; cutting their clothing to a modern aesthetic that still feels grounded in classic Americana; and infusing many of their offerings with a Free Rider aesthetic that never feels forced or confining.
Mats, who has been a part of the Swedish and American denim scene for decades- working at or founding several Swedish institutions, and doing a stint at LVC during the brand’s heady early days, was nice enough to sit down with me recently to discuss Indigofera’s roots and its plans for the future (which include appearing at Denimbruin 2016 this July).
R: Mats, can you tell me where you grew up, and describe the region a bit?
MA: I grew up on the southeast coast of the most southern part of Sweden. The area is called Skåne and the small town I am from is called Simrishamn. This part of Sweden looks a bit like the US state of Maine. Sweden as a whole to a degree looks something like this.
The costal area has a handful of small fishing villages with small stone houses. Houses are often painted in soft pastel yellow, pink, green, blue. Beaches are long and are simply beautiful.
The summer seasons are short, and we are lucky if we can go into the water a handfull of times every summer.
Winters are harsh, wet and windy, with blizzards that knock out normal transportation and leave lots of homes and small communities isolated for days.
Normally the army brings food and supplies if needed, and transports sick people with their bandwagons.
From my home town, the closest neighbour looking out over the water was the Soviet Union- even if we could not see their coast as it was far away. Well, not too far- a 1.5 hour flight would get you to Saint Petersburg.
I mostly spent my time outdoors for sport or for riding bikes, so I had an early appreciation for garments that stand the test of hard weather.
R: When did you start riding motorcycles, and how did that affect your life?
MA: Cars weren’t common for younger people, so the only way to get around was to have a motorcycle, as you were allowed to ride from the age of 15 years old. So it was not a cool thing even if we all where proud of our wheels. It was a necessity more than anything. Otherwise you just could not get around to friends, school, or work. Later in life I have come to appreciate riding for joy, but growing up it was mostly for practical reasons.
Petrol was not cheap, so that made you careful how you where using your bike. Today in Sweden 1 liter of gas is close to 2 USD, and a gallon would be approximately 7 USD, and I’d say nowadays petrol is cheaper than it was then then.
R: When and how did your interest in clothing start?
MA: In my late teens and early 20s, me and a couple of friends started to collect vintage garments and got into modern denim brands. At the time Sweden was half way in the east and half way in the west, so we had big dreams about the open-roads in other places in the world. Not too long after this I started to wonder if I could work with clothes and make it a life path. It probably seemed unlikely from the outside- where I grew up you either worked for the government or the fishing industry.
R: At that time was there a wide appreciation for vintage clothing, particularly American, in Sweden?
MA: I’d say that in the late ‘80s second-hand and vintage was starting to emerge. But mostly for slightly dressier clothing, not so much jeans, as they were considered to be worn out work-wear with no further value. Before the ‘80s it was hard to import stuff. It was there for sure, but many things, even jeans, were produced domestically in Sweden until the early eighties, so demand for vintage clothing from overseas was not quick to form.
R: What was your formal fist step into the garment business?
MA: I worked in a store called SOLO. They closed down this year after having been sold too many times and losing their soul on the way. At the time- the late ‘80s and first half of the '90s, it was a bit like VMC in Zürich. It was menswear, denim, and women’s wear.
We carried the best brands around at that time-Chevignon, Diesel, Levi`s, Replay etc. At that time Diesel made their “Old Glory” collection and Replay made, for the time, amazing selvedge fabrics and did really good detailing. Far, far away from where they are now, I really need to point out.
Solo made its own jeans line, in a range of fits that were a bit influenced by the leaders in the industry at that time. This was good learning for me, and was the first time I was ever involved in production. There was a guy that already knew production that we hired and he guided us through the process. We outsold many of the bigger brands, as we made fits that the bigger brands were not ready to make yet.
So to some degree we added something.
R: Where did you go after leaving Solo?
MA: I started working for Levi`s in 1997 as a sales rep. I had been a buyer at SOLO and had good connections with Levi’s. They were looking to expand their European sales, and in me I hope and think they saw both a person that loved denim and that had a business eye. Who knows, but I applied and got the job.
Around 1999 Levi’s started a team of “Image account managers” across Europe to bring it to market, and I was chosen for the Northern market. Eventually I took over as Commercial Director of the "Image account managers” (titles, eh?) and worked heavily with LVC and Levi’s Red overseeing sales and marketing.
I think there were 5 of us at the time covering the EU. So I got to see LVC and Red from the beginning and was a part of the development for 5 years.
R: How was working with the newly launched LVC line?
MA: I really got behind the emerging LVC. The early days were quite interesting and there were a bunch of clever people who worked in the team at the time- designers, production and sales people. It all was 100% in all areas, it was an organization that was breathing the essence of Levi`s. Even a couple of stores were built in London, Paris, Berlin and Barcelona that carried the full line. It was for me some of the most interesting stuff I've been around.
The whole development of fabric was truly amazing. There was one fabric for each 501 version we did.
It was flying above most people's heads, and had a nerd’s perfection in all areas.
It was quite cool to see this project be allowed to run free for at least 5 years before management stuck their fingers in there.
I’m sure it would have continued been amazing if they could have carried on like the first 5 years. It would still have been the reference in the market.
R: Was there anyone else doing anything similar at the time that was readily available in Europe?
MA: Not really- what Levis was doing was truly about being a pioneer. Very few people, if any, understood what Levis where up to.
Sales where not particularly good in the beginning, but season after season, with education, it was starting to pay off.
At the end of this period, LVC was coming to be well distributed and appreciated.
But: the shrink-to-fit thing; the quirky fits and skewed legs; the sometimes heavy distressing and alteration; all these things were a nightmare to defend and make buyers understand. Today many people understand this and there are denim aficionados all over the place. But then it was a hard nut to crack sales wise.
R: Were there any stand-out collections of LVC from that period that you particularly liked?
MA: I remember the MC5 collaboration that was so amazing. But nobody knew who they where and buyers did not place big orders, if any. But I think that after that it kind of did break through, once it came in to the market. That collection made LVC much more visible in Europe.
I went to the launch in London at the 100-club to see what was left of the MC5 and the guest artists, like Lemmy from Mötorhead.
It was a great moment in my life and a highlight of my time with Levis.
R: You left LVC eventually…
MA: I had fought for some time to keep LVC production in the USA and the focus on unwashed denim, but they moved it elsewhere and focused even more on washes. It was still good, but now I guess they wanted to make it in a bigger way. This was part of the reason I quit, but also many other things happened at that time that took away the purity and direction of the brand.
R: Did you have a particular favorite model of LVC jeans that you wore? Any particular non-jean LVC piece that stood out as a favorite?
MA: There was so many I liked. I lived in the products for as long as I stayed in the company, and still was using them years after quitting Levi`s.
- I had a pair of 1937 501s with cinch and red-tab that I liked a lot. Still got them and they have been worn in nice.
Besides those I spent much time in the 1947 501.
- The boxy tees.
- Products made in MC5 collection were pretty awesome, there was a tan/cognac leatherjacket with star studs I lost…
- Still have and wear a closed front jumper that is one of my favourites.
R: Did you have plans for what to do next after leaving Levis? How did your career proceed from there?
MA: I started my distribution company, The Grocery, after quitting Levi`s.
We did the EU Edwin reboot 2004 launch in Scandinavia and the Global launch of Cheap Monday.
Cheap Monday was refreshing after all years being a puritan, and it was close friends that started the brand and asked me to handle the launch.
At the time it was a kick in the nuts on the overpriced so-called denim brands that were out there at the time, and I think we changed the industry to some degree.
Not talking about Levi`s here- there were brands trying to make it right, like Levi`s and Edwin.
R: How did Indigofera as a brand start?
MA: After doing the job for other brands and people over the years I felt ready. After nurturing that dream for many years the time was right and my confidence was there too, I guess.
The market at that time also went away from quality goods and the things I like. It was then all about new, never seen things, if it was good or bad did not seem to matter. If it was well produced did not matter anymore.
As even Levi’s at the time stopped using “Quality never goes out of style” as a moto, I started saying “Quality went out of style”. It seemed like the new generation did not get educated in what was good or bad quality. Quality was not a thing people asked for anymore. At the same time production was moving away from Europe and I think also the USA to the far east (or far south, in your part of the world).
But price, for some reason, did not change much. Customers got used to paying too much money for too little value. And that is still happening.
So looking at the market place and the personal timing and the dreams I had, in the summer of 2007 I decided it was the right time to start Indigofera. We shipped our first season out in spring ’09.
Images of Indigofera product taken at Desert & Denim by Calle Stoltz.
R: Could you tell the story of Indigofera's first produced jean?
MA: Yes- we made our dream jean and then we moved on.
Never looked back, never did it again.
It was our first ready-made product besides our first blanket.
We made it from 100 meters of Japanese denim that Nihon Menpu made for us as an experiment. It was 100% red-casted natural indigo dye. It was 16oz unwashed loom-state "shrink to prima fit" fabric.
In 2008 when we got this fabric, 16oz was pretty much unheard of. After wash and shrinkage it weighed 17-18oz. On top of that it was rope-dyed, so it wore in like a chemical indigo, but the color and the shine was out of this world compared to a chemical indigo dye. So this was a big thing. We put that fabric in to our Clint jean and added hidden rivets in the back pocket.
It retailed at 1000€ with a bad margin for us.
We put the fabric in a classic straight cut as we wanted the fabric to be the hero and something you could wear every day. Most brands at the time would have used this fabric in over-designed products, if ever.
R: In addition to The Grocery and Indigofera, you also opened Pancho & Lefty, a brick & mortar retail shop, with Mikko Engstrom (another SOLO alumni) as a partner, in 2013.
MA: At that time people had been asking me why we did not have a on-line Indigofera shop. Firstly, I have never been too much of a fan of mono-brand stores just for the sake of it. Many brands are premature doing this, and it falls flat all too often.
I have always seen myself as a person that is endorsing the whole segment or niche we are in, regardless of what brand I have been working for at the moment.
Bringing out good stuff/brands and showing people there are alternatives really get me going.
So teaming up with Mikko, who I have known since the ‘90s, and who has had a lot of experience in working with niche quality brands, came as a golden opportunity. Mikko had recently closed down his last brick & mortar project after splitting with his previous partners. We had a joint vision of what we wanted to do and on the up side we could put Indigofera in a context where we think we belong. Also contributing, bringing new brands in to the market instead of only trying to profit on Indigofera. Don`t get me wrong: we want that to, but widening the variety of brands and good products that can be found, and also making the segment more interesting, helps us to do that too.
So at Pancho & Lefty you can find Indigofera products alongside other brands that we love, like Mister Freedom, Kapital, Juniper Ridge, Freewheelers and Buzz Rickson's, among others.
R: How have the three ventures done over the years, and how do they inter-relate?
MA: The Grocery has done quite well, and has been a source or funds to finance Indigofera. As I had an infrastructure with back-office and warehouse, it was a big help for Indigofera in the beginning and still is. To have control over all processes give me some satisfaction. I am still involved to some degree in pick & pack, invoicing, warehousing and all of that. I've seen with some big brands that the people running them lose their connection with product, manufacture, and consumer. I’ve always wanted to keep that connection, so I try to keep my hands on everything.
The Grocery has worked with some interesting people over the years- Rogues Gallery, Edwin, Qwstion & Juniper Ridge to mention a couple of brands.
Some are still there and some went bust. Its been a good learning process to be involved in other peoples businesses and brands in this way.
The whole thing with starting my agency/distribution business was that I wanted to make brands that I like available to an audience.
I still want that, but to a bigger degree we do that nowadays with Pancho & Lefty.
And also making Indigofera is filling that need for finding interesting brands. No we just make it ourself if we have the idea.
R: What are your personal goals with the Indigofera?
MA: We do have a couple of tag-lines we use- “Indigofera Prima Jeans", and "Wear Well”.
These sentiments are our beacon and our everyday companions. It is also what we want to do over time.
Prima is the best tomato in the farmers market, it comes without the external bling- just a very well crafted product from seed to plant or from "Ax to Limpa” we say in Sweden. This saying encapsulates the process "from cotton plant, to ready made garment”.
We strive to cut away middle-man hands and know where the fabric is woven and how the manufacturing is done.
"Wear Well" is about wearing it and wearing it, put it to the test and use it. If it breaks, it is worth mending and it will go even further. And using good fabric makes it get old in a good way. Our things don`t last forever, but they will go a very long way with you.
I want the brand to exist in the future, I want it to live and grow. I sometimes use the analog of bringing up a child. You can not decide how big or strong this kid is going to be, but you can always give the right soil/conditions for it to grow.
Looking at it now it is growing, and we are having fun while that is happening.
R: How would you describe your design aesthetic in regards to historic period?
MA: We were looking at the time where the industry changed while creating Indigofera. Since the start of what we see as the denim industry that came to life in the mid- to late-1800s, the whole idea was to create garments that would function in your everyday life and work. That could be mining, farming or being a cowboy. The whole idea was to make garments that would be durable and have the right strength for everyday work and living. For the first 100 years it was about making lots of the same product that would function for a lot of people. The whole thing about bespoke denim is a modern take on denim. Limited edition never existed in the history of denim as long as it was made for its original purpose, as workwear.
I do find it nice and interesting that this other take on workwear exists today, but the purpose of making the product originally was to do business in a segment that craved durable clothing.
That changed the 1960s. And what happened is that instead of trying to make the best product long lasting and bring that to market, most or all manufacturers started chasing cost and efficiency. This has been going on ever since then. A change of mind set- instead of striving to make the best, you cut corners to save money. It of course happened in the economic upswing after World War II, with people getting more spare time and some formerly heavy manual jobs transitioning into white collar. The birth of teenager culture, etc. But ever since then, the industry has chased cheaper fabric, production, trims, construction etc.
Today jeans have gone so far away from what I consider being actual old fashioned blue jeans- I’d say we have a new product altogether and should for the customer’s sake name it differently- why not “denfash” or “rubberblues” because of all the rubber that nowadays are in the stretch pants?
Considering this, we end up with our big influences being 1970s and earlier. We have been digging the deepest in the '50s and '60s. I think most people that know of us recognise us for this.
But we do go back in history for inspiration. We have done garments inspired by stuff from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
It is a rich history and we don`t want to limit ourselves.
Norris shirt (top) and natural indigo Grant denim jacket from recent seasons.
R: The fabrics you source for your garments are usually quite interesting. Can you tell me how you source them and what qualities you look for?
MA: All of our denim fabrics were made by us in collaboration with the mills when we started. But we have later also brought in fabric that mills are already making. If they have what we are looking for its no use remaking it ourselves! There is also a financial side to this. Minimums are high to make your own weave, and turnover-time is long. That’s why so few are doing this- its the best way to go bust…
But fabric development is something we always consider part of our heart and soul. When you don`t find what you are looking for then you can dream it up and make it. Great fabric is always the start of a great garment, and that’s a part of why we do Indigofera. This is often how we start our process-find or create a great fabric then put it in to a suitable garment.
We have worked closely with some European and Japanese mills and we have by now done 40 or so (I lost count, we make 4-5 new fabrics every season) different fabrics that are uniquely ours. Some new fabrics stay in the collection for a long time. Occasionally they are seasonal. The different fabrics we develop span the range from denim, shirt flannels, canvas, leather, supima jersey (100% pima cotton), wool/cotton mix fabric for our poncho, etc.
R: have you noticed a difference in the preferences of Europeans vs Americans in denim fits and materials?
MA: I think most of what we see in the market is to some degree overlapping.
Specially the authentic/heritage side of things are very much the same all over the place to my experience.
If you move in to the brands that are less driven by that, you can see local variations more, I think.
The whole tight-fit in the USA in this segment have over the years been a divider, but we see now more of that in the EU also.
I think that it has been the US brands that have influenced the market with that aesthetic in Europe the past couple of years.
The tight fit have been so connected with the fashion scene and the brands that think of themselves as denim brands, but really it is making pants out of something that, in the best case, can be described as "denim fabric". Not jeans in my opinion. That can be debated, I know that, and I'm up for that any day...
R: I will only say that many Americans blame Europe for skinny fit. Lets agree to publicly disagree? :)
Where do you have your garments produced, and is there anything you'd like to say about manufacturing in Europe?
MA: There is a long history of making clothes in Europe, from “Spinning Jenny” the start of the modern way of production. In Europe you find the most amazing production places for premium garments. Looking at France, Italy, Portugal- there is still a premium segment producing amazing stuff.
However, mass market production is to some degree gone.
What we find in Portugal is very different to what my collegue Per Fredriksson is describing for his production country of Italy.
All the factories we are working with in Portugal are familly owned and have been going for about 50 years. All workers are local and live in the village or surroundings.
We normally deal with the owner or someone in the family. You go to the factory, have lunch, talk and get things done. We also often get to overlook the production first hand.
It can take time to convince them to work with you, but when you get it right, you can get very high quality.
We find most services we need right there- Portugal is a 100% integrated production country. If you want, you can get it all- fabric, buttons, threads, metal, production, labels, washing- all within 2 hours drive. It can be a one stop shop, a shopping mall for making clothes if you like. Not saying you can get the best in all areas, but its all there, and when we occasionally feel we need to go elsewhere for something, we do.
The other place we do production is Norway, with our blankets. Also all integrated in one valley, the sheep, the spinning and the weaving.
Doesn’t get any better than that!
Images from a recent Indigofera look book.
R: How did your production of artistically designed blankets come about?
MA: There was no plan, it came out of meeting people and being curious. Our first blanket collab was with Wes Lang. I am interested in art and had been wanting to buy a piece from him for some years. I finally had the money for it and did so. I have friends that represent him in a gallery in Copenhagen ( Gallery V1). I was going to the US at the time and my friends at the gallery told me to send an e-mail and visit him in his studio. I did so, but he happened to be in Montauk for summer holiday, but nice as he is, he invited me for a BBQ.
So I went from NY to the tip of Montauk and had a great evening and night with him his brother and girlfriend. We talked about life, music and things that are inspiring around the fire. That was that and I got home and sent him a blanket as a thank you for his hospitality. Once he got the blanket he e-mailed me and asked if we could make a blanket togeather. And we did, and that was the beginning of this most joyful ride making artist-blankets.
R: You mentioned that you and the people you grew up with rode motorcycles as a matter of practicality in Sweden- I'm sure you have noticed that motorcycles are a common visual prop for a lot of heritage brands- I know several manufacturers or retailers who use a lot of motorcycle imagery and have bikes in their shops as props- but who can't ride them. What do you think of this?
MA: I think the free-rider culture that has been around is great. I love that way of life and that way of interacting with nature and people. It is a cool thing, that is for sure a reason why people use imagery related to this in their stores, clothing, and collections. Some with more credibility, some with less, and some with none.
In the end the consumer will decide if you are the real deal or not. In one way I don`t think there are enough hardcore people to sustain the free-rider style.
So we might need some others too, besides the originators.
Some people do not dig deep, they just see and interact with the things that are eye-catching. I think it is the fashion side in this segment that people want to tap in to.
I think in some ways in this side of the industry, even if we don´t want to admit it, there are trends that come and go.
R: What type of motorcycle do you primarily ride now, and what have you had over the years?
MA: My current bike is a rebuilt Honda 500cc. Back in my younger days it was mostly Japanese or European off-road bikes. Never had a Harley… so far, I might add. I do like to ride but I’m not spending my time in the garage.
Edited by mr randal - 23 Jun 2016 at 8:57pm
Joined: 12 Jan 2012
Blankets from Indigofera's artist collection:
Edited by mr randal - 23 Jun 2016 at 9:01pm
Joined: 24 Oct 2013
Excellent stuff - Thank you Mark!!
Too much Denim - too little time...
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