Love Your Workwear
We recently caught up with the head of European Dickies, Juergen Alker, at Dickies Hamburg HQ for an interview about the brands heritage, their collaborations, projects and why they didn't have an archive until two years ago.
So what happens to heritage now? It's been a busy year for the word, nearly every blog post, magazine article and press release mentions the H word at least once. The New York Times put it into it's most overused fashion words list which, seeing as NYT aren't usually first on the fashion pulse, is really saying something. So, the question remains, where do we go from here?
That's not a question Dickies ask themselves. They see themselves as a workwear brand and always have. And, more importantly, they see workwear as it is - light years away from fashion or lifestyle brands. Up until a few years ago, they didn't even have an archive. "Their archive was a cellar in a school building they owned" says Juergen Alker, who runs the streetwear wing of Dickies. "Down there was almost nothing, just a few items. It was just like a normal old cellar - pretty spooky actually. Now they've started a real archive and they're buying back pieces from Ebay and looking around vintage markets in order to get a little more history back to the company. When it was being made no one was thinking that they might need it in the future. We just do workwear, things change over time and you develop new stuff and you just don't think you might need it again."
They belatedly started their own archive and since then the European wing of Dickies, based in Hamburg, have been taking inspiration from Dickies archive rather than creating new products. "We don't really design anymore, we just take pieces and twist them a little bit".
While the Japanese wing of Dickies have taken a decidedly more high end approach to collaboration, working with the likes of Neighborhood amongst others, the European team have been slightly more low key, working with Stussy, Hideout, and Rebel 8 for collaborations. How did the US wing feel about these collaborations? "I showed the Hideout collaboration to our owners a few weeks ago. It was a very quality product at a fair price, That's what he liked about it. And that's what Dickies is about. Dickies was never about £300 shirts and it will never be, so that's why he really liked".
The Hideout collaboration has been a success and, as collaborations go, it's how it should be - low key and focused on creating products that you'll wear repeatedly as opposed to creating super clothes. Was the fact that Dickies already had access to great factories a helping factor in getting the product so well done?
"Sort of" replies Juergen. "We lost a little bit of that knowledge in recent years. Things needed to be cheaper for a long time and that led to poorer quality. Now Dickies recognise that just being cheaper is not the way to deliver quality. So on this project we needed to find a new shirt company to do the shirts for us. It took pretty long, we've been working on that almost two years, from first meeting till it was out. But we needed to get it right. It was difficult to get all the fabric, and stitching done for the right price, but it's worth the time. Rebel 8 took two and a half years because we had no factories for printing [The rebel 8 collaboration features a pair of trousers with a print on the inside]. We'd never done any sort of print before so we always learn new things when working with people."
And, seeing as the US wing are so traditional that they didn't even think of creating an archive until a few years ago, we have to wonder if they understand the streetwear side of things? "They don't understand everything but they say 'they don't need to, thats what we have you for'. They don't know Jason Jules and Michael Koppleman are because they're not in this industry, they're in the workwear business. They say 'you run the streetwear business, it looks good what you do'. They try to understand it, but they're open minded. They look at it and say, 'that looks good'. They saw pictures of the book launch and saw the hard work and dedication that went in there but they never heard of the people involved. They see that these are very passionate people towards Dickies and they try to understand but they don't always get it. But they're an open minded and fair company. They give me a lot of freedom and I pass that freedom onto whoever I work with. And that relationship works for everyone."
Juergen himself is rather entrepreneurial, launching a smoothie brand from his living room and launching Alkr, his self named accessories brand. Prior to this he worked in an advertising agency as a client-facing consultant, something he found tiresome and, eventually, led to him becoming interested in a more immediate way of working. "I used to have these meetings that would go on for with clients. So I had the client in front of me and they'd say 'oh no, you need to make the logo bigger' or something else relatively unimportant. I had meetings for hours discussing tiny things. We can talk about taste, typography or taking a picture differently but I'm not a photographer, so why should I argue about photography? Let the others do what they can. I suppose my little own brand is very entrepreneurial because I started my own brand, a little business outside of Dickies."
That little business outside of Dickies is Alkr, the accessories brand he runs from his home. But what initially led to the creation of Alkr was another brand he launched. He launched Hej!, a smoothie company, from his home in 2006. He visited London and saw Innocent smoothies, noticing that there was a gap in Germany for a similar type of product. So he went home, bought a smoothie maker, made the smoothies himself, packaged them and personally delivered them to local delicatessens. He eventually grew the brand to the point where the CEO of innocent smoothies contacted him to find out more about the brand. And all this for something he launched as an experiment. It's this willingness to experiment that led to projects like the 'Love your work' project, which launched a few months ago.
A cross between a magazine and a book, it launched with an exhibition in London a few months back. "If we'd done that two years ago, no one would've showed up" says Juergen. "We've already requested if we could do the exhibition in other places in Europe, but we don't want to overdo it. Plus, a lot of people did it just for the dedication and passion for Dickies. So we don't want to exploit them and make it totally commercial when they didn't get any money out of it. It was more for some clothes and goodwill than, 'ok you're a model, you get a lot of payment' so this exhibition was intended as a big thank you. I wanted to have something where you can have everyone, they get a few drinks, they can invite their friends and they can look at what they've done. But it was not intended as a roadshow, we just wanted to say thank you without standing there and having a big speech."
They're also leaving the door open for any future projects, but not saying much more, "We called it love your work project one, so there could be a 'love your work' project two, three, four. There will be next year for sure, but we don't know how it's going to look like. We didn't call it issue 01, because then people would expect issue 2 but it might be something totally different. It could an exhibition only, it could be an event, who knows."
So what about the collaborations? "The thing about these collaborations is that if we do them, we should do them on a longer term. Just do something with the right brands on a long term basis." So they'll be more hideout collaborations? "Yeah, could be. We're thinking about that, it would be logical. Because it's selling good, it's perfect for dickies, Michael likes it. So it helps us as a brand to learn, to elevate things we learnt a lot from it. Dickies was never interested in being the cool brand. Which is why I think that's why so many people like it, because they never tried to exploit it. If you'd been a celebrity and tried to get a pair for free, they'd just tell them to go to Wall mart and get it there. If you'd been Jay Z and called up, they'd have just said 'who is that?' (laughs). They still see themselves as a workwear brand. They're not a lifestyle or a fashion brand, we are workwear and we stick to that. And that's why they like the Hideout collaboration, it's just straightforward, good product, good quality."
So it's just good clothing at a good price?
(Published in 2011)