Book review: ‘Start Your Own F*cking Brand’ by Maria Erixon
Image credit: Nudie
'The backstage story of Nudie Jeans' - or, how to create a global clothing brand from scratch with only minimal business experience.
Gothenburg, Sweden, may not be the first place that springs to mind when thinking about denim culture. Yet it was in the small port town - not even in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, as the author drily notes - that Maria Erixon founded premium denim label Nudie Jeans, with her partner Joakim Levin, in 2001.
Nearly 20 years later, Erixon has written her account of everything they did: from the first batch of jeans hastily assembled by hand to still running her privately held, globally successful, sustainable fashion brand. This is "the backstage story of Nudie Jeans," direct from the people who lived it.
The extent to which you care about selvdege denim is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book. At its heart is a business story about creativity, independence, intuition, decision making, success and failure, managing growth and staying focused. Nudie's story is not necessarily a template that every business can follow, but it's a tale worth reading.
'Start Your Own F*cking Brand' is as raw, honest and emotional as its title suggests and is as rock'n'roll in spirit as a pair of Nudie's now-legendary dry denim jeans. The name 'Nudie' both derives from and defines the company's longstanding tag line, 'The naked truth about denim', which also became essentially a kind of mission statement for the fledgling company.
Nudie Jeans had a philosophy, right from the start. Building on Erixon's mixed experience of working as lead designer for Lee Jeans Europe in Belgium, and her prior design experience in-house at a Swedish fashion chain, it was always Nudie's intention to operate ethically, building and maintaining healthy, mutually supportive relationships with its supplier and manufacturing partners. Personal visits were a core part of the process. Today, Nudie still lists the factory where every product is made, its location and the number of employees that work there, whether it's in Italy, Portugal, India or Poland.
The company was born out of a deep love for, and appreciation of, real denim. Nudie's reputation was built on its own (and by extension, its owners') obsession with raw denim - 'dry', unwashed, woven on looms with a selvdege edge, denim as it should be. Nudie has always used some of the finest selvedge denim available from Italy and Japan. Stemming from the all-consuming Swedish teenage embrace of denim from the 1960s onwards, after years of Sweden being denied access to 'proper' Levi's jeans due to post-war import restrictions - the fascinating back story of which is also covered in detail in the book, along with cultural snapshots of what it was like for Erixon growing up in Swedish society in the 1960s and '70s - Erixon had no greater ambition, or corporate strategy based on long-term financial projections, for Nudie than to make really good jeans with the kind of quality and attention to detail that she felt was lacking in the big established denim brands.
In the book, Erixon freely acknowledges how some now-iconic elements of the company - such as the hand-drawn 'Nudie' logo on the back patch of every pair of jeans - happened almost by accident, done in a rush, flying by the seat of their indigo-dyed pants, and were definitely not the result of following focus groups, A/B testing or data analytics.
Erixon repeatedly refers to Nudie as being like a raft pushed out to sea and how the survival of the company - especially in those early years - was entirely down to the willingness for all hands to be on deck whenever a task needed addressing, whatever it was.
People fell into roles at the company - the kind of roles that at bigger, more established brands would require an impressive CV of relevant experience and intense HR-led interviews - simply by dint of wanting to hang out with their friends at the bare-bones Nudie offices, ultimately finding themselves called upon to lend a hand and make themselves useful.
Design, manufacturing, shipping, logistics, invoicing, accounting - none of this was organised in any formal way, at least in the early days. The business administration side came later.
Nudie did everything in-house. Even the product photography - which ended up creating a fashion shoot style of its own - was done by a friend of a friend, shooting their friends wearing the clothes. Within a couple of years, advertising agencies were approaching Nudie Jeans - admiring of its style - and offering to take over their branding work. Nudie, naturally, said no, thank you. It was doing quite all right by itself.
Reading the book, you get a strong sense that Erixon looks back on those ramshackle days with nostalgic fondness. The sense of camaradie was clearly very strong and the bond between 'employees' (air quotes, as there was virtually no formal hiring process, nor attendant contracts of employment) kept the nascent Nudie team looking outward together. All were friends, or friends of friends (and lovers, in some cases), and all shared a common Swedish ancestry.
As is typical of many creative endeavours, it is the excitement of those early years - the struggles, the successes, the key turning points - that buoys along everyone involved. Then, inevitably, there comes a time when the real world impinges upon the company.
Erixon admits there were times when the paperwork wasn't quite in order, or shipments were delayed, or even the cutting of some designs wasn't as it should have been. Nudie's new clients were prepared to let one or two trangressions slide on the business administration side, as long as the product was good. More than once, though, probably not.
These are the times when a business has to 'grow up', however reluctantly or painfully. You have to take care of the boring stuff, just as much as you enjoy the fun stuff. Otherwise, the business as a whole will suffer.
For a self-styled 'rock'n'roll' company like Nudie, and the people involved, this could be a doubly painful experience, as there's nothing less rock'n'roll than an Excel spreadsheet. Fortunately, for Nudie, its product was good, so the demand was there - and increasing - which kept the balance sheet healthy.
This all goes a long way to explaining the success of Nudie Jeans. It still operates in much the same way as when it started, giving the market a product that fashion-conscious consumers craved, sold to them by a company they could believe in. There was no me-too, cash-in aspect about it. Nudie could have churned out cheap jeans, made a big splash, trousered a few million krona and then quietly died a slow and unfulfilling death as a largely unloved brand.
Instead, Nudie - much like the cotton it committed to using - kept its growth organic. It was passionate about its product. It released products that it believed in and which its creators wanted to wear: not what market research suggested an imaginary consumer persona might want. It resisted offers to expand beyond anything that felt comfortable to them, even when their overseas distributors were screaming at them to invest heavily and expand faster. It rejected offers to be bought out by the same big established denim brands whose products had inspired Nudie Jeans in the first place.
Erixon also self-deprecatingly refers to the company's 'Swenglish' descriptions used on product labels and the website (current example: "When you wear a pair of drys well and long, some magic will come your way"). This occasionally wonky language may not be technically correct in translation, but it retains a natural charm. It wasn't the cynical suggestion of some expensive marketing or branding consultant: it was real, it was how Nudie 'talked' and this sense of genuine personality struck an informal chord with its customers, as well as its clients. Like much of what Nudie did, you couldn't create it artificially. It had to be organic to really work.
The immediate impact of Nudie Jeans on the market can be seen in the reaction of the established denim brands, all of whom are now mining their archives, reissuing heavy-duty, dry denim jeans and riffing on their vintage legacies. Similarly, many new denim companies have sprung up over the last 20 years, all displaying a similar independent ethos and spirit to Nudie and thus a debt. Nudie Jeans showed them all the way.
Today, Erixon - in writing this book - seems to be in a more reflective place. Nudie Jeans is successful, one of Sweden's best-known international brands, worn worldwide, with annual sales of over SEK 400m.
Yet the world has changed, Erixon has changed and the people around her have changed. It's not all positive. In a 'Swedish melancholy' kind of tone, Erixon is open and honest about her feelings, borderline ambivalent at times, regarding some of the shifts in culture at Nudie.
Erixon remarks on the differences between the generations and how that can affect day-to-day operations at Nudie, the basic tasks of business as usual. Even a gap of five or 10 years shapes people in contrasting ways, growing up as they have in different times. She notes the changes in the working condition demands and expectations of millenials compared to those of her own generation. New generations mean new challenges. Erixon doesn't offer any pat solutions; in making the observation, she is merely opening the debate. Much of the book is like this - Erixon's personal experience, shared. You can draw your own conclusions or take inspiration as you find it.
Much like a well-worn pair of its own dry denim jeans, Nudie has changed and evolved over the years, subtly shifting in hue, inevitably changed by its experiences in the world, but ultimately retaining its essential character. Erixon acknowledges that as the company has grown, her own importance to it - as its founder - has diminished and she already sees a time when Nudie can survive without her. She's OK with that.
This book is rewarding reading for anyone interested in starting their own business and who wants an honest insight into everything that can be done and everything that might befall you. Some of it might seem like luck - good and bad - but any success achieved is most likely the result of passion, integrity, learning, commitment and hard work. That might not sound like revolutionary stuff, but it's real and it's honest. If you really want to start your own f*cking brand, Erixon's book could be your guiding light.
'Start Your Own F*cking Brand' (hardback) is available in English and Swedish, RRP £20.
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