There’s a rumour that an accountant employed by G-Star, which is headquartered across several low-rise buildings on an industrial estate southeast of Amsterdam, once came to work wearing a suit. But no one has seen him in it since. But then G-Star has always done things differently. This year it celebrates its 25th anniversary, but as Ray puts it, “A brand like G-Star is the antithesis of nostalgia. People come to us for a modern take on denim. We’re very city-oriented – the opposite of where the rodeo, farming background that most heritage denim brands come from.”
Standing well over 6-feet, with shoulder-length hair, and a charming smile, Shubhankar Ray is much like the brand he represents: striking, handsome and consummately cool. As Global Brand Director for G-Star Raw, Ray is one of several key figures behind a label which has catapulted from its Dutch roots to a multinational company in just over two decades. Integral to this growth was the 1996 launch of their RAW collection, which features unwashed, untreated denim that moulds to the body.
And G-Star has always thought out of the box. It took the world by surprise by making Norwegian chess master Magnus Carlsen the face of the brand. “G-Star has always been influenced by industrial design, so already we are coming from an unusual place,” says Ray. “Likewise Magnus is also not coming from the normal place. Fashion people wouldn’t necessarily consider chess to be cool. We’re saying it is.”
Denim is a competitive field in which newcomers face not just the big guns, with all their heritage, but also the much younger crop of premium brands. Plus, there are the fashion designers who include jeans in their collections (or collaborate with jeans companies — think Alber Elbaz of Lanvin and Acne of Sweden). So many styles, so much denim. G-Star, which sells 65% of its products to men and 35% to women, is blessed with what every company wants: a hero product. In this case, it is the G-Star Elwood, conceived in 1996 and inspired by the way motorbike leathers take on the form of their wearer.
Inspired by industrial design, G-Star’s most famous model, the Elwood, were the world’s original 3-D jeans and, after Levi’s 501, are the bestselling jeans ever. “We spend a lot of time thinking up 3-D innovations,” says Ray. “For example, in the new campaign Magnus is wearing the Type C, inspired by the way servicemen in the Forties used to wear their trousers a little bit loose at the top and tapered at the bottom.”
Everybody owns a pair of jeans (unless you’re living under a rock in the Bermuda Triangle), from the trailer-loving hick who constantly complains about politics, to the dissatisfied, mom jean-wearing housewife, to Justin Bieber for crying out loud. Besides them being a common thread weaved within humanity, jeans are a staple in a man’s clothing diet. So, we sat down with Shubhankar Ray, the chef who whips up the finest kind of denim, the clothing connoisseur of cool, and spoke about the history of jeans and why G-Star RAW is the ultimate dude denim.
Shubhankar walks into the room and he’s totally different from what I expected. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked directly with him from a PR perspective when it re-launched in South Africa nearly two years ago as well as manage two of their RAW Night events in Johannesburg and Cape Town. He’s a down to earth guy’s guy behind brands like Levis, Wrangler and Camper, who just so happens to be the brainchild of a mother of a brand. A consummate transitioner, a term I use to describe someone who is comfortable talking to people from celebrities to customers in a store, he hangs-out with everyone from rock stars to emerging artists in an array of countries around the world.
In these tough times, multiple riffs on a work-wear staple born of a harsh environment seem somehow right. There is little in the way of a barrier to entry based on snobbery, giving this clothing category a distinct advantage over the luxury brands. As for price, G‑Star deliberately holds down the real cost of those garments with the most hand-detailing so that everything in the stores stays in the realm of the affordable. “We can’t be all about the money,” Van Tilburg says with a shrug. This is easier to say when you founded your business in 1989, declined all subsequent approaches from private-equity firms and have a company that is now, as Van Tilburg puts it, “healthy and not heavily leveraged at all.”
Innovative products like this have been the foundation for G-Star’s growing retail presence around the world. Since their founding in 1989, G-Star has expanded to 6,000 points of sale across 68 countries, with flagships in New York, London, Tokyo and Amsterdam. This reach, coupled with the brand’s architectural aesthetic and dogmatic focus on ‘just the product’ has earned G-Star a following amongst denim aficionados and celebrities alike.
Once in a while, G-Star is indeed about the money. Keen on keeping its name in the high-fashion game, the company has released a limited collection for summer designed by long-time collaborator Marc Newson. G-Star’s brand of outrageousness is typically more mercurial than monetary. “You need to have some fun,” says Van Tilburg, who believes one way to stand out in a slumped economy is to deck retail spaces with, say, a patchwork denim rhino or a 26-ft. denim shark. Such crazy creations also have a serious purpose: they motivate those charged with the sartorial equivalent of reinventing the wheel to keep coming up with new ideas. This can be a challenge in an environment where the sales teams look on as the creative design at their computers, with a row of vast plasma screens on the wall above displaying their works in progress. The sales teams can then propose changes in colour and style. “There’s no point in making a product if the retailers can’t sell it,” says Remco de Nijs, senior p.r. representative, who today wears jeans featuring a distinctly low-slung butt. “From the outside, we look like a rock-‘n’-roll company. From the inside, it’s like Swiss clockwork.”
As to G-Star’s Dutch DNA, “I guess you could say we are good listeners, which is why this country has always been so good at trade,” says De Nijs. While it is common for native Dutch speakers to be fluent in at least one other language, those in the department that deals with the company’s growing number of retailers around the world switch seamlessly between four or five languages each. “When you come from here, you have to be able to engage with the world,” says Scheffer. It’s impressive.
Less impressive — and everyone in the jeans game faces the same challenge — is that denim is derived from one of the most rapacious crops on earth. “When we started, cotton used to seem friendly,” recalls Van Tilburg, who acknowledges that although organic cotton may be the Holy Grail, there is nowhere near enough of it to meet global demand. What’s needed right now is sound manufacturing practices, hence G-Star’s creation of a dedicated department to ensure that the factories the company uses in countries including Bangladesh and China operate in an environmentally and socially responsible way. Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, the company is experimenting with weaving with eco-friendly nettle.
This sounds less weird once you are reminded that until 1873, when a duo named Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss introduced the world to riveted denim work pants, the hard-wearing garb of miners and railroad workers came from cotton duck cloth or hemp, nettle’s close relation. Few product categories are recession-proof, but jeans, having already weathered countless tough times, look like a wise investment.