We meet with Joakim Levin on a Thursday morning. He is sat by his desk at his office in Gothenburg, the city in which Nudie Jeans was founded about 20 years ago. Joakim is the co-founder of the company which has been around since 2001, and whose products we've been selling at Grandpa for a long time. Now, we're curious to learn more about Joakim, the company’s sustainability efforts, and the company's future direction. How do you build a profitable business that also "gives a fuck"? Is it even possible?
Hello Joakim! Tell us, who are you? What's your background?
Well, Nudie Jeans is actually my first "real" job. Before, I worked as a musician. In the 90’s, I played the drums in several Swedish punk bands. Simultaneously, I attended business school. It was s life filled with contrasts. I never really finished business school, but that's my background. Being a drummer and studying economics on the side.
And how did you decide to focus on jeans in particular?
I was in a relationship with Maria, with whom I started Nudie Jeans. She is ten years older than me and at the time she had been working in the denim industry for a while. So, she's a denim enthusiast, I would say. I really like jeans too, but from a different perspective, more related to style and pop culture perhaps, rather than pure product development. However, both me and Maria were tired of what we were doing. We started this as a super-niche project and never actually intended for it to become this big. When I was growing up, a pair of jeans was either Levis or a copy of Levis, period. Then, in the 90’s, workwear became a thing and for the first time since the 50’s, the denim industry was on the decline. So, when we started Nudie Jeans, the denim industry had been in decline for about 6-7 years, and a completely new generation had grown up with a different perspective on what a pair of jeans could be. So when we sold jeans for around 1000 SEK, that was an entirely new price. The commercial force behind it surprised everyone, including ourselves.
What was the sustainability landscape in the industry like when you first started Nudie Jeans? Was it always a given for you to work with sustainability?
Yes, for sure. Maria, whom I co-founded Nudie Jeans with, wanted to do her own thing and I guess I wanted to start another band, although I was tired of playing music. There’s actually not that big of a difference between playing in a band and starting a business. Both involve a group of people doing something together. Regarding sustainability, it was there from the beginning in the sense that Maria had been in the textile industry for many years, and all the negative things you hear about the textile industry are true. So, from the start, we knew that "we want to be able to sleep at night, and we want to do this in a good way." For example, we worked with very few suppliers and they were all in Europe, like Italy and Portugal. It all has to start with control because you can't address these issues if you don't know who makes your products, and the truth is that most people don't. So, we still have very few suppliers. In total, I think we have about 50. It may sound like a lot, but it's exceptionally few when you consider all the production stages involved.
The central aspect of our sustainability work is the core story: Buy good things and use them for a long time. Wear them in, repair them, and don't wash them too much. That's an extremely sustainable way to approach fashion. And that's where we are today. Create vintage, not garbage.
— Joakim about sustainability
A question that we suspect you get regularly: Is it even possible to sell clothing while advocating for a sustainable mindset? How do you/your company approach this?
That’s a very relevant question. We actually discussed this during our sales meeting yesterday. The strategy we are trying to refine right now is one where we add value rather than become part of the problem. Because strictly speaking the world doesn't need more clothing. The most sustainable option would be to shut down. What we're trying to do is do what we do in a way that can make a positive difference. Because people will always want new clothes. So, our starting point is that what we do should be able to turn into vintage items. We make sure we never create garbage. And in that way I feel that we have actually developed a sustainable business model.
You offer "free repairs" to your clothing. What's the demand for this service, and how do you actively encourage people to use this rather than fall for the temptation of buying new pieces?
We truly invest in promoting this free repair service. But quite a lot of people do actually come back and we repair 50-60 thousand pairs a year. So, we're really busy. We also offer trade-ins. You can bring in old jeans and get a 20% discount on a new pair. So, people do come in, but more in some markets than others. In Sweden, people often want to get their jeans fixed. And it's a logical consequence of the story we sell: "Wear in your jeans, make them personal, and use your items." The logical consequence of that is that they eventually wear out. So that's why we started with repairs.
Sustainability can be applied to many aspects of life. How do you, as a CEO, find a sustainable work/life balance and lifestyle?
Let's start with having one; it's extremely important. You can work very hard for many years if you find joy in it, but eventually, you'll run out of steam. So, you need to from time to time redefine what you're even doing. Why am I doing this? What do I want to achieve? What's my responsibility, and what's others'? It's easy for things to lose track otherwise. I believe, that simply learning to have a life is essential, don’t just survive and work. In my case, it's about learning to switch off but also spending time with friends who aren't involved in this kind of work and live entirely different lives. And it's about being curious. For me, that's what forces me out of my own little bubble. I work a lot, but I don't work excessively. So basically, "WORK WELL" is better than working a lot.
And since we're talking about life and routines, what does a "typical" day at work look like for you? Do those even exist?
Yes, absolutely, to a high degree, but... yes and no. There are two parallel processes going on. You have to move forward and at the same time handle daily issues that arise. I would say that my life is somewhat predictable in the sense that I lead an organization more than I do things myself. I try to be accessible to many. So I try to be fairly prepared when I come to work and know what I need to do that day. Then, I try to be quite disciplined and stick to the plan. Over the years, it becomes more and more important to realize that, to keep going, you need to have a plan. Things that don't get done might just not get done. Prioritization is also important. Prioritize. And try to stick to it.
What do you think about when you're not thinking about Nudie Jeans?
Haha. Right now, I think about the company pretty much 24/7. But otherwise, I'm quite interested in music, coming from that world. I also have kids, which takes up a lot of my time. But if we're talking about hobbies I enjoy besides work... well, I'm a vintage nerd. I like everything from old watches to old furniture and all sorts of things like that. Music and vintage items. Those are the things I enjoy most, I would say.
Would you say you're a structured person? Do you have clear to-do lists and... how do you keep track of everything you need to do?
Fundamentally, I'm not very structured, and I find it enjoyable to run around and do all sorts of things at the same time. But I've had to learn. Mechanically. I'm not very organized. Some people have a natural talent for that sort of thing, but I had to learn. My desk will never be in order, but maybe the company can be. Haha.
Joakim by his desk at the headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden
What do you think the next steps are for Nudie Jeans, and what role do you see yourselves playing in the future fashion landscape?
Well, we had a pretty clear idea of what kind of company we wanted to start from day one. My time at business school in the '90s influenced me quite a bit. It was very neoliberal at the time, with Milton Friedman and those types of ideas. "The business of business is business," they said. In other words, a company's sole purpose was to create shareholder value and such things. I didn't really agree with that then, and I still don't. Many of the problems we have in the world stem from that kind of thinking. From the very beginning, we've tried to build a company where we aim to make money but also take responsibility for the issues we believe companies should take responsibility for. It may sound pretentious, but what drives me is that I'm convinced that it's possible to build sustainable companies. The world is changing, and we continuously work on the question "How do you build a profitable company that gives a damn?". There are many ways to do this, but that's what drives me. So, as for the role we should play... I hope we can continue to show, at least sometimes, that it's possible.
Do you have any special projects you're working on right now?
Yes, we have many things in progress, but the primary project is to build a sustainable company. We currently have two categories of reuse. We've started a project in Gothenburg with the idea of offering re-use in a way that’s so good and stylish that we can even sell it to people who don't normally look for vintage. Then, we have the other, very patched and repaired garments, that we charge more for than the new ones. So, the big project right now is to engage in circular activities, sell second-hand jeans, and repair jeans on a more industrial level so that we can actually make money from it. Essentially, new items should only be a part of what we sell. The other thing we're rolling out is different types of repair services. It currently takes about 3 weeks, but we'll eventually offer express service too. But if you want your garment in 24 hours, you might have to pay a bit more. We have lots of ideas. So that's what I'm working on most right now: finding exciting projects and showing that we can make a difference. There's a billion of those things going on at the moment.
Lastly, how would you describe the ultimate everyday uniform?
For me, it's jeans, basically. Jeans, first and foremost. We're a brand that celebrates everyday life rather than New Year's Eve, so to speak. And I would say that I jeans are the ultimate everyday clothing.
Aside from jeans, what do you pair them with?
Well, I like loose-fitting jeans and loose-fitting shirts. I'm like a baby; I don't like anything that's too tight. Comfortable clothing is the ultimate everyday uniform. It's what I wear every day. And it's essentially what we sell too. We don't really work with fashion, and we have no ambition to do so. We work with style. An aestheticized everyday style is what we get excited about. Clothes and materials that become more beautiful the more you use them. But it's subjective of course; it's what WE find beautiful. Fundamentally, we are quite occupied with what we find beautiful. Then the next task is to find people who want to buy it. Many companies are good at many different things, and we're primarily good at being Nudie Jeans. If we're not good enough at it, someone else can do it better. So, we’re at our best when we try to be us; that's when we excel. Or, we're not always great, but we’re great when we do what we do best.