The first collection from Kings of Indigo hit stores six years ago and a lot has changed since then. Currently the brand serves 350 clients in 10 countries. “We predominantly focus on Northern Europe–the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, France, the UK, Iceland and the Czech Republic. At the moment the Netherlands, Germany and the UK are our biggest growing markets,” says Tony Tonnaer, founder and CEO of the brand. We talked to him about the new ownership structure, future plans, challenges of the market and the necessity of being sustainable.
You recently bought back the majority stake of 60.1% of Varova, which came on board at the end of 2011. This means that KOI is again 100% owned by the company. How did this decision come about?
My management company KOI & Co management bought the 60.1% shares in KOI International bv from Varova, so I have 82.7% of the shares now. The other % are divided by Guido Mathijssen (one of the fellow founders), Khoi Thai (King of Ideas) and Joshua Ijpma (Sales Netherlands). Varova was taken over in October 2017 by Standard Investment and they only wanted to continue investing more in the bigger Varova companies. As we are growing and we need more capital I decided to offer Varova a buyback of the shares and re-structure the KOI International finance, which resulted in this deal.
What is KOI's current economic position?
Since end 2017 we are profitable and have a positive equity position. So we are healthy and have fresh cash to invest further in the growth of our business.
KOI was founded in 2010 with the idea of being the most sustainable jeans brand. How green is KOI today?
All fabrics we use are either made with organic cotton, recycled cotton, Lenzing Tencel lyocell, Lenzing modal, Tencel refibra, linen, hemp, recycled wool or recycled polyester. We do not use fabrics with conventional cotton. We use high quality fabric mills and factories to make long lasting garments. As of 2013, we are members of the Fairwear Foundation where we commit to improve working conditions for the better at all of our monitored locations. At the moment we are rated good and our ambition is to become leader. We use recycled metal buttons for jeans, we have started using recycled leather patches, we recycle paper packaging and promotional products. We produce as close to home as possible to minimize travel and transport kilometers. We are developing washes that use less water, chemicals and energy. Sustainability is in our blood, our DNA.
How is KOI certified? And to what extent are your partners certified?
We use GOTS certified organic cotton and Global Recycle Standard for recycled cotton. We work with Fairwear for working conditions in factories and laundries. 90% of total production takes place at monitored locations, (so FWF, BSCI), where 70% consist of FWF audited production locations. Oekotex for laundries.
And to what extent do you differ from other sustainable brands?
I think that we develop very high-quality garments for reasonable prices. Our range offers the consumer base NOS styles to very fashion-forward and innovative pieces. We mix American heritage denim influence with the Japanese eye for detail in sustainable technologies of the future. I believe we really have a great collection of different fits, fabrics and finishes.
Where do you produce?
Fabrics we mainly buy from Italy, Turkey, Spain, Greece and hemp/linen items come from China. All denim stitching is in Tunisia with Artlab, washing in Tunisia with Interwashing and Italy with Eletti. We make knitwear and leather accessories in Italy; T-shirts, sweatshirts, shirts and dresses in Macedonia, Bulgaria. Jackets in Republic of Moldova and China. Garment production in India and Turkey have been stopped as of 2016–the last production came out of 2017. Both countries did not meet the brand philosophy in regards to the difficulty of travelling and the current circumstances. 75.5% of our total production takes place in Tunisia, in Greece; jackets in Greece and China.
Which technologies are used in production?
For dyeing fabrics there are more and more techniques available now where we can save around 80% of water and minimalize the dyeing stuff. For example, we have used laser, ozone, iceblast, e-flow and bubblewash machines to minimize water, chemicals and energy in washing jeans.
What do you notice with consumers? What has changed over the last few years?
We see that consumers are more engaged with what they buy, from whom they are buying from, where the garments are made and how. They have become more critical and demand a better service.
The concept of “sustainability” is becoming more important, but most consumers are not knowledgeable on what is sustainable or not and what makes it better. Mainly because there is no clear or simple system to benchmark a product. There are so many certifications that it is hard to compare and fully understand what makes a product deserve a “sustainable” label, just like with food, cars and energy.
How open are conventional retailers to selling green fashion? Do they have to expand their assortment to the greener side?
More and more, but only if the style, fit, quality and price have the perfect balance. They do not buy sustainable for the sake of it, and they are right.
Which conventional retailers have you been able to win over for KOI last year? And what were the striking arguments for it?
KaDeWe, Asos, Dreist for example. All on product quality, design, sustainability and growing brand awareness.
What are you working on now? Any innovation in sight?
We are now producing 100% recycled polyester jackets for this winter, shell, filling and lining–that is a new step we have taken in the a/w ’18 collection. We keep working on increasing the percent of post-consumer recycled cotton with several mills and focus on using less cotton by choosing more blends with linen, hemp and Tencel lyocell. We are working with the laundries to wash without/very minimal water. I like to work on new fabrics with more functional and sustainable aspects, which I believe will be important for the future of denim.
What are the differences between the Triple-R as upcycling collection, veggie denim and organic cotton collections? Are there really differences in quality or a ranking within the products, i.e. more or less sustainable or is it more about addressing target groups?
The veggie denim is also made with organic cotton, the veggie refers to the fact it is dyed with only natural indigo, so it still comes under the “organic cotton” collection. But it is a sustainable collection for us because the dye is without chemicals. Upcycling is great, since you are making new from old. It’s the idea of using what is already there, rather than producing brand new garments. Organic cotton is obviously better than cotton, but it still requires a lot of water–and will become more and more scarce as the world population continues to increase. In my opinion, the focus should be shifting toward recycling/upcycling manmade fibers instead, rather than relying on organic cotton.
What motivates you to get up every day and continue KOI?
Working with a passionate team on a daily basis, making beautiful and high-quality products and keep innovating the sustainability mission. I like to motivate other brands to make the same effort we do to contribute to protecting our beautiful world and making it cleaner one step at a time.
Read and see more interesting stories and insights in our new Sustainable ISSUE here.