Dinner with Jesus. An Interview with Maria Erixon.
Among the calming white-walled studios at Nudie Jeans’ headquarters, one corner room is painted black.
Stuffed with objects and artifacts from around the globe — calligraphy, taxidermy, pyramids of paper, esoteric books and snatches of fabric — it’s more of a lair than a studio. This is where the magic happens for Maria Erixon, co-founder and Creative Director at Nudie Jeans. Erixon and her brand have been at the vanguard of denim since 2001, pushing the envelope for rigid, unisex, ethically produced denim. And yet for all the good the brand does, they’re almost shrouded in mystery, disdaining traditional marketing and advertising techniques.Tenue de Nîmes managed to pin down the ever-elusive Maria, who sat down with us in her studio for Nudie’s 15 year anniversary to talk about where her brand, her life, and the industry are at.
Nailed to the wall outside Maria’s room is a sign that says VAR ÖDMYUK, which means “Be humble” in Swedish. This commandment has guided Nudie from the beginning, and is evident in everything from their production to marketing to the stores’ aesthetic and the staff’s personalities.
It’s there in the decor of the brand’s HQ, too, which embodies that peculiar mix of bohemian warmth and punk rock attitude that Sweden does so well. Refashioned from a former bank building, complete with the original vault, the high-ceilinged rooms and marble stairs could feel oppressively opulent, but instead the studios feel cosy, verging on shabby: there’s threadbare chairs, uneven tables, and forests of pot plants. A collage of Polaroids on the wall remind the staff of their humbler origins: their previous cramped office with a kitchen where nothing worked.
We get a tour around the studios, including a sneak peak into the collection they’re currently designing, before having lunch with the staff, who eat out of tupperware on an enormous vintage trestle table. And then it’s time to meet Maria.
It’s with a sense of mild trepidation that we tiptoe into her room. She’s such a force in the industry, and we’ve admired her from afar, but we don’t know quite what to expect, since she never really gives interviews.
But from the second we walk in, there’s not an ounce of the diva or the recluse we might have feared; she’s warm, open and funny. “I’m just bored of repeating the same old story,” she says, in explanation for why she refuses most media requests. Which is a shame, because the story remains fascinating no matter how many times you hear it.
Maria started Nudie with her then-husband, Joakim Levin, and another childhood friend, Palle Stenberg, in 2001. At the time she was living in Brussels and working for Lee. Having tried to resign from Lee three times —“first because I didn’t want to drive in Brussels because the traffic was crazy, secondly because I found it difficult to work with the qualities I was seeing” — she finally quit for good when she fell in love with a selvedge fabric from Japan’s Kaihara mill that was too expensive for Lee to use. She took a small piece for herself that provided the seed of inspiration for Nudie.
With that, she moved back to Gothenburg with a highly unusual aim for someone setting up their own company: to work less and to start a family.
“I didn’t want to be on the ring road in Paris, I wanted to have an office in the city centre and be able to walk or cycle there,” she says. “We wanted to be independent and come back to Sweden and have children.”
And so Nudie was launched without a strategy or written plan; the only principle was to enjoy doing what they were doing, to have a good balance in life, and to be independent. Upset by the outsized influence of shareholders at public companies she’d worked for previously, Maria consciously pushed back against external interference that she thought would steer Nudie in the wrong direction.
Once, when a distributor tried to push them to get bigger and get more investment so they could expand further, she snapped.
“I got him a t-shirt that said, ‘Start your own fucking brand,’” Maria says, laughing. “If the driving force had been that we should become super rich then we would have grown super fast and then exploded at the end of it.”
Of course, nothing went smoothly in the beginning. One of the cuts in her first collection was botched in production — “It was a disaster, I was crying in my bed like a newborn baby” — but then they sold out at the first fair they took them to, with buyers clamoring for more.
“The fit that was a disaster turned out to be the Nudie look, actually. Because it had a crotch that was anti-fit, and it turned out that was the kind of bum that guys liked at the time. So to me it was a disaster, but to the market it was even better than we could have hoped,” Maria says.
Taking things at their own pace enabled Nudie to be stubborn about quality and ethics from the beginning, even though the company didn’t like to shout about it. (One staff member referred affectionately to Maria as “the mother of stubbornness” when talking about how fiercely she pushed for ethical standards). Nudie relied more on word-of-mouth than marketing campaigns and still uses friends for photo shoots. And their impressive ecological credentials are taken for granted. Of course every pair of jeans, every shirt, every sweater is made of 100% organic cotton. Of course some of it is Fairtrade. Of course a huge chunk of it is made in the same Italian factory as the past 15 years. And of course they offer a free repair service in stores to ensure a longer lifespan for their jeans. Why wouldn’t they? That’s Nudie’s attitude.
Unlike some brands, this is not a marketing ploy. As Maria puts it, their team member in charge of social responsibility is not just sitting in the marketing team, they are in the production team.
“It’s about having it at the starting point. You always have options when you start a brand: either you want to do it cheap and make lots of money, and therefore do it in Bangladesh. Or you want to do a quality thing with people who have knowledge, and you want to do it in Europe where you know the wages are quite similar to where you live,” she says. “It’s before you start the brand that you have to make these decisions, because if you decide your price and take it to the market, then you are locked into that price segment. It’s hard to change production after you’ve started.”
Nudie now manufactures in Italy, where they’ve used the same factories since they started. Choosing to produce in Italy isn’t only for ethical reasons, however. There’s also the way that Italian manufacturers speak the same language in terms of quality, according to Maria; the way you can specify the feel, the cut, the minute details — and they understand, instantly.
“Sometimes in other countries you say, ‘I want it to feel exactly like this old worn-in pair of jeans, and you get something different, and you tell them so, and they tell you, ‘It’s not different, this is what you wanted’. It’s not about speaking the language, it’s all about what you see. But in Italy it’s very easy to have that conversation,” she says.
Yet manufacturing exclusively in Italy would mean a much higher price tag on Nudie’s clothes, so they also use a factory in Tunisia, where quality is still high but costs are lower. Maria says it’s sometimes tough to balance her desire to position Nudie as a premium brand with the responsibility of sustaining the brand at its current level and keeping sales and margins steady.
“If you want to stay in Italy you need to increase the price. But we also have an economic responsibility to all the people working here, from the truck drivers to the designers working with us. It’s a huge responsibility.”
When they started, Nudie was a pioneer in ethical working practices, and was well ahead of the pack. It was difficult to buy organic cotton and to thoroughly check standards at suppliers. But the industry has improved over the past decade with the emergence of the Fair Wear Foundation, which whom Nudie now works with to ensure that their suppliers’ wages, working conditions and environmental practices are sound. Nudie also works with the Textile Exchange, which supports the farming and trading of organic cotton, and the Chetna Coalition, an Indian NGO working with small farmers to improve their lives through sustainable cotton farming.
"When we started working with organic cotton, a lot of the other brands were stopping it because they said the consumer wasn't interested." The selection of organic cotton was quite limited,” she says. “But now we can talk to anyone. If they want to do business with us, they have to buy organic cotton and make 5,000 metres just for us, and they do.”
Contrary to the bad press about denim in recent years criticizing the labor, water, energy and chemical-intensive processes required (particularly in distressed or bleached garments), Maria thinks that denim companies are doing better than other sectors of the fashion industry.
“I think denim is taking more responsibility than fast fashion. We tailor fabrics according to your size, or we repair them, or we take old vintage jeans or remake them to another fit.”
Nudie do their best to educate consumers about how their denim garments are produced, and how they can best look after them. They include a booklet with every purchase noting that consumers needn’t wash their rigid denim for the first six months — an instruction that sounded shocking and bizarre a decade ago, when rigid denim was a niche item. Many people heard about rigid denim for the first time from Nudie. Thanks to efforts from them and a few other players in the market, rigid is now rightly perceived as the most authentic (and eco-friendly!) type of denim you can buy. This change makes Maria happy, but she thinks it’s time for individuals to take more responsibility for their consumption habits:
“The consumer shouldn’t buy so much shit. It doesn’t make you happy to buy more things every weekend.”
That said, she’s not against cheap denim, per se. What she loves about denim as a fabric is that it’s accessible to everyone, and that its identity is fluid.
“Denim is democratic, it’s from when you’re born til you die. It’s not for a special sex, it could be her or him or hir [an asexual pronoun],” she says. “It doesn’t exclude anyone, any class. You can buy it at a low or high price, and it’s still a kind of uniform, which I think is a very democratic thing. Denim also gets more beautiful the older it gets, which is the opposite of the fashion industry which mainly takes photos of very young people. That’s the opposite of denim, which gets more beautiful, with holes and rips. No other clothes has that ability.”
And yet, while it’s timeless, she also sees constant evolution in both the fabric and in the industry. Not so much in technological innovations — she has no interest in ‘sportswear’ or ‘performance’ denim, nor the newfangled ‘wearable technology’ being explored by some brands, which she dismisses as “too anxious about the next thing” — but in terms of new blends of natural fibres, new cuts, and even the changes in denim weights as climate change wreaks havoc on the traditional seasonal patterns.
“Even up here in the north, we had 30 degrees in September. How light or cold can we be in denim and still be Nudie jeans? It will be our mission to figure that out,” she says.
And then there’s the increasing androgyny in jeans cuts. When the brand started, a slim jean was considered ‘skinny’ — now they’re called a regular fit. Skinny jeans for men simply didn’t exist. And now stretch denim for men is a forever expanding market, while more and more women are buying rigid denim.
“It’s going back and forth. My boyfriend’s jeans, my girlfriend’s jeans. It’s merging more and more,” Maria says. This explains why Nudie only offers unisex jeans and has never named or marketed any of its jeans specifically for women.
“Most men are very interested in one specific thing, whether that’s it football or a brand, they know everything about it. Women are not, in most cases. They are more interested in wider things. That’s why I like to work with unisex jeans, because you get a very passionate consumer. We always had a male aspect, but we’ve started to be a unisex brand. I think having the male silhouette also attracts women more,” she says.
"It doesn't sound politically correct to say, but I don't want to have women's input because they always want to change things, they see the potential in everything — from their partner to their house and clothing and their body. They see the potential to change in everything, whereas men are more purist."
This purist focus is evident in Maria’s design and aesthetic. While she clearly relishes an unorthodox, open attitude — her chaotic black den being a case in point — she believes that to be creative, one needs strict limitations.
“To me being creative is about finding a small little box. For me, that’s the five-pocket jean. I like that boxy way of thinking because it challenges you to think, ‘Where can I make a difference?’ And there’s not that many options,” she says. “So, I started with the back pocket. Tobacco stitch is taken. Okay, I’ll take orange. Everyone else has one or two stitched lines, so, okay, I’ll take six. What about the cording? Let’s make it double.”
For Maria, the creative process takes place inside her head. She no longer feels it necessary to travel or to keep up to date with what’s in fashion or other brands are doing — “When you’re my age and you’ve been travelling so much for other companies, you’ve seen so much vintage you have a library inside” — and so she instead delves into her memory and her other interests to spark ideas. Such as: what would Charles Bukowski wear if I was to dress him today? What do Russian red flowers have in common with Guns ‘n’ Roses? She then puts together an idea book for her design team, filled with things designed to stimulate other ideas.
“Sometimes they go off in a completely different direction. That’s okay, but I force them into a box. Morgan [Sundberg, Design Manager] doesn’t like vintage or hard rock, but I force him to think about retro, the future, sci-fi, and how that influences the future,” she says.
And of course, with Nudie, a lot of creative spark comes down to music, which runs through the brand’s veins like their trademark orange thread. This is a company whose staff are nearly all “failed musicians”, according to one of them. Bands and artists such as Little Dragon, Band of Horses, The Soundtrack of Our Lives and Dylan LeBlanc have played at their launches or spontaneously turned up in one of their stores asking to play a set. And Joakim, another of the three founders, is a drummer who used to play in punk rock bands and co-owns Pustervik, Gothenburg’s biggest and hippest live music venue.
The musical influence lives on in the office, too. We hear that staff sometimes blast music that would be considered “way too loud” at other workplaces; and we witness a couple of people picking up guitars to strum a few chords at their desks to take a break from the screen. In fact, the whole office seems like one big enviably chilled family. While we were there, someone’s child played on the sofa behind them as they worked, while other staff left during the day to go and pick up their children from daycare.
So Maria has definitely reached her aim of having a company where people can have children and work less — an almost miraculous achievement for such a global brand. Perhaps it has something to do with being in Sweden, where the society puts huge emphasis on work-life balance and shared child-rearing. But it’s also something to do with the decisions Maria and her co-founders made at the outset.
“We didn’t want to have a big brand, to be workaholics. Everyone working here needs to have a life outside of work. You are not able to sit here after 7 o’clock. Otherwise you don’t get anything new into the company. You need to have a relationship or an interest…. you need people who don’t have a stressful life on the side, who think it’s still fun to work,” says Maria. She finds it sad that this attitude makes her an exception rather than the rule in the fashion industry, but admits “I used to worked like an idiot and I’ve seen a lot of idiots.” Now, she feels that she’s reached a more stable and happier phase in her life — one in which she can take a step back and enjoy other interests, such as renovating houses in Italy.
“I think we have different phases. Your definition of quality of life depends whether you’re 20 or 30 or 50. When you are between 30 and 45 you’re in the builder phase, you’re building a family, finances, career. It’s quite stressful, it’s not a very balanced part of your life. Then you come to another phase of life where you can find balance. You don’t need to prove yourself and you can cause happiness by bringing other people in with your brand... It’s time to be happy and see other people growing, and that is giving me more happiness than saying I’m doing everything myself, because I’m not, anymore. I find it very hopeful and it’s interesting to see that the company is also very organic today. They are helping each other.”
So where next for Nudie? They have just released the Bloodline collection to commemorate their 15th anniversary: three pairs of jeans each using alternative natural fibers mixed in with the cotton: bamboo, hemp, and paper. Maria is fascinated by how innovations in living materials such as wool, cashmere and paper will push denim, and clothes in general, into a new era.
And then there’s a top-secret sibling brand in the works, which she described as “provocative in terms of things that are happening politically” which will stand as a “paradox” to Nudie and prevent it from being outdated. Other than that, her lips are sealed.
“I don’t think I have an answer to what the future will be for the brand. I’m curious to see what will happen. There’s so many things that are happening, world politics, so many things that could go completely wrong or completely right,” she says.
However, she’s clear that she and the other founders will never give up Nudie’s independence and sell the company: “Joakim and I had a joke that if we ever stop doing this, instead of selling it, we could have a story about how we stopped making jeans and why we did it. The undoing of it. That would be the most fun and interesting thing if we stopped: to undress it, unravel the story.”
One question remains: why the humility? When you’re doing such good things, why not shout about it — particularly in today’s social media-driven world, where it seems that you won’t be heard if you don’t try to speak above the rabble?
We’d already heard from another staff member that Nudie’s desire to be humble derives partly from its roots in Sweden, where the mentality is that “You’re not better than anyone else, so don’t think that you are.” Bragging goes somewhat against the national character. But Maria has a more personal take on it.
“When I went to high school I became a Christian. Or rather, I say I became a believer. And people didn’t believe me, they said, ‘You must be drinking, or doing drugs’, and so on. I realised that just because I believed something it didn’t make me perfect. It was just I wanted a new part of myself,” she explains. “The same thing happened when we decided we wanted to be sustainable. If you say we want to do this or that, we still might not achieve it, and we still might not be the best. It’s quite easy to say we’re 100% organic, but then people say ‘But you’re not perfect at X or Y’, to which we say, ‘Of course!’. We are not the best at everything, but our intention is to do the best we can.”
Has her faith made her more aware of being responsible?
“I don’t think so. I still believe, but I keep it very personal and I’m not part of any Church today. I realised there were lots of people saying, ‘I’m more Christian than you because I have more belief than you,’ and putting others beneath them. I didn’t like that, so I left the Church,” she says. “I went to see Ben Hur with my 10 year old and they showed Jesus in one part. I would love to have dinner with Jesus, he is super sympathetic, and has nothing to do with making people feel small. We’ve lost that, even though Churches have the best intentions.”
Maria then tells us about a dream she has: to train people without education who can’t get a job and employ them at Nudie’s repair shops. She likens it to the second-hand charity shops run by religious groups which donate their profits to the needy.
We say it sounds like she’s going vertical — how very 21st century — or perhaps as if she is starting her own church?
“I didn’t like my Church, so I started my own! A blue and orange Church.”