Oi Polloi

William Kroll talks Tender

Published: Wed May 11 2016

A week or so back we were joined by William Kroll of Tender fame down at our Soho shop for an informative chat about his designs. For those who couldn’t make it down, here are a few choice excerpts captured by portable recording device and transcribed for your enjoyment…

On starting Tender

“I started Tender in 2009, which is a very long time ago. It’s just me—I do it from home. I used to work at Evisu, and working with them I saw some really nice factories and saw some really great stuff in Japan. And my wife is American, I have friends who are American and I was into all the American stuff too. A lot of the Japanese stuff is American stuff that’s been Japanese-ified, and then a lot of the American stuff has that Japanese thing going on, so I thought it would be fun to do something that was British based, but with an understanding of those things.

The name Tender comes from the name for a coal truck on a steam engine. There’s also the tender loving care that goes into the clothes, and the idea that when you take on one of these garments, it becomes yours and you tend to it in the same way you’d look after your garden or your sheep.

The elephant on the label was an advert for a shipping company in the 19th century trying to get young men to go out to Nevada and seek their fortune. It seemed appropriate because that’s where jeans come from, and because it was Victorian and British.

The first season was a pair of jeans, a belt, a jacket and a t-shirt, and it’s just got bigger since then.”

On jeans

“With jeans, if you’ve got a pocket on the inside you can see the outline on the outside. In tailoring everything is hidden. I feel like that sort of honesty is important—there’s no magic in it. I’d like to imagine that if I had some scrap metal and knew how to weld I could probably make some kind of steam engine, whereas I’ve got no chance of making a laptop. I think that’s a nice way to approach things.

I like product design. I like thinking about problems and solving problems, and I feel like jeans are a really nice opportunity for that. Everybody wears them and they’re all basically the same, which means the little changes you make are more meaningful than you’d expect.

On a pair of Levi’s you’ve got your spade pockets, your scoop pockets and your match pocket. Normal jeans stitch colours are yellow and orange, or gold and tobacco because you’re digging for gold and your only pleasure if tobacco. Levi’s did the match pocket, Wrangler did a coin pocket and Lee did a watch pocket because they were fancy. The factory boss wore Lee, the cowboy wore Wrangler and the dirt digger wore Levis.”

On fancy dyes

"You can look at anything, and as you get deeper and deeper you get more excited about things. When you get into the history of clothes, natural dyes and colours start to become really important.

The colours I’m using at the moment are woad, which is a natural indigo which grows in a cabbage-like weed in Europe, and madder, which is a soft pink that comes from a root.

Generally, natural dyes aren’t very good, which is why they’ve been replaced. They give soft colours and tend to wear out quite quickly. I think that it works really well with the idea that things evolve and change. If you’ve got something that’s natural, it’s probably going to change faster, and change in more interesting and unpredictable ways.”

On buttons and brass

“On railway uniforms you’d have generic garments which would come from a big wholesaler, but the buttons would be specific to your company or your rank, and would just slot in. Before tumble dryers, you put stuff through a mangle, so you would take your buttons off and crank your clothes through the mangle without damaging the buttons. I wanted to be able to do that.

I also wanted to make a unique button, but if you go to someone like YKK you’ve got to get 100,000 buttons at a time. I’m a confident guy, but I’m not that confident. I thought about what I could do that would match up with the steam engine stuff and I came up with a cast brass button that went on with a split pin.”

On the Butterfly Shirt

“The idea of the Butterfly Shirt was to move things around. The name comes from the butterfly effect, where a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and starts a tornado in Texas. I wanted to get rid of the side-seams and see what happened next. A lot of these things are intellectual exercises in a way—they can seem a bit silly but they can take you places.

Normally when you make a shirt you put your sleeves onto your body panels and then sew up the sides and up the sleeves, but when you haven’t got a side-seam you can’t do that. So I put the sleeve on upside down and sewed it down from the body panel. This means you’ve now got your cuffs upside down too.

On my standard shirts the pockets were stuck into side-seams, but you can’t do that with this so the pockets were pushed forwards instead, into the placket. Normally a placket is sewn inside, but you can’t do that because you’ve got to have the pockets going into something, so you’ve got the placket in upside-down. This means you’ve got to pull the collar forwards a little bit and have the washing label on the outside too.

You end up with a garment with all these details that are unavoidable. Because of one decision you end up with a completely new design.”

On where stuff is made

“Although all of my stuff is made in England and I’m really proud of that, I think there is a danger in getting too worked up about country of origin in some way. I think there are really good things happening in every country and you can have really amazing things made in China. People forget that for thousands of years there’s been handmade stuff in China, and you can get all sorts of tat coming out of Italy and the UK. It’s really about the people, especially at this micro-level. When there’s two people sewing stuff, they could be in any country.

But I think with countries there is a soul or a spirit that’s different. I’ve thought about this and tried to work out what the British thing was, and I think there’s a friendliness to it. From my point of view it’s approachable, and that ties in with the idea that the jeans are understandable and with the ceramics you can see that hands have made it. There is parallels with the Japanese stuff, but I don’t think it’s as refined.”

On Japan

"I spend a lot of time in Japan and the more time you spend in a country the more you realise that it’s just as nuanced as any other culture, but on a surface level, I think people there get really into specific things, and this whole idea of being an otaku, or a maniac, about something is really great.

In Japan there are people who want to buy this stuff, so then there are shops that sell this stuff that become really great, then all of a sudden it’s stocked in brilliant shops everywhere. But I think there are people in England who like Tender just as much as people in other countries—people are the same everywhere."

On creased shirts

“The creases are fully intentional. Someone showed me a photo of One Direction’s last tour, and one of them was wearing one of my shirts. I’d hit the big time. But the comments underneath were all saying, “What is Zayn doing in that horrible wrinkled shirt?”

But yeah, the creases show the fabric. Because I use unshrunk yarn and the garments are washed during the dyeing stage, they shrink. This gives you puckered seams as the fabric shrinks at a different rate to the threads, which gives you a crosshatch as the fabric is being pulled in two directions at once.

It shows the personality of the cloth, whereas if you press something it can look really nice, but it becomes a different thing. And I don’t know how to iron a shirt, so there’s no reason I should impose that on anyone else.”

See the Tender stuff here.

Photos by Mike Sallabank.