Oi Polloi

Interview: William Kroll from Tender

Published: Tue May 05 2015


Anyone who lurks regularly on the ‘latest stock’ page of our website might have noticed that we recently got our hands on some fancy looking shirts made by a clothing company named Tender.

Very nice, I'm sure you'll agree, but what's the story behind this stuff? How are those shirts dyed? And what chocolate bars does the man behind them like to eat? I pestered Tender main-man William Kroll for all the answers... 

To start things off lightly, what've you been up to today?

I'm actually writing this on the train into London — I'm teaching today. I tutor a few different projects at Central St Martins, University of Westminster, and on my local college Foundation Course. Today it's the 2nd year denim project on the menswear course at CSM.  It's sponsored by Paul Smith Red Ear and it's a very good group of students, so it should be a fun day.

Tender is a new one for Oi Polloi, can you give us a little introduction to who you are, and what Tender is?

I'm really excited to be working with you guys! It's been an ambition since I started the brand. Tender's a tiny company, just me, working from a studio at the bottom of the garden. It started off with jeans, but it's spread out to become pretty wide-ranging across all sorts of clothing and objects. I think of jeans as a kind of design and production philosophy, so if you ask me Tender's shirts, ceramics, belts and socks are all part of a jeans mentality.

When did you start Tender? 

In 2009. I worked in denim for a few years after I finished at college, and I wanted to have a go for myself. I'm British and it felt like all the references and stories in the kind of garments I liked were American or Japanese, so I thought it would be interesting to draw on British tailoring and work-wear.

The name comes from the tender on a steam train — it's the coal and water truck, pulled behind the engine. I love the utilitarian, adventurous, romantic, make-it-up-as-you-go-along feeling of Victorian engineering, and it felt like a good start for a brand. I like it when names have more than one meaning, so a nice thing with Tender is that it also suggests the love that's put into the products, but maybe most importantly, the idea that the new owner of a garment or object becomes its 'tender'. It'll only become more special and interesting as it wears, fades, chips, gets repaired and becomes personal to its owner.

Where are the clothes made, and who makes them?

Everything's made in England, by various different makers, either in small factories (usually adapting what they normally do to the kind of stuff I want to make — I get a lot of raised eyebrows for the ways I like to construct things), or at home.

I'm really, really lucky to have built up relationships with some really excellent makers. A big part of the design process is problem solving — working out in conversation with the person making something how best to do it.

You pay a lot of attention to dyes and fabrics. I know all clothing companies have to think about dyes and fabrics, but it seems you really go to town on this kind of stuff — not many people use woad and turmeric to dye their clothes. Why have you chosen to go down this path? Is it a case of preserving lost techniques, or do you just like the nice colours? 

It's a bit of both. It's not so much about preserving techniques for its own sake (although if I can bring attention to how things can be done that's great), but more about the history and connotations that come with clothing made in traditional ways: Leonardo da Vinci drew with oil stocks coloured with woad, Samuel Pepys' black cloth suit was dyed with logwood, British soldiers at the battle of Waterloo wore coats dyed with cochineal. It feels really exciting to see and be able to wear these colours as they were.

Natural dyes also tend to fade much faster than synthetic dyes, which should be a bad thing, but it makes the garments so much more characterful and interesting as they age.

How do these dyes work? Imagine I’m going to make a cotton shirt and I want to dye it with woad, is this hard to do? How would I do it? Do I have to harvest the woad myself, or are there shops for this sort of thing? 

Each dye's different, and takes a lot of trial and error. Woad is a plant (related to cabbages) which happens to have some indigotin in its leaves. There's more indigotin in Indigofera (normal natural indigo) and it's been synthesised as pure indigotin since the 1860s. The indigotin's the same, what makes it interesting is the impurities that come from the rest of the plant, and if you're a romantic, the extra work that's gone into producing it. Think of it like a really interesting whiskey compared to an industrial-grade vodka… the alcohol's the same, but there's more to it than that! 

Given that the core dye itself is the same, the process of woad dyeing is basically the same as any other indigo dye, which is to say complicated and simple at the same time. Indigotin only turns blue when it oxidises, and you need to build the colour up in layers. The dye bath itself is a murky yellow colour, but if you dip something in it and then pull it out into the air it turns blue in front of your eyes, like magic. The subtleties come in getting the balances of everything just right, to get a rich, clear colour. Synthetic indigo is a bit easier because it's much more powerful, so you can cover mistakes up with less trouble.

A lot of what I suppose is called work-wear tends to be inspired by the 40s and 50s… Americana and that sort of thing, whereas Tender seems to come from an earlier time — the industrial revolution and the age of steam. What is it about this time you find so interesting?

In some ways perhaps the industrial revolution was Britain's Wild West — it seems like there was an attitude of optimism and possibility which led to some amazing things. I think it's really incredible that some of the London Underground tunnels were built 150 years ago and they're still in use. 

A lot of Americana jeans roots are in the gold rush, and in turn a lot of those people were fairly recent (generationally speaking) European immigrants, who brought with them the clothes and manufacturing traditions of their old home countries. If American style was exported after the Second World War, before then there were parallel evolutions from a shared source. So in a way the sort of things I look at are the cousins of the more American-influenced things you see.

You spent time in Japan learning how to work with denim. How was this? What did you learn? How does the Japanese approach to clothing design differ to the English?

I've been very lucky to spend quite a lot of time in Japan over the last few years, and a lot of my stuff ends up there. I've been extremely lucky to get to spend some time with some amazingly passionate, knowledgeable people who've been very generous to me. I've learned tons in Japan, mostly, though that people are very similar everywhere, in the end. There's definitely a deeply-rooted respect (and market) for things which are made with care, but there's a lot of reverence for a British approach to things, just in the way that we're used to looking up to everything Japanese. Japan's taught me to value what I see in other places, too.

The Tender logo is a the face of a man called Titus Maccius Plautus, a Roman playwright who on your website you state is often considered the original plagiarist. How does this fit with Tender? How much of your work is taken from other sources? 

Plautus translated plays from Greek into Latin, so they could be enjoyed by a new audience. Within that tradition there wasn't a concept of intellectual property in the way we have it now, so this wasn't something to be ashamed of. I think a big part of design of any kind comes in reinterpreting and representing things that have come before, particularly with what I'm doing with Tender, so this seemed like a nice thing to use.

The logo itself is a little face that I found buried within the text of a 19th Century American advertising cut urging people to travel to Nevada to seek their fortune. This land of opportunity was named 'Plautus Treasury', I don't know why. The ad is framed by the elephant which appears as the size label in my clothes. 

Where do you find your source material?

I have a small collection of vintage British Rail uniforms, and a few details have made their way from there. I've also visited various archives and collections of uniforms and clothing. I don't really set out to do research for each production, it's more of an accumulation of ideas that come up while I'm doing other things. I saw a lot of amazing things when I was learning about tailoring, and those traditional techniques and sometimes antiquated clothes often pop up.

Your clothes follow a certain tradition — how important is this tradition to your work?

I think it's really nice to be aware of traditions and what's come before, whatever field you're in, but Tender's not a repro brand, so there's definitely space for new ideas, and new approaches to tradition. It's always a balance.

Take something like the Butterfly Shirt; can you talk me through how this is made?

The butterfly shirt is named after the butterfly effect — the idea that one little change can have big unexpected results. I wanted to get rid of the side seams on a previous style, the tail shirt. Every design decision on the butterfly shirt followed from that, with no side seam the sleeve seam has to move up onto the top of the sleeve to connect with the shoulder seam, which in turn flips the cuff upside down. The front pockets can no longer tuck into the side seams, so they have to move forwards to tuck into the placket, which in turn has to reverse to be on the outside of the shirt to hold the pockets.

With no side seams the whole shirt body is from a single piece of cloth, and the pattern is too wide for a standard fabric, so I had to have selvage calico specially woven at double-width. Because it's one piece, you only see the selvage on one placket, rather than both.

In terms of the making, I work out the pattern and details by making up some prototypes myself. Then the factory makes up a sample based on that. This sample gets worn to make sure everything works in real life, then the production is made by the same person who made the sample, using all 100% cotton thread so that when it's dyed, the threads dye and the seams shrink into place with the fabric.

Do you feel there is a right way and a wrong way to make clothes?

I think it's important to make anything with care and respect. I definitely believe that it's better to have fewer, really special, things which feel personal and important, rather than lots of disposable things. Of course I have my own taste in making, but as long as things are made with love they're made the right way.

What is your favourite Tender item?

I'm attached to everything that's gone out, but I really enjoy the type 128 jeans that I'm wearing at the moment. They sold pretty horribly, but I like them a lot. The exercise was to take away everything I could while maintaining the identity of a pair of Tender jeans, so they're a real distillation — 4 patch pockets, no shape at all in the side seams, no yoke. They take a bit of trust, because most of the shape and detail in them comes from wearing them in, but in a way that's a really pure interpretation of jeans too.

Outside of Tender, what clothing companies do you admire?

I'm in the lucky position of getting to wear my own samples, so when I do buy things from other brands it's quite exciting! I like Budd shirts, Finisterre technical outerwear is great, and I have a pair of Resolute jeans (designed by Mr Hayashi, who founded Denime) which I really like.

You make more than just clothes, you also make clay mugs, clocks and steel bottle openers. How do you decide what to make? Is it just a case of thinking, “I need a new clock, I’ll make one,” or is it the result of trend forecasting and spread-sheet analysis at Tender headquarters?

Definitely more like the first option. In fact, in the case of the clock that's exactly what happened. Actually having a need for something makes the design process a lot more immediate and subjective, which can really help. The other way that new products come about is that I'll discover a new manufacturing method or meet someone who makes things in an interesting way, and try to work out how those techniques could fit into something.

What next for Tender?

There's no grand plan, which is one of the nice things about being small-scale, you can just take it as it comes. We're in the middle of updating of one of our websites, which is fun and challenging, and allows the seasonal collections to sit in the context of the other things that have been made over the past few years.

The main thing though, which is the most satisfying, is to continue to evolve things and come up with new products and techniques, and to maintain the personal involvement I have with every item.

What do you get up to when you’re not making nice shirts and nifty little bottle openers? What is your favourite film? What music do you like? If I gave you a pound coin, what chocolate bar would you buy with it?

We have a toddler so she fills up more than all the space between working and sleeping. I'm pretty unfussy with films, which isn't a particularly good thing. The Judge, with Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jnr is probably the best recent film I've seen — I didn't think much of Birdman. I listen to music while I'm working, and when I'm driving, which has been quite a lot lately, so it's pretty wide-ranging.

I recently discovered Elliot Smith, who I think is amazing — I've got his last (posthumous) album on right now, and I'll listen to anything that anyone in Wu Tang or Odd Future put out. Not very rock & roll, but an interview on Women's Hour put me onto a guy called Doug Seegers, whose album is great. He's straight-up country and was discovered homeless in Nashville by a Swedish TV producer. His debut has a duet with Emmylou Harris on it. It's worth a listen.

As I say, I've been spending quite a bit of time in the car lately, which means getting those duo chocolate bars in petrol stations. I normally go Mars or Snickers, although sometimes a Bounty hits the spot (you get three of those, too). I read an article about Mars recently — it's a fascinating company, privately owned by the Mars family (who knew?) and with a whole non-profit-making arm dedicated to researching and reproducing Colonial-era chocolate products. Plautus would be proud.

I think I’ve run out of questions. Thanks a lot for doing this interview. Have you got any words of wisdom you’d like to add?

Nope, I'm knackered. Thank you.

See the Tender stuff