This Spring, we have been quite excited to add Tender to our brand list. Operated by William Kroll, Tender has its roots firmly planted in English workwear, drawing reference from the Great Steam Age. In addition to running the label, William is also a sessional instructor at the esteemed Central Saint Martins, where he studied tailoring. We are delighted to present to you a conversation between Neighbour and Tender's founder.
What was the catalyst for the creation of this project?
I’d already been working for a Japanese brand and I had studied fashion at CSM and tailoring, and then had gone to work in the denim industry and getting really into Japanese jeans. I guess I had these different strands coming through - a fashion menswear approach of researching things and getting into different moods and feelings of things, then working that into the design process. Also incorporating a tailoring influence, which holds a respect for tradition handwork and craft.
And then there was also the Japanese reproduction culture and appropriation of Americana and workwear. I felt a lot of the brands that I liked were Japanese or American and were doing great things, but felt quite specific to those cultures and I was keen to try something for myself and do a new project.
At this time (10 years ago) I felt as though, through the internet and menswear media there was access to a lot of great product so I needed to do something that was a bit different. So I started putting things together and started from a workwear point of view, more specifically I saw an opportunity to do something with British workwear and how it linked together the ideas of researching something not directly within the scope of fashion and then bringing into a clothing point of view. Looking at practical clothing and also the evolved side of things and handwork that comes from tailoring.
I’ve always been quite into craft and making things, before I got into fashion I was in furniture and product design. Initially, when I went to college I had intended on furniture design. Really it was the idea of making something myself.
Is there any emotion in particular that Tender allows you to express?
I guess the name came from working clothes in the UK and I was getting into the steam engines from the Victorian Era. So I started looking at the Industrial Revolution and engines and the clothes people wore during this time. This is where the name came from, the piece of the train which would carry the coal and water.
Whereas American workwear jeans had evolved quite far; people were travelling over from Europe for the Gold Rush, and in the UK the clothes you’d wear to work on a steam engine were quite close to formal tailoring. You’d have your high-waisted black wool pants and your black wool frock coat and it is interesting to see these clothes and their parallel evolution alongside what might be conceived as ‘workwear’ in a contemporary context. Those differences are what I wanted to focus on.
With the name, it suggests gentleness and in a way a sort of rawness in the idea of being tender. There’s a sense of vulnerability and this is quite honest as a design sensibility and quite open. I don’t approach it from a hard shell of cool (common in fashion) and that’s not really me. I prefer to have a slightly more personal relationship with these things and there’s something about that in the name. Also, the idea of making something with love and tenderness. The person who owns the product becomes a very important part of that thing and they become the tender to it, in the same sense as a garden or flock of sheep. If you take on a shirt from my collection, it will arrive to you in its new state, which is to say the end of the production process. I see this point as the middle, but then it goes onto the new owner who will live with it and it will become something much more personal and interesting. In a way, if there is an end of the process it happens when the garment truly becomes the person’s own and loses the connotations of branding and ideas of a seasonal designer object. Over time this sheds away and I really like this idea.
There’s also the sense of friendliness. The kind of British making I partake in is not always absolutely by the book, but it has an understandability and openness. I hope that if someone picks up one of my garments, even if they can’t make it themselves, they might still be able to understand how it was made.
How were you able to connect with the English artisans who create these beautiful pieces? Is there a working definition and appreciation of craft that you all share?
Blind luck is what I say. I’m extremely lucky and thankful for the people I work with. I met them by a recommendation from someone at college and I got on a train and visited them. It’s a couple who have a bespoke tailoring background and ultimately opened up a factory for casual wear in London, but eventually they became a bit more elderly and the market slowed down so they scaled down their factory and now the two of them work on all the machines in the factory they still keep. I appreciate what they do and I understand how they work, even if I can’t operate all the machines fast and neatly I understand what the limitations are as well as the opportunities. It’s given us a great working relationship where I can propose things and we’ll try it out together. Hopefully you get a better result when you’re working towards the same end, especially when you’re attempting something unusual.
There are new fabrics, new challenges, and new ways of doing things, so it’s always interesting. This allows me to be personally involved in the production process and I find it to be a privilege and a luxury, especially in the fashion world.
Do you believe there is resurgence in appreciation of craft as a response to mass-produced products and acceleration towards efficiency?
I think so. I think a lot of it is to do with communication and the internet and retailers who exhibit products in a detailed and specific way. Being able to buy products through the internet from any country means that retailers have become important. It’s not just what is immediately available in a local area, but rather how products are presented, how retailers tell stories, and how they edit things. That’s a great pleasure when working with retailers.
I see my products in different ways through different shops. Even a simple product shot has to do with the typography used and the other garments with which it’s paired. It gives it a different feeling and that level of presentation and knowledge has led to new clients, who like to have deeper knowledge about this. In a way, the democratization of this means that my stuff, which is tiny, is as visible to everyone around the world as a mega brand; and that’s interesting. This allows people who like things made by hand, with thought and care, to find this kind of product.
Quite a few of your stockists are located in Japan, why do you think their market is so interested in this specific type of product?
I think it might have to do with a mature market who enjoys this kind of product. It seems as though this client may be quite interested in what’s happening outside of Japan. I’m a small enough brand where I don’t have to do projections and marketing strategies and therefore I can take everything on its own merit.
If I could make a small generalization, it seems that there are quite a few store in Japan who are very small from a business point of view and order small quantities. I find these shops tend to not think of the product so seasonally and therefore they can build up collections cross-seasonally and pair old and new products in various ways. I really like that approach.
What is the advantage to cutting fabric loom-state, rather than on the roll?
Well, from an honest, technical, practical point of view if you’re being efficient this is a disadvantage. From a personality and soul perspective, it has every advantage. When you weave with pretty much any natural fiber, the fiber in its raw state will be unstable, so if you get cotton wet it will shrink, it will change state very easily. When you weave, you’re generally using untreated yarn, or at least I usually use untreated yarn. You then get your loom-state fabric and it is normal at this point to wash it or steam it to singe it or burn off the hairy surface to press it, to do all kinds of things to put it through rollers and stretch it out so it will become stable.
At that point you can then make your garment and whatever happens to it, it will stay the same. If you make your garment with loom-state fabric you have to be careful because it will change in size when you wash it, but rather than having fabric which is shrunk and becomes quite flat, cut into panels, and sewn as a collection of panels sewn together. Instead, you’ll get these big, relatively loose, open fabrics, cut into panels, then sewn into a garment and you’ll have a collection of panels which are formed into the shape of a pair of pants. You’ll then wash that, or in my case wash it or dye it with natural dyes, when you do this all of the fabric shrinks and it causes the garment to shrink together. When this happens, in my mind, it becomes more than the sum of its parts, it becomes a three dimensional thing where you have one piece of fabric sewn with another into a seam, like pieces of paper two flat planes, but when you wash it the seam becomes part of both pieces of fabric and you then have one thing and you might get a crease in a certain place or a round part across the seam, you might get a fold that joins it. Any imperfections in dye or anything while you wash it becomes a part of the garment. It also means that anything like skewing, where the yarn tries to untwist itself, that affects the direction of the fabric and it affects the twist of legs in pants or sleeves in shirts, will happen. Pretty much all the garments I work with are cut and sewn in loom-state and then become something more interesting when the next step happens to them.
Also – cotton thread shrinks in the same way fabric will, so the results after washing is puckered seams, which gives it personality and changes the shape of the overall seam. If you have an armhole with cotton thread, it will produce a slightly gathered seam, which gives a subtle shape to the other panels and it also means that it’ll wear differently. The threads take on the dye and the same richness as the rest of the garment, but as they fade the dye will appear similar to how the fabric holds it. Cotton doesn’t hold up as well as polyester, but that means it will wear out in the same interesting ways and at the same rate as the other parts of the garments, in the sense of fraying or fluffing up. In a practical way, polyester is very strong stuff and is great, but when you look at old garments and they have loose threads that are fluffed up and frayed and they have something lovely to that. I think it’s really nice if you can bring a sense of that same spirit, without necessarily aiming for an exact reproduction of older garments.
These days the predominant mindset of "fashion" seems to be a breed of accelerating consumption, regardless of high-end or fast-fashion brands. In this sense, do you see your form of creation as one that exists outside of "fashion"?
Well, on the one hand, what I do wouldn’t be considered traditional catwalk fashion, and in some ways it’s easy and might be the right answer to say, “No, I’m against fashion.” But, it is within this world and I’m personally into fashion and I’ve fallen in and out of love with various aspects of it. That said, I do teach at CSM and also studied there. I do have a general interest in this stuff and try to keep up even with things that don’t directly affect what I do and I think it is important.
I think it’s important not to block out other ways of looking at things. It can be easy in the jeans world and reproduction world to have a very narrow vision.
One of the down sides to fashion is that it can be quite restless and not spend time doing something well and investigating it. But, on the other hand, there’s something interesting about doing research and getting excited about it and at a certain point you turn around and look at something else and then see how you can bring that into your world. From a fashion design perspective, and even from a Central Saint Martin’s attitude, you research thing from outside and then bring them into fashion. That’s something I grew up with and how I studied. I adopted that approach and I enjoy it. It can allow for a rich experience.
Even if what I do may not feel very fashion, it does come from a fashion design approach. If it veers off into another field, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t come from that perspective.