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Premium Rebranding Lands HNST In Saks, American Rag

With backing by some of Europe’s leading innovation VC’s, Belgium label HNST is setting its sights on the United States. Saks Fifth Avenue picked up the men’s collection this spring and it will add women’s in the fall. Later this month the brand, which has undergone a visual rebranding rooted in “elevated simplicity,” will take over the windows of Los Angeles’ denim institution, American Rag, and host an in-store event. 

The classic fits and vintage-inspired fabrics that have landed HNST in stores in Belgium, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Japan are the focal point in HNST’s efforts to gain share in the U.S. premium denim market. The company offers five core fits—relaxed, relaxed tapered, straight and slim tapered for men; mom, dad, straight, high rise loose and balloon for women—in indigo, black and ecru retailing for up to $195.

The jeans are 100 percent circular and made with low impact washes—a mere footnote in its rebranding—but an integral part of the HNST’s story. 

“We want to give [consumers] a more sustainable and circular way of buying clothes without them initially knowing it,” said Martijn Swolfs, HNST CEO. 

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Swolfs described the strategy as a “silent movement,” so consumers view HNST as a “cool and understated luxury brand” that, in terms of style, can sit alongside Levi’s, Frame, Mother and Re/Done. “When they find out what we do, I’m sure that they will love us even more because they are part of a solution to a crisis that we have to solve,” he said. 

Circular Start

Investments and actions across the denim supply chain are helping the industry scale its use of recycled cotton. Mills are identifying the optimal recipes for recycled and virgin cotton denim blends. Fiber innovators like Cyclo, Recover and Renewcell are making recycle content more accessible. Meanwhile, initiatives like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jean Redesign and the Amsterdam-based Denim Deal are setting requirements and goals for brands committed to increasing their use of recycled cotton.  

It was a different story in 2017 when HNST (pronounced “honest”) set out to make circular jeans.

Back then, HNST founder Tome Duhoux compared the brand’s business model to the wine grape harvest. In September 2017, HNST initiated a two-week collection campaign in Belgium, where it collected over 6,000 pairs of old jeans that were sorted and recycled into new denim. Fibers made from the non-wearable jeans were blended with Tencel and woven into new fabric in Italy. 


“When Tome came up with the idea of HNST, his initial idea was to really create an impact in the industry,” Swolfs said, adding that the first three years of HNST’s existence was dedicated to research and development and additional harvesting campaigns to collect unwanted jeans. 

“The company was mainly focused on getting the product right, getting the fit and making sure that what we’re saying and what we’re offering makes sense,” he said. 

Though the brand was selling jeans on its e-commerce site in Belgium and neighboring countries in by 2020, Swolfs said 2022 was the first “global roll out.” 

Wholesale is the distribution channel of choice for the U.S. A global partnership with M5 Showroom in New York City, which distributes brands like Stone Island and Jacob Cohen, opened the brand up to wholesale in the U.S. last September. Landing an institutional store like Saks Fifth Avenue is a “big deal for a relatively small brand like HNST coming from Belgium,” Swolfs added. 

Glocal Future

The brand has global goals, but it continues to take ownership of its European supply chain.

“Since the volumes are increasingly growing, it’s easier for us to optimize our production and the economies of scale are much easier,” Swolfs said about maintaining a local and sustainable supplier list. 

European Spinning Group, a Belgium spinner, makes HNST’s weft yarn. “They have been supporting us from the very beginning. They’re very flexible and open to a lot of R&D and innovation processes,” he said. Italian mill Pure Denim takes the yarn and weaves it in denim. Swolfs lauded the mill’s Smart Indigo technology which uses an electromagnetic field to fix indigo onto the yarn instead of chemicals and water. 

Recycled cotton makes up 60-70 percent of HNST’s fabric constructions. From next year onward, Swolfs said it will be 70-80 percent. The remaining fiber is cotton sourced from Greece. “We prefer working with traceable organic cotton or local non GMO cotton, such as the Greek growers because they’re very strong in non-genetically manipulated organic cotton. That’s why we’re working with the Greek varieties because they can give us the necessary certificates,” he said. 

Swolfs added that the company is looking into a regenerative cotton initiative in India to cultivate its own cotton from seed to fiber. “If we need to use cotton, it needs to at least be cultivated in the best possible way with the most respect for the planet, but also for the people cultivating it,” he said.  


A partnership with a local donation center and a takeback program for consumers’ unwanted jeans supplies HNST with small volumes of textiles to cycle back into its manufacturing. The company purchases additional post-consumer waste from a German recycler for larger production. Buying waste is a stopgap until HNST can develop a larger collection scheme. 

“We are thinking to expand our own program because we still believe in the whole idea of harvesting something and then using it instead of buying it from somebody else,” Swolfs said. Unfortunately, there’s so much waste out there. So, it’s just a matter of finding a structure to collect all the waste.”

Some ideas are working with festivals like Tomorrowland to incentivize visitors to donate unwanted jeans. The brand is considering hosting “harvesting dating experiences” like concerts or parties that would require old jeans as the entrance fee. Swolfs said the company is also in talks with a U.S. partner to see if they can begin to expand its network and harvest jeans around the world.  

“[We want to make] people more aware that we can do something with their old pair of jeans. And want to give them something in return and have a nice experience that brings people together with shared values,” he said.