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Amsterdam’s Denim Scene is Still Kicking, But With a More Local Flavor

Instead of meeting in Amsterdam this week for Kingpins Amsterdam, the global denim industry will be tuning into Kingpins24 Oct. 27-30. The online event offers a comprehensive program of panels and presentations that explore fiber and raw material innovations, social responsibility and creativity in denim.

Organizers, however, stop short of calling Kingpins24 a replacement for its marquee show, knowing that an online format could never replace the camaraderie and connections that Kingpins Amsterdam produces.

After an initial lockdown in April, the city sprang back to life in the summer. But with a second wave of Covid-19 cases looming and no end to travel restrictions in sight, Kingpins announced in July that it would not go ahead with the October event in Amsterdam.

The decision proved prescient, unfortunately. The Dutch government imposed partial lockdown measures on Oct. 14, for at least four weeks to contain the spread of the virus, including the closure of all bars and restaurants in the country and restricted hours for retail. Like most of Europe, The Netherlands is seeing the number of confirmed cases rise, with Amsterdam emerging as a hotbed.

Reuters reported Sunday that infections in the country spiked by more than 10,000 in a 24-hour period that day.

The void left by in-person trade events this year has been felt across the denim industry. Denim mills have augmented their relationships with clients through apps, Zoom meetings and other forms of digital communication. The sector’s tactility and community-driven nature, however, inherently clashes with the digital world.

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Amsterdam, Europe’s denim city, is arguably the hardest hid by the pandemic’s constraints. “The cancellation of Kingpins is very sad for all of us in [the] denim industry and even more for all of us in Amsterdam,” said Silva Rancani, founder of The Denim Window showroom.

Social distancing aside, companies that have grown to rely on the international pull of Kingpins are reconsidering their own events. On average, the show attracts between 1,800 and 2,000 attendees from 20-plus countries.

“We can’t deny that we, [as well as many others] plan our events alongside Kingpins’ dates in order to reach the international crowd that the show brings to town,” Rancani said. Likewise, Calik Denim postponed its Amsterdam conference, Ever Evolving Talks, to April next year. The annual event was scheduled to take place on Tuesday.

And the cancellation of Kingpins has been compounded by the fact that Amsterdam—for the first time in a long time—once again belongs to locals instead of tourists.

Despite the fact that locals have a long-standing love-hate relationship with out-of-towners, the exodus of tourism dollars in Amsterdam, in general, is a staggering blow to the city. Amsterdam, which has fewer than one million residents, received 19 million tourists in 2018, three million more than the year prior. And before the pandemic, Statista projected the city’s 2020 tourist population to balloon to 21 million.

“The world is faced with immense challenges and Amsterdam is no exception,” said Jason Denham, founder and chief creative officer of Denham the Jeanmaker.

Needless to say, Amsterdam businesses are taking a major economic hit. “Soon after the first wave of the pandemic some locals thought life would better without tourism. There was a sense of relief having the city back to themselves for a little bit,” said Menno van Meurs, Tenue de Nîmes CEO. “But fast forward a few months and we all acknowledge the city is out of balance without all those curious foreigners everywhere. Amsterdam is meant to be vibrant.”

With foot-traffic down and events on hold, “local community,” Denham said, “is the key priority.” Denham, which as four locations in Amsterdam, is doing its part to safely stay connected and engaged with local consumers by enforcing social distancing guidelines in stores, booking shopping appointments and working on raffles for high-profile launches like its recent collaboration with Nike. “This was executed very carefully to protect both our consumers and our retail team,” Denham said.

Mariette Hoitink, owner the Amsterdam-based fashion recruitment firm, HTNK International, and the co-founder of House of Denim, Jean School and Denim City, has seen the effects of the pandemic wash over the industry. “What you see right now is that a major shift is taking place,” she said. “Companies are more hesitant.” New opportunities in digital jobs are opening up, however. “Every company needs to be super tech savvy nowadays,” Hoitink said.

The city’s denim sector is adjusting to the new realities forced by the pandemic.

Businesses like The Denim Window help fill the gap left by a global supply-chain trade show. The showroom, which recently relocated to a more central space in Amsterdam near Westerpark, continues to serve local brands and designers as both a hub for creative collaborations and as a destination to discover new collections and innovations from companies across the sector.

“In a time where unfortunately most of the denim exhibitions are getting cancelled, a permanent showroom where collections are displayed, in a strategic location where many brands are based, is becoming eventually even more relevant,” Rancani said.

Companies exhibiting at The Denim Window include Archroma, Berto, The Lycra Company, Medike Landes, R.E.A.L. Garments and more, making it a one-stop shop for fabric, fibers, trims and garment production. The new space has an open concept layout that allows for multiple clients to visit at the same time, as well as a roof terrace, several working tables, a kitchen and a “coffee corner.”

“I want to keep the coziness and the at-home feeling that was a strong point in our first location,” Rancani said.

The showroom, which began to welcome visitors in September, is working with clients’ various pandemic protocols. Some clients have no problem at all meeting with their vendors, while others prefer to avoid in-person meetings. Corporate companies, however, tend to have the strictest policies in place about in-person meetings, Rancani said. The showroom also continues to offer calls and video conferences, especially for international clients who are unable to travel.

Clients are also working on different seasons—or in some cases—no season at all, Rancani said. “Some smaller brands are working on their Spring/Summer ’21 collection following the usual calendar, while others are just looking for few novelties in order to add them to their previous collections that haven’t been sold and need to be re-presented in their stores,” she explained.

With most brands still holding onto a lot of stock from previous seasons and without any clear indication of what type of apparel consumers will need in six months, Rancani said the city’s denim industry feels “a bit lost, a bit confused.” To design a completely new collection “is not really an option” for most brands weighed down by uncertainty.

How and what people are working on may have changed, but the key takeaway is that the wheels are still turning. And there’s still a consumer for durable, comfortable jeans. As Hoitink noted, “we still all ride a bike.”

“Amsterdam will definitely keep up and will stay on top of the European denim game,” van Meurs said. Though the city’s lively social scene is put on hold, van Meurs points out that Amsterdam remains home to the world’s first Jeans School and many “top-notch, international denim brands,” including Kings of Indigo, G-Star Raw and PVH Corp.’s Denim Center.

“Denim is not so easily taken out of the heart of our city,” he said.

Tenue de Nîmes is part of that heartbeat. Though it’s recognized by denim lovers as one of the best denim boutiques in the world, it took measures to stay connected with locals during the height of the pandemic. Within 48 hours of the first lockdown, it began its doorstep delivery service in Amsterdam. “One day later, we made it into the of the Dutch Financial Newspaper FD explaining why we would survive all of this,” van Meurs said.

“During this whole period we brought every single garment to people’s doorstep. We took extra sizes for customers to safely try at home. We literally said: If people can’t visit our stores for some time, we will bring the stores to their homes,” he said.

Tenue de Nîmes’ online business “went through the roof” from March onwards. “It’s absurd how many changes we went through in such a short period of time,” he said.

A denim boutique succeeding during a pandemic? That’s contrary to the news touting the so-called death of denim, but van Meurs said he believes the sector has a huge opportunity right now as consumers re-evaluate their closets. Basic items like jeans resonate with consumers that don’t want to live in activewear, he said. “I also believe people will find their way back to quality again,” he added. “Clothes you can rely on.”

Denham is seeing consumers shift back to jeans as well. Though footfall has dropped, he said conversion is “very good” in the stores. “Consumers come to buy multiple products,” he said. “In the start of this pandemic we noticed an appetite for sweats and comfort products, however we now see a strong denim resurgence in demand from our customers.”

The brand is banking on several notable product launches in Q4, including new GOTS-certified Authentic denim and outerwear made with recycled nylon to help keep momentum. “I am a very strong believer that product is king and this will always make results, despite whatever the business climate looks like,” Denham said.

Whether it’s selling jeans, meeting with clients or interviewing for a job, in-person meetings “is where the magic starts,” Hoitink said. But online events are an opportunity for denim fans from all over the world, who would never make it to Amsterdam, to get a taste of city’s passion for denim.

Amsterdam Denim Days, the annual consumer-facing denim festival, is getting a virtual makeover as well. Originally scheduled for the weekend following Kingpins on Oct. 30-31 at Denim City, the event will take place over Zoom, allowing indigo fans from around the world to take part in the program of talks, giveaways and other surprises.

“We do get a lot of interest from the Kingpins crowd. But next to that, we’ve managed to get a lot of denim lovers who are interested in Denim Days,” said Lucel van den Hoeven, Denim Days co-founder.

The festival has always welcomed independent designers, artists, retailers and brands—large and small. “From the beginning, we have always tried to give room to the new and inspiring developments in the denim world,” he said. “This will be no different at the digital event. We will show the stories behind the brand or designer, the ideas behind the concept.”

But turning an event where “interactions play a big role in the concept” isn’t easy, van den Hoeven said. Denim Days is known for its workshops, presentations and flea market-style shopping stalls. And since the event relocated from Westergasfabriek to the city’s hotspot De Hallen, it has benefited from having Denim City as its backdrop as well as the area’s unique shops and buzzing food hall.

The denim community, however, is stepping up to the challenge. “We are convinced this will work and [it may even give] a new dimension to our event,” he said about the online format.

Local brands like Scotch & Soda, Kings of Indigo, Benzak Denim Developers and Tenue de Nîmes are participating, as well as Italian chemical company Officina +39, U.S. brand Ginew, artist Ian Berry and more. Meanwhile, Denim Days’ sponsor Tencel is helping to coordinate a “well-balanced” program with a focus on sustainability, van den Hoeven said.

“This year Amsterdam will share the denim heritage to the world through a virtual program,” said Tricia Carey, director of global business development of denim at Lenzing. “We are pleased to sponsor Denim Days Amsterdam for the second consecutive year and find new ways to connect during this time. Supporting our brand partners and collaborators in the market brings our story of transforming trees into amazing denim products for the modern consumers.”

Strong storytelling, relevant product lines and connections—be it in-person or virtual—will be part of the global denim industry’s pandemic recovery, not only Amsterdam’s. But the city is the bellwether of what’s next in denim.

Rancani said she expects the denim industry to need one more season before it gets “back on track,” albeit a different track that has smaller and fewer collections. “My feeling is that the whole process is under discussion and the next collections will be more focus and less dispersive,” she said.

Not returning to “business as usual” has the potential to be a positive change, said Hoitink, an advocate for a more sustainable denim industry. “The pandemic forces every one of us to rethink the value chain, to work on more future proof sustainable, ethical and hybrid business models and to become even more resilient,” she said. “I see this as the biggest shift ever.”

Resiliency will be tested. Van Meurs said times will get rough for a lot of people as Dutch government assistance begins to wane and is tested to its limits. “We at Tenue de Nîmes will continue to try and add value to this beautiful city of ours,” he said. “Amsterdam managed to survive many [crises] during the past centuries. I am sure we will find a way out of this one, too.”