Dawson Denim tell their riveting story
Words Nicholas Hitchcock
Photographs Johanna Ward
Jean experts Kelly Dawson and Scott Ogden reveal all on their obsession with Japanese vintage, the secrets of selvedge and how they turned their passion into a business…
Dawson Denim is Kelly Dawson and Scott Ogden, who run a small workshop in Brighton – it took them a year to source and build the specialist machines. They formed in 2011 and started trading in 2012, launching at Best of Britannia in Clerkenwell in October 2012. Their first products were inspired by vintage workwear aprons and since then they have expanded the range into bags and, most recently, jeans.
What inspired you to work solely in denim?
I first worked with denim when I was at university. It’s strange because I never intended to specialise in denim after that, it just happened naturally; my first paid job was working on denim and I have followed a 16-year career so far working with denim – and some heavier cottons.
Where you always a ‘denim head’? And did your interest come via pop culture originally or from the workwear side?
Well, becoming a denim head or denim geek doesn’t happen overnight! It’s something that evolves; the first step is realising you are working with a fabric that has history the rest is learning the journey of where that fabric came from. I think my approach to design has always been from a pretty scientific angle: function before fashion. Having said that I remember wearing Levi 902s rolled up with hi-top sneakers and pretending I was Neneh Cherry. I can’t lie! Scott watched ‘that’ Nick Kamen advert back in 1987 and got his first pair of Levi 501s and has never looked back – being a mod meant wearing selvage 501s with a half-inch turn up bought from American Classics back in the 1990s.
Is it a satisfying material to work with?
That depends; yes mostly, but it’s hard work, especially when working with heavier weights. The beauty is watching what you’ve made age and fade, that is the unique beauty of denim, us denim heads are always chasing the best ‘fades’. It’s never just the material, it’s a combination of the pocket bags, rivets and buttons and the threads you choose, which give a unique ‘handwriting’ to that pair of jeans; this is what’s satisfying. Every inch of a pair of jeans should be carefully considered.
Can you explain the idea behind the ‘log book’ that comes with each piece of denim you make?
The log book is inspired by Scott’s Grandad Ogden’s driving licence, which we came across in his parents’ attic. It was dated 1930. We also had some motoring memorabilia such as old service manuals. The idea of our products being made to last was paramount but the problem was how could we convey this to the customer. It made sense for us to offer a free repair service on our products and as with a motorbike or car, you bring the item to us; we repair it and return it to you. This also fits with our passion for vintage motoring.
Do you think we’ve lost the concept of durability and ‘make do and mend’ in today’s consumer, throwaway culture?
There is a growing trend among the conscientious that the throwaway lifestyle is not finite, although the make do and mend ethos contradicts capitalism this is fine by us – buy less; buy better. The mark of quality of our garments is that they do not necessarily need replacing. Our customer is also buying into vintage clothing knowing that the clothes made pre-1960s were made to last.
Where do you source the tools and equipment you use?
This has been the biggest challenge of our journey. We quickly realised that most industrial machinery for making jeans had already vanished from the UK. We live a vintage lifestyle and for us it was paramount that we employed traditional manufacturing techniques that require old machines, so acquiring was made even more difficult. After a year of sourcing we had imported some of our machines from Italy, Netherlands, Japan and America. The problem we had then was attaching them to motors and getting them working; in one case we had to tempt a technician out of retirement. It’s been sad too, hearing how skilled technicians were now working regular jobs their skills being almost forgotten with the lack of production being made here.
Why is Japanese selvage denim so sought after?
A combination of reasons: Japan has been dyeing with indigo (actually polygonum) for over 600 years. Blue is a very important colour to Japanese tradition, its the colour of water which in turn means food (fish). For a Japanese dye house being the best at dyeing with indigo held status. Today it’s not environmentally sound to dye rope with indigofera or the polygonum plant because of the huge demand, instead the chemical variant, which won Adolf Baeyer the Nobel Peace Prize, is used but it’s still fermented in the same way. They learned to grow cotton from their Chinese neighbours and they learned their weaving techniques from us and the Industrial revolution. This combination is in my opinion what makes Japanese denim the best in the world.
People often think Japanese denim is made from imported American Draper looms but that’s not the case is it? Can you explain why Toyoda looms are so good?
The Toyoda Loom, invented by Sakichi Toyoda (grandfather of Toyota industries) is still very much in use today; developed in 1926 the loom had an automatic stop which meant if there was an error the loom would automatically stop and not continue weaving. I believe he would had used the 1830 Roberts loom as a starting point ,as opposed to the Northrup (aka Draper) of 1895 but I guess we’ll never know for sure.
And can you explain in layman’s terms why unwashed denim is preferable?
Three reasons, First it’s better for the environment. Second, the jeans will last longer. Third it’s the denim heads rite of passage; no laundry can create as good a wash as the wearer.
What is your favourite / rarest piece of vintage denim?
My 1940s Lee Sanforized bib and brace overalls, they’re in mint condition thanks to Dustbowl Vintage. Scott’s would be his Dawson Jeans – they’ve got our blood sweat and tears on them.
Can you explain the inspiration for your logo?
We were at the Sammy Miller museum, looking at one of the first British motorbikes made called ‘The Bat’ and we realised the gear levers were screwed in place with a cheese head screw. We liked that the purpose of a screw holding things together.
What are your passions beyond denim?
Vintage motoring. Scott has a 1959 Lambretta Li Series II, I have a 1959 Vespa Douglas VBA and a 1960 Vespa Sportique. Scott often shows the Lambretta at the Goodwood Revival so we spend a lot of time with petrol heads. We also both collect vinyl, mid-century furniture and anything old and good. The odd stroll to the seafront is not unheard of either.