When William Kroll started working in the denim industry, he realized that most high-end denim is based in either Japanese or American culture—or in one country interpreting the other.
Kroll was interested in trying something a little more personal to his own background. He saw parallels with the American West—the birthplace of denim—and the opening up of British land through Victorian steam engines. He named his brand Tender after the coal-car on a steam locomotive.
Kroll said the name achieves the dual purpose of suggesting the less glamorous, industrial element, as well as the amount of care that goes into his product. He explained, “Like you tend to a garden or to a flock of sheep, you tend to your garments.”
Kroll is interested in the literal transparency of denim, the way elements like pockets and rivets will show up on both sides of jeans. He pointed out that if you were on an island and were given metal and welding tools, you could make a plate, but you couldn’t make an iPhone—that’s what’s interesting to him about jeans, it’s not magic, and that’s part of the appeal for others also.
“I think a lot of the customers are seeing it from that almost philosophical point of view,” Kroll said. “It’s an attitude as much as anything else.”
Tender denim is designed to change as it is worn. Kroll uses denim woven in Japan, which is unsanforized, unfinished, hairy and not pre-skewed. This way, Kroll explained, the denim gains all its personality as it is worn. Similarly, he uses natural dyes, which also change over time. Indigo is a reactive pigment and is very unstable so that it changes as it gets older. He also uses madder root, which produces a soft pink, but the color can be very different when photographed.
Kroll said, “If you make something yourself, there’s a sort of magic that happens when it stops being pieces of cotton sewn together and starts being a garment.”
The Tender collection includes a variety of apparel, but almost the entire Tender collection is made in the U.K. at a factory run by two people in their 60s. The factory had been almost closed down and had let their staff go when Kroll was introduced and began a partnership, and now the factory manufactures solely for Tender.
Kroll keeps his whole process accessible by posting on Superfuture to keep his fans up-to-date on manufacturing processes, fabrics and new objects. Other than that, Kroll doesn’t do any social media. He finds that people will post the garments on their own Instagram accounts. Through the way consumers present the garments, the line gains another life of its own.
The brand’s roots in British heritage and careful construction has expanded even beyond the Tender clothing line. In Tender’s third season, Kroll started doing ceramics. Like denim, pottery shows the marks of the hands that make it, he explained. The issue with pottery is that if you are wholesaling a batch of mugs to a retailer, the store expects them to be largely identical, which is difficult when you are making pottery by hand.
To work around this issue, Kroll started an online shop in 2012 called Trestle Shop. On the site, he could sell items one-by-one and was even able to play around with the idea of what a shop is. Online store generally direct people to product categories through online menus, but Kroll subverted this concept by randomizing the merchandise every time you go to the home page.
In addition to Trestle Shop, Kroll has launched two other brands that call back to British heritage. Sleeper is a line of garments strictly reproduced from British Rail uniforms in Okayama, Japan, which are developed from the Tender archive and made with British and Japanese fabrics. There is also a watch brand, GS/TP (General Service/Trade Pattern) that is modeled after pocket watches commissioned by the British government for military issue during the 1930s and 40s. The wristwatches are designed by Kroll and produced in a small factory in Tokyo.
Tender’s newest project will be a new store in Tokyo, as the brand’s largest customer base is in Japan. The store will be a low-tech affair—set up in the office of Kroll’s Japanese partner. The store will also serve as a depot and allow Japanese retailers to pull merchandise.
This is not a global expansion to Kroll, merely a way of communicating locally with a key demographic. He said he is simply looking to pay the bills, with no investors or debts.