Savi, as he’s known among friends, is a self-taught fashion designer trained in fashion management. Despite his physically tall demeanour, Savi struck me with his gentle and amicable personality. What began as a personal experiment to create the perfect tank top, resulted in a very unique product with a very clear mission. Hempje is a unisex clothing brand addressing both form and function. It is designed with the user in mind and concedes to conscious living. Asides from its uniform appeal, the tank top is created sustainably, locally and draws on elements of diversity.
How did you get started with Hempje?
I studied Fashion Management at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute [AMFI], but I wasn’t educated as a designer. I learned about drawing, cutting and sewing. The basics of the fashion industry. After about 12 years of working in retail as a Sales Associate for a couple of Scandinavian brands, I wanted something different. I wanted to turn my own ideas into reality, use my hands and make a product that I could really be proud of. I came up with the idea of Hempje, or tank top in Dutch, and it kind of grew bigger in my head over time. I eventually decided it was important to make the process sustainable and entirely local.
I suppose this is where the hemp comes in?
Then I discovered [the material] hemp and its properties. I found a distributor, bought a sample and made my first Hempje. I started making Hempjes from home, from my bedroom, which wasn’t working out so well. My friend Mina, with whom I share this studio, invited me to share her workspace. Having my own space allowed me to have my own washing machine, another professional sewing machine and a worktable. At some point, I developed five different styles of tank tops and the brand started growing.
What are a few of the core pillars that define Hempje?
It’s a label based on hemp and it’s produced entirely in Holland. The overall fit is extra long, which I like to call the ‘North European’ fit, [and the colour palette is unique]. My aim with Hempje is to create a NOS [never-out-of-stock] capsule collection that rarely changes, apart from some colours and details throughout the seasons. Eventually, I hope to use it as a platform. I’d like to work together with other artists and treat Hempje as a canvas for developing silk-screen prints and embroidery, for instance. This is something I’ve been thinking about.
How did you get inspired to design a tank top?
I used to wear cheap tank tops, which were of low quality, cotton-stretch material. I used to skateboard and I wore baggy jeans, I didn’t like it when the tank top didn’t cover my boxer shorts. I always had a hard time finding long tank tops. At some point, I figured that nobody ever gave proper attention to this product and saw it as a great opportunity. In 2004, in my second year at AMFI, I started drawing different models of tank tops and decided to really focus on this garment alone. When I began making them from hemp in 2014, the brand’s name was obvious.
The name speaks for itself.
Something I realized during my internship in 2007 at J.Lindeberg, a Scandinavian fashion brand, is the importance of simplicity and clarity when it comes to a brand’s mission and vision. The creative director, who was working there at the time, was almost too creative. I think he was actually way ahead of his time. I was responsible for Sales in the Benelux region and had a really hard time selling it. I learned my lesson the hard way. If you want to build a strong brand you really need to stick to a specific concept, otherwise you risk losing your consumers and retailers because they can’t keep up with what you stand for.
It reminds me of our conversation earlier. We discussed how many brands change their collections from season to season and year to year, and how they are often trying to keep pace with trending styles from the catwalk. Would you agree that most people tend to stay loyal to certain brands based on which fit or style suits them best, despite trending styles?
Yes, definitely. I spent quite a few years working in a shop where customers came to buy their basics, like jeans, t-shirts etc. Male customers often came to me with the question, ‘I bought this pair of chinos 8 years ago, do you still have it’? And, of course, we didn’t carry it anymore. At the same time, I started thinking that if you could make one great pair of chinos, you would make many people very happy for years to come.
Definitely. Something I began doing a few years ago is stocking up on key pieces that I love, such as t-shirts or pants that I regularly wear. It gives me great pleasure knowing that I have an extra pair of my favourite pants in case the other pair wears out and I can no longer replace it.
And that wouldn’t make sense when you’re 16 years old because your style will change when you’re 16 and a half. [In your 20s], you begin to develop your own personal style and learn what you like and what feels good or fits well, so it’s not such a weird idea. There’s so much clothing to buy, the supply is definitely higher than the demand. But still, it might be difficult to find the right fit for you.
I think that’s an interesting point. I have been reading about entrepreneurs with fashion and retail experience who leave their jobs to start something new. They see patches in the industry and consumer needs that are not being fulfilled, especially when it comes to sustainable and conscious consumption. There seems to be a shift where many consumers are choosing to save up for capsule pieces to add to their wardrobe, rather than buying more for less.
Yeah, definitely. I’m really interested to see how this will evolve. It is happening for sure, and it’s not even the pioneers that are in the lead anymore. I received an email in my inbox today that ABN AMRO (a Dutch bank) is investing in the circular economy. So, this means big players are noticing the shift in demand and showing their support.
What do you think initiated this revolution? It is related to the current generation of consumers? Or is it perhaps related to trends?
I think here, in the Western countries, we are basically some of the most spoiled people when it comes to consumerism. We have been wealthy nations for quite some time. The first thing that you might do when you reach a new level of wealth is to buy new things. Once you have satisfied your basic needs and you can afford everything you really need, I think you reach a point where you realize, ‘hey, this is something I’ve always wanted but it’s not really making me happy’. And then you’re going to start thinking, ‘well, what is going to make me happy?’ You eventually reach a point where you realize that it’s actually about finding deeper meaning and a sense of purpose. I experienced this myself when I worked in fashion.
I realized that I wasn’t really happy in my previous job. It took me a couple of years to discover this. I needed to give in to the longing that I had for what I really wanted to do. What do I want to have in my hands every day? What do I want to do? What really makes me happy? Sometimes it’s scary because if you’re earning a decent salary and you need to pay your rent, you don’t want to give it up if you’re not sure what’s going to happen. But at some point I knew that I needed to go through with it, because that was more important than playing it safe.
Things just fell into place for you.
That was a sign that things were heading in the right direction.
And was this very different than what some of your friends or your peers were doing after graduation?
Well work-wise, it wasn’t so weird. I mean everyone was taking different routes after their studies. At some point, I found myself reading about current events that were happening around the world. I [immersed myself] in research for a few years to discover more about the current state of our world. What is really happening? What initiatives are happening right now that I support? I realized that so many creative, sustainable actions were already taking place. There was a whole world out there that was moving in the same direction as I wanted to move myself, so I just jumped in and found my place. I wanted to reflect my vision through Hempje. I wanted to grow and begin collaborating with others. I’m not sure where it will take us yet, but I’m excited to get started.
I guess there’s a strong focus in the media to publicize the negative. We tend to focus on what’s wrong with the world and never fully appreciate when things are going well, until they start going wrong again. Generally, we are used to complaining about things we’re unsatisfied or unhappy about.
After feeling overwhelmed by it, I began reading more about spirituality. I was eventually able to connect to the fact that everything happens for a reason and that the universe has its own laws that govern the way things work. In a way, I was able to accept some things –
Things that were unfair, cruel or unjust?
Yeah, maybe something like that. And also that the way we look at the world also tells you something about yourself. There was one I still remember which went something like ‘the best way to make the world a better place is to make yourself a better person’. Over time this is what I started doing more. I felt happier, and thankful that I had found a purpose. I began having more adventures and having more fun.
What do I want to have in my hands every day? What do I want to do? What really makes me happy?
Where do you see yourself taking the brand in the future?
I take things really slow. I’m a slow kind of guy because I like to do things thoroughly and I’m working alone at the moment. Over the past two or three years I’ve been building up my brand to the point where it is now. I’m glad I took the time to do it properly because the fit is now exactly how I want it, the dying process has been optimized and I trust that I can accurately replicate the colours now. I feel that my product is finally ready to step out into the world. My focus right now is completely on the web shop and website. Currently, it lacks some visual identity and makes it difficult to communicate the brand to people who are not familiar with the process. I have a lot of ideas, and like I said, I would like to grow the collection. My dream would be to have a farm in Holland where the hemp is grown, harvested and turned to yarn, so the product is really entirely made locally.
Could the current weather conditions support that process?
Definitely. Hemp is already grown here. The most difficult part with hemp is how to separate the fibre from the stem and how to make the fibre fine enough to turn it into the yarn that you need for jersey fabric. There are a few people currently working on this. The first samples have already hit the market, but last time I spoke to the guys, the results were not yet where they should be. One other thing I would like to consider is paper, for instance. Back in the day, paper used to be made from hemp. Hemp paper lasts much longer than the pulp we use today. A lot of the paper mills that we had in Europe have since been closed or turned into museums. I’m going to speak to an artisan in The Hague and see whether he can turn my hemp fabric scraps into paper.
You want to repurpose the leftovers in some way.
Yeah. I want to be able to use every square centimetre for some purpose. In the long run, I think it would be really cool to have hemp paper back in the shop. There’s like a million purposes that hemp can serve, so if I ever become bored of clothing I can always take another direction.
When you consider your current audience, would you say that there’s a select group of people who are attracted to your product?
That’s an interesting question. My audience is a fun mix of people, which I recently learned from Geitenwollenwinkel, a local shop that sells my products. It’s a women’s fashion store, so they mostly target women, but they always tell me that I have a funny product. They sell it to young girls, but also to elderly women of different body shapes and sizes. Another interesting example is that somebody might get to the counter with a pair of jeans that they consider to be too expensive, and after taking it back to the clothing rack they come back with a Hempje, which is similar in price and relatively more expensive for a standard tank top on the current market. Yet they wouldn’t even mention the price. Somehow, there’s something about my product that makes some people grab and buy it. It might be related to the fabric or the colour schemes. On the other hand, I’ve also had people tell me that they like my product but find it too expensive, this obviously happens as well. It’s not the most traditional marketing story.
The Geitenwollenwinkel is a great platform for Hempje. They have a similar vision in terms of sustainability and conscious buying.
This is really important for me. I used to have a pop-up shop on the popular shopping street in Amsterdam, the Kalverstraat, and there was hardly any traffic coming into my store. Mostly tourists and people shopping at the larger chain stores who were probably looking for something different.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the price. A large number of consumers judge tailored products or artisanal products because they might find them too expensive. There are many people who still choose to shop at larger chain stores to get more for less. But why are we not critical of these cheaper products? Why are we so critical of the expensive products? Many people fail to realize that an artisanal product is handmade, unique and somebody took the time to oversee the entire process without any automated steps. Most of the ‘cheap’ products that people prefer to buy are produced or manufactured very unsustainably, but most people would rather not know anything about the ‘how’.
In a way, I don’t think you can blame them. I’ve read somewhere that we don’t use an accurate price calculation to define the cost of a single product. We consider the material, work and transport fees, but we don’t take into account the environmental factors of the production process. For instance, if you bought a 10 euro t-shirt at a cheap retailer, it might be good to know that it was dyed in an unsustainable way and is directly polluting a river nearby the factory. If you were to calculate this destructive consequence into the total cost of production, the t-shirt might not be so cheap anymore.
I agree. If the majority of the customers were told where their products were made, who was making them and under what conditions, and if that was very transparent for every consumer who entered the shop, it’s very possible that many consumers would turn around and walk out the door. It’s unfortunate but, because this information is not readily available or publicized, most people don’t take the effort to find out.
I also think there’s something else. If you search deeper, you come to realize that there is hardly any business on the market these days that is fully doing the right thing. If you look at the food, medicine or fashion industry, their products are often produced against some environmentally sustainable principles. You can imagine that most people don’t trust the information they are given and don’t bother looking further because it’s too time-consuming. I think it’s important to have initiatives that rate the products based on their overall level of sustainability. Everyone should have the responsibility to take the measures to find out and shop consciously. But even I sometimes find it difficult to purchase every product with intention.
It would nice if we had some standards of transparency that we could apply to the fashion industry. For example, in North America, every product within the food industry is required to provide the nutrition facts on the label. It would be interesting if similar standards were set on the fashion industry to make the consumer aware of how much water was used to manufacture a product, what are the working conditions like, how long did it take to complete the entire process, or where does the material come from specifically?
I agree. I think there are a couple of ways to do this. The Global Organic Textile Standard [GOTS] is a really strong indicator that your product is following certain standards, so it’s a great place to start.
Is it very difficult for a product to acquire this stamp of approval?
Well, it’s not easy. There are other options as well. I’m actually a vegetarian, but I once visited a butcher in the East of Amsterdam who called his meat ‘logical’ instead of ‘biological’. They didn’t have the official stamp of approval, or the official biological trademark, but he explained that he knew where the animals came from and the conditions in which they were raised. They had a personal relationship with the farmers and knew what their animals were fed. He was very transparent about the source of his products.
Many people find this a difficult topic to digest because not everyone can afford to shop organically or biologically. Clearly it can be of lower priority to shop sustainably if a family struggles to meet its basic needs. But maybe then it could be an option to consume less and buy even a few things of quality, wherever and whenever possible. It’s worth considering, because it’s a direct investment on your own health and wellbeing.
For sure. And if you’re really interested or want to look further into it, there are many documentaries and resources that can help you understand how the industry works. I recently finished a documentary called The Minimalists. It’s about two guys that were earning a lot of money, had a big house yet were unhappy. They decided to throw 80% of their things away. They kept only the essentials and some things they really loved, and immediately noticed that they felt happier and more at peace. They wanted to share their experiences with others, and before they knew it, they were speaking to a larger audience. It’s really not rocket science, but apparently it’s really something that can help people find happiness in our current world.
What’s the message that you hope Hempje will bring people? What do you hope your consumers will identify it with?
My first thought would be what already happens when people hear the brand name, Hempje. A lightbulb flicks off in their brain. It’s so simple that you almost overlook it. I think that’s the strongest point of the concept and I hope to retain it in the long run. I hope to create the visual identity and the rest of the brand identity to help others relate to its simplicity. I think nowadays, there are so many brands whose stories and visions are not reflected in their products. There’s a mismatch in identity [which in turn makes it hard] for the consumer to relate to the product.
You want to build trust with your consumers.
Yes, and I think it’s also about integrity. You have your outer identity and your inner identity. If these parts don’t match up, you’re not being transparent to your consumers. Integrity is important to a human being in order to feel good about the choices they make, and it should be equally important for a company when selling its product.
Do you have a strong link towards Amsterdam as a city or more with the Netherlands?
I have a strong connection to Amsterdam. Well, I have been living here for 12 years and I obviously love this place. But also because it’s a relatively small city, and they say we have the highest diversity of cultures living here across Europe. I like living among different cultures and I like what we can learn from one another. In a way, this is also related to the names that I give my different product styles. They are based on modern names, commonly found in Amsterdam. This means that it’s not intended for a specific audience. My labels say ‘Made in Holland’ and not ‘Made in Amsterdam’ because I work with hemp. I consciously chose not to directly link my label with the city because, to many foreigners, Amsterdam is often linked to marijuana and I don’t want to get confused with a coffee shop.
It’s a nice aspect to identify with, as you mentioned with the multicultural aspect. Amsterdam breeds creativity and fosters entrepreneurship. There aren’t many cities that can say the same about their local economy.
I was actually looking for socks made of hemp online and I found a nice family business in the Ukraine. I thought it was really cool. I bought six pairs of socks to try them out and received them yesterday with a handwritten note and it was wrapped really nicely. It was really unique and it felt good supporting their small business.
Image(s) courtesy of Demi Koen, with permission from the designer.