Pharrell Williams, co-owner and Head of Imagination of G-Star RAW, at the company headquarters in Amsterdam
Overhead swings a shark — padded like a goofy children's toy. Below is a line-up of men and women's denim outfits, and even a giant tepee, also made of denim. And for decoration at this G-Star RAW glass building there are artworks made from plastic detritus found on the ocean floor.
"It was a really awesome opportunity that, in my eyes, seemingly fell out of the sky, because I get to be creative and also use denim as a medium to make a statement and pay homage to where we live,'' says Pharrell Williams, who has come to Amsterdam to underline his commitment — personal as well as financial — to G-Star RAW.
Although the size of the share owned by the music entrepreneur has not been disclosed, Pharrell calls himself Head of Imagination and "co-owner" of the brand with Dutch CEO Jos Van Tilburg, who founded the company in the Netherlands in 1989. "It seemed like the only thing that makes sense — being co-owner not only gives me the room and 'de-restriction' to make big propositions, but I see G-Star as equals, as peers," Pharrell explained. "We all share the same desire: to make meaningful things. Right now, society is invoked to do things because they look good aesthetically and are pleasing. But history has demonstrated over and over again that the things that last are those that have a purpose."
Giant denim sharks and crabs float above the G-Star RAW atrium
Denim installations in the atrium of the G-Star RAW headquarters in Amsterdam
The fruit of the music mogul's green thoughts is offered in a line-up of hooded mannequins beside the tepee where we are speaking. Pharrell is wearing a pale blue denim boiler suit — in contrast the outfits on display were ink blue, mud brown, camouflage olive with disruptive patterns, and a good deal of black for menswear, even if it was lightened by white shoes and a white T-shirt with "RAW'' printed across the waist.
On a tour of the building, my eyes were opened to the brand's different fabric treatments, from simple RAW denim (as opposed to water-guzzling stonewashed versions) to a complex re-cycling of ocean plastic. G-Star also uses a 3-D jeans-shaping technique, launched in 2009, with an arc silhouette that shapes the legs on the inner and outer seams.
Crafting a G-Star RAW outfit in the Amsterdam studio
Jos Van Tilburg, who rarely discusses the company's aims or products, made a rare statement about what G-Star stands for. ''For the planet and as a person, I believe it's our job to be responsible for the world," he said. "Responsibility is about people. We produce our products in low-labour countries, so it is also in our chain of responsibility to look after the social standards of how they work, how they are paid and whether overtime is controlled. Van Tilburg went on to explain his commitment to bringing factories in low-labour-cost countries up to international standards, improving a denim industry "that is not the cleanest industry in the world" and using recycled and "nettle" cotton for RAW, the latter made from the plant with green leaves that sting.
The G-Star headquarters in Amsterdam, designed by Dutch "starchitect" Rem Koolhaas
G-Star RAW's backstory describes a company that is as transparent as its headquarters, a glass airplane-hangar of a building designed in 2013 by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas so that all the workers can see each other. Since the manufacturing takes place elsewhere, the tour was frustratingly lacking in the yarn-to-product process I would like to have seen. But there were many inspiring moments, such as a visit to the company archive, where 35,000 vintage sporting and military garments were hung, together with accessories stacked on shelves in clear plastic boxes. ''We start in the archive not by copying, but by taking inspiration and making new stuff out of it," said Ruud de Bruin, Head of Menswear. He described the company's creation process as "developing a deep understanding of the past in order to create the future". I looked at a rail of zippered bomber jackets in every conceivable colour and pattern, as well as military camouflage, utility and extreme-weather clothing.
A display of mannequins wearing the latest G-Star RAW collection
Other sections of the archive were devoted to accessories or to sporty and casual clothes from the 1970s. Pharrell joined the walk through the different floor levels, where we were shown a new addition of a purse attached to women's jeans at the front of the waist — just the fashionable thing for keeping valuables safe at music festivals. Thecla Schaeffer, Chief Marketing Officer, pointed to a G-Star RAW activist T-shirt that proclaimed in large black letters: "WTF ARE YOU DOING TO MY OCEANS?"
Pharrell leads a tour of the G-Star RAW headquarters
I asked Pharrell, who turns 43 on Tuesday, to explain what makes him ''Happy'' beyond his role as co-owner of G-Star. Does his immersion in the music business give him insight into big changes in the digital era? ''There's something happening in the music industry, like the 'spring uprisings' and upheavals that are happening all over the world," Pharrell said. "It's almost like The Big Short [the 2015 movie]. The big crash - that's what's happening right now in the music industry. It's happening because the industry has been hung up on a dinosaur, prehistoric mentality. The average kid doesn't want a CD because you have to carry it. Why should you own something that's available on a digital medium? You don't own it at the end of the day - it's stored on a phone or on someone else's site." "This is the generation that doesn't want to own anything," Pharrell continued. "They say: 'I don't want a car — I can Uber'; or, 'I don't want to commit to this big meal - I want tapas'. But the guys who are running the business, they're 'old school' and think that everything has to be tactile in a physical way. Hugs are great, but we know that there's a lot of virtual love in the world."
G-Star RAW’s jeans are made using 3-D shaping, for a distinctive cut around the inside and outside leg
I found Pharrell's rumination on the music world so interesting that you can read them in their entirety in my next post. Yet the situation for jeans seems different to that of music. These denim pieces often carry a great deal of nostalgia, of personal emotion and memory, which is why people are unwilling to throw them away, even when they are worn and torn. Personalised jeans have been part of the fashion world since at least the hippie and hand-weave era of the 1970s. I was fascinated when Pieter Kool, Head of 3D Design, explained the influence that high-tech already has on the denim sector, while it has barely penetrated high fashion.
Jos Van Tilburg told me how he clicked with Pharrell over the "Raw for the Oceans" collaboration and how it became a "Eureka!" moment. ''I feel that we are so much on the same frequency — he's in the music business and we are in the fashion business, and the thinking is that those are forbidden combinations that traditionally don't belong with each other. This was intriguing to Pharrell and me. I have paired up with other people before, like industrial designer Marc Newson, more than 10 years ago," he said.
Some of the 35,000 pieces in G-Star RAW’s archive of vintage-wear
"It was not an overnight decision with Pharrell — you have to know each other a little bit," he continued, "so we had a little flirt with 'Raw for the Oceans', which is a good cause. Now it's getting to true love and this is very good for the brand. Pushing the boundaries. How do we integrate it? It's like this denim tepee — I've got an idea!' We have these 'Eureka!' moments that are very exciting."
For all the progress the company is making with the G-Star Raw collaboration, with its 6,000 points of sale in 70 countries and new stores like the one opening on New York's Madison Avenue in May, I wondered whether it's possible to spread the environmental word and make buyers and consumers more mindful, especially about something as basic as a pair of jeans.
The denim tepee in the G-Star atrium
''Pharrell is famous, and if he talks about using plastic from the ocean, so many more people listen than when I tell them," Van Tilburg said. "This is where we find each other and I can make the project happen. But I believe that the whole world is changing. I feel that consumers are more and more interested in this message and that, at the end of the day, we are all changing our minds and will buy more responsibly.''
Let's hope that the G-Star Raw collaboration will indeed improve the world, one pair of jeans and one clean ocean at a time.
Pharrell Williams, enjoying his new role at G-Star RAW