Bear Brothers Denim founder Janet Bingham has launched a range of aprons, cushions and placemats made out of denim after 25 years in the jeans-making industry. She shared some background with us.
Bingham, who is Scottish-born, first launched Bear Brothers in the UK during 1997 to design and produce denim aprons. This product was stocked in The Conran Shop for five years before Bingham returned to jeans. She came to New Zealand 10 years ago and decided to revisit the project last year.
“Denim is the world’s favourite fabric and yet it is so rarely used to make anything other than jeans and clothing,” says Bingham. “It’s the ideal choice for products where protection and durability are key, and it can stand up to years of hard use. I want to give people who live in denim the chance to live with denim.”
Tell us about how you’ve applied your industry experience to this new SME enterprise.
Firstly having the manufacturing contact in China, and 10 years’ experience working with this factory has been a real bonus. I have visited several times in the past, know how good their quality is, and will be forever grateful to them for entertaining my small start-up quantities. I like to think of it as payback time for the huge orders I put their way in the past! Knowing and trusting who you are dealing with is very important for both parties.
I make all the prototypes here, and my industry experience has served me well in pattern cutting, making, and being able to select appropriate weights of denim for the product design, and desired colour after washing. Denim is a very difficult product category because of its two manufacturing processes - make and laundry, and you need knowledge of both to create an authentic denim garments or homewares.
I see your products are made in New Zealand. Do you think that gets much cut-through from customers these days? Was it difficult to implement?
There are two sides to our collection - the Daily Denim range is made in China, and the Premium collection is made in Auckland from Italian denim which I import. It was important to me to keep at least some of the production in NZ and was happy to find 2 suitable companies to make our raw denim aprons and tote bags both with real leather trim.
Yes, I think that local manufacture hits home with customers who are willing and able to pay that bit more, and should be encouraged wherever possible. For me, it makes it very easy to iron out any problems when they are just 10 minutes’ drive away.
Your range is very tightly-curated. Can you tell us about how you chose each product to stock and what unites that collection?
I believe very strongly in doing one thing well, and being known for that one thing, which in our case is denim - a wide distribution of a compact range will always be our goal. I have taken the world's favourite fabric and given it a new context as aprons - work wear for protection is after all where it's origins lie. My first jeans design job was for a UK jeans company called Lee Cooper, and their first products made back in the early 1900s were butcher’s aprons made of denim.
I designed and made the cushions and placemats out of frustration that nothing I ever bought seemed to stand up to the wear and tear our household threw at it. We are still using the original apron prototype and placemats now 20 years old at home from when I started Bear Brothers first time around.
I guess what unifies the collection is that each product is made from denim, built to last and look better with age, and that each product has a function be it protection or comfort, or both.
Can you talk about any special benefits you’ve noticed from taking that minimalist approach to stock?
It's really too early to tell, but I will be keeping close control of the amount of style/colour combinations in the range - having a wider choice never equates to increased sales, having the right choice, does.