In Amsterdam, commitment to the denim market has become academic.
The Dutch capital, increasingly viewed as the capital of denim in Europe as well, is now home to what is purportedly the world’s first denim school. Opened in September 2012, Jean School is a three-year, full-time program that trains students to become denim developers, from design to sale, with emphasis on sustainable practices.
“We saw a huge gap between industry and education,” said Mariette Hoitink, cofounder of Jean School and managing director of HTNK, a fashion recruitment and consulting firm, who noted the absence of denim programs in fashion schools. Jean School cofounder James Veenhoff sought to fill the void and launched a pilot program in 2009 that he presented to the Netherlands’ Ministry of Education.
According to the founders, the aim of the school is to connect aspiring denim merchants with experts throughout the industry. “Denim is a growing market, but we have to change it and make this product that we love more sustainably,” noted Hoitink.
The Jean School is a vocational college open only to Dutch high-school graduates aged 17 to 20. In contrast to many fashion schools, the student body is three-quarters male. There are 15 students in the inaugural class and 20 in the second.
It is owned by the government, like most schools in the Netherlands, and operated by the Amsterdam Regional Community College under the auspices of the House of Denim Foundation. House of Denim, also founded by Veenhoff, initiates all the programs and works with the school’s curriculum team to develop its courses. It also arranges guest lectures and orchestrates projects with brands including G-Star Raw, Tommy Hilfiger, Scotch & Soda and Levi’s Vintage.
Today the school is attracting companies — ranging from the local to the global — that want to do business in Amsterdam. Andrew Olah, whose firm Olah Inc. owns the Kingpins denim trade show, is backing the initiative as he prepares to launch the first Kingpins show in Amsterdam in May.
“Amsterdam’s growth in the denim business is undeniable, and cooperating with the school was part of the attraction,” Olah said. “I am getting mills and different industry people to collaborate with the school because I believe in it. The purpose of the school is to graduate individuals who can come in to work and can contribute right away, and this is what the industry needs.”
Most will have an opportunity to make a mark prior to graduation. According to the Jean School, all students obtain internships at one of various denim brands, and either the companies choose the students, or the students get to pick where they want to work, whether it’s in Amsterdam, Turkey or China.
Denim enterprises add about $5 billion to the Netherlands’ economy each year, but competition for education funds has intensified, with funds allotted by the nation to education dropping below 3 percent of gross domestic product between 2011 and 2012. The Dutch Ministry of Education has pitched in with 500,000 euros, or about $660,000 at current exchange, to cover about half the cost of the school’s denim lab, which will consist of a cut, make and trim workshop equipped with a denim archive and a laundry laboratory with ozone machines. Veenhoff is working to complete an agreement with the European Regional Development Fund, which helps underwrite innovative projects, while the city and a consortium of local jeans enterprises will supply additional funding.
The curriculum also covers the financing of start-ups and the positioning of businesses in competitive markets. Students pay a fee of $1,200 a year to enroll.
Based in Amsterdam, Denham the Jeanmaker worked with the school on a project to design and produce denim aprons. “We got them working with fabric, cutting it and putting concepts together,” said Jason Denham, chief executive officer. “We have done tours of our jean-making facility where students can see design, sourcing, marketing, sales — the whole thing is here, and it is interesting for them.”
Retailers are involved in the school as well. Bob Rijnders, owner of specialty shop Best of Brands, has given lectures on trends and styles, wholesale versus retail and developing innovative merchandising ideas. Rijnders said, “It is a good time for the Jean School, and for students it is a new opportunity on how to better enter the business of jeans and be prepared in every way.”