Founder’s Letter: Kingpins at 20, How We Got Here Part 2

Vivian Wang and I met in 2004. She lived (and still does) in LA while I was based in NYC. We have worked together virtually for 20 years. She was the graphic artist who created the invitation for the first Kingpins. Back then, we actually printed our invitations and mailed them (or delivered by courier) to potential attendees. We wanted people to have something physical in their hands rather than just another email in their inbox.

Vivian is talented and I loved her creative work, but more than the art, I liked the ease of working with her. This might sound crazy, but the ease of working together to me has always meant not really talking much — and this is a trait that continues to exist between us all these years later. Then as now, we discuss a concept, agree to do it and Vivian delivers exactly that without a lot of chit-chat or questions along the way. She is fearless and readily takes the baton and runs fast and hard — with no fear of failure (or, at least, she does not act like she has any fear).

Together, and with our team and assorted colleagues through the years, we have broken so many barriers, tried things others never did, failed publicly sometimes, but always we keep marching forward with the idea “let’s do it” and we do.

After the first two Kingpins shows (you can read about the very early days here), I had the idea to expand to Los Angeles, where so many premium denim brands and washhouses were (and still are) located. Vivian was not yet working full-time for us, but I asked her ”What do you think about producing a new show in Los Angeles?” She was surprised and said she didn’t know anything about organizing a trade show. I asked her: “If anyone in your family had a wedding or a funeral, could you organize that? You’d need to book a venue, invite people, get some chairs, some food and booze, organize a cleanup service and so on. Could you do that for your family? And if you think you could, then you can do it for Kingpins and we will pay you for it.”

She told me she needed to think about it — which is how she always answers when presented with a new idea. But she soon came back and agreed to do it. “I’ll try,” she said.

And it is this attitude and this “take-the-baton relationship” that kept us together all these years. She’s so easy to work with and I appreciate that she allows me to stretch her imagination about what she — and the show — can achieve. I am very proud of our relationship. Here are a few pictures of us from 20 years ago. We were so young when we started!

The original concept of The Kingpins Show was to go to places where there were no denim trade shows. We wanted 25 to 30 exhibitors at each show. We wanted funky venues and we wanted to go everywhere— all over the world — which we did. One year (I think it was 2011) we produced 12 shows in a single year — two each in NYC, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Shanghai and India (in Delhi and Bangalore).

The next year we took our Indian show to Mumbai. During the show, I asked Vivian, “So we are doing amazing, all these shows, all this travel! How do you like your life?” She broke into a sardonic laugh. “It’s awful,” she said. “It’s too much!”

Actually, I agreed. Our business was great but our lives were horrible, doing a show a month and constantly preparing and closing. It was a horrible time in spite of achieving all we aspired to accomplish.

Meanwhile Kingpins Dhaka was in the works. No one had ever thought to do a show in Dhaka before and we were excited, as always, to try something no one had thought of. A few months later, we were both there to finalize all the details when we realized that in order to make the show work in the “Kingpins way” there were “tricks” required in Dhaka that we had to perform that we were unable to complete. At the end of this trip — our third to Bangladesh — we were in our taxi to the airport and we both agreed we had to give up the idea of producing the show in that country. It was not for us. Too complex.

“Let’s change our life,” I said in 2012. I thought we should cut back on all the shows, work in fewer cities, but make the shows bigger — and at the same improve our lives. What’s the point of running a business if it’s not fun or funny? We decided to shut down the shows in LA and India, put the Shanghai show on pause and focus on New York. Then I added, “Let’s make New York fantastic and let’s start Europe.”
Vivian was surprised — we had never talked about Europe before.

As I saw it, our only potential competitor ran shows in Barcelona. But that’s not a jeans city — it’s a party city. It made no sense to have a show there. The customers don’t even sleep at night. They are all out partying.

Vivian asked where I wanted to have a show and I suggested London.
“My mum lives there,” I told her. “I love the city and shopping is amazing and our customers will love to go there.”

But Vivian had someplace different in mind.
“I hear Amsterdam is the denim capital of Europe. How about Amsterdam?” she suggested.

I did not like to hear that, because my heart was set on London, but I said I was open to the idea. I suggested we consult Alberto Candiani. “We cannot do a show in Europe without Alberto supporting us and Candiani Denim as our first exhibitor. Let’s see what he thinks.”

And that was that. I flew to Italy a few weeks later to ask Alberto which city he preferred. Without hesitation, he said Amsterdam. A couple of weeks later — the first day of Spring —Vivian landed in Amsterdam with a bad cold and a valuable introduction — courtesy of Michelle Branch — to Adriana Galijasevic. As Adriana gave Vivian cough drops, she told her exactly who Vivian should meet. Adriana arranged a meeting between Vivian and Mariette Hoitink and James Veenhoff, the founders of House of Denim (HOD).

That introduction led us to Joanne Schouten and Arne Koefoed from Wink and his team. I was excited about the connection with House of Denim. Having worked with the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where I produced a jeans class for nine years, I was excited and impressed that HOD had created a school dedicated to jeans. The New York Times had run an article on the school in 2012 and I was jealous (in the nicest of ways!) that one of my dreams had been brought to life by others.

I always believed the industry needed a school. In fact, the global jeans industry needs many schools, so I was thrilled to meet people who also saw that need. Plus, I learned HOD and Kingpins shared an educational mindset (and we still do).

Mariette can tell the story better than me, but just before Vivian arrived in Amsterdam, the House of Denim had an industry breakfast at the Mayor’s house. Amsterdam’s Mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, loved the jeans industry and was proud his city had “more jeans brands per capita than any city in the world.” At that famous breakfast, it was wistfully mentioned that Amsterdam needed a trade show to attract the denim world — and presto, two weeks later, Vivian, without knowing about this meeting, introduced herself to Mariette asking if they were interested in a jean show. We were not just welcomed to Amsterdam, we were practically greeted on arrival with hugs, flowers and confetti!

As we planned our first show, the city asked “What can we do for you?” I was stunned. No one from any city has ever asked us that question. We told the city, we’d like them to do something to show their appreciation for our exhibitors. In our industry, it’s abnormal to say thank you to anyone. We knew our exhibitors would be blown away by this kind gesture.

“Done!” the city said, and hosted an event for the top management from our exhibitors at the Mayor’s house, where the city toasted the show’s arrival and offered thanks to Kingpins and our exhibitors.

That remains among the many things Kingpins has done that are not just life-long memories but, to us, are like space shots —unimaginable things we dreamed up and then accomplished.

Fast-forward to 2020, the early days of the pandemic, when we had to cancel our April Amsterdam show five weeks before it was to go on. After crying in our soup for a week about our business shutting down, we did what we always do and decided to do something new: an online digital 24-hour show. We were scared, petrified but also brave. I remember members of the team calling Zoom to ask how to do it. We gathered content to share over the course of the 24-hour livestream. The idea was inspired by the TV telethon model, which also had the benefit of making sure we were “live” in each time zone in the world. And we pulled it off! We went “live” for a day and were there —live for our UK fans and customers; live in Los Angeles; live in Pakistan; live in China; live in Turkey.

In the end, we had done something no one had done before, in the midst of the pandemic, to bring our industry to the world. I had friends message me saying they were watching us on their TV. To put that all together in less than 30 days is one of our proudest achievements.

Today, the Kingpins Show is a happy 20 year old. Like all 20 year olds, we still have a lot to learn and a lot more to give. The best and most profound years of our life lie in front of us. But, to be sure, the past made us who we are. I’m not sure I’ll be around for our 30th or 40th, but I am confident those celebrations will occur, just as I am confident the show will only get better.

Clearly, we could not have gotten where we are today without all the people who had a hand in our show’s development and production. I’ve acknowledged some of you above. And I’ve listed more below.

There are so very many who played a pivotal role in Kingpins’ birth, growth and success over the last two decades. I hope I haven’t overlooked anyone but if I have, I sincerely apologize. It’s a long list of people to thank. But I have a lot to be thankful for and so many people to be grateful to for their support, advice and generosity.

See you at the show!

– Andrew Olah

Thank you to:

Bob Antoshak
Jonathan Bailey
Erin Barajas
Jonathan Bench
Michelle Branch
Alberto Candiani
Tricia Carey
Remy Castle
Bayer Cropscience
Anouk Diesel
Adriana Galijasevic
Josephine Gigliotti
Adriano Goldschmied
Rory Grashuis
Stefan Herzog
Mariette Hoitink
Jane Ibarra
Lee Isenstein
Gwen Janssen
Arne Koefoed
Larissa Koers
Kurabo Industries
Paul Ledgett
Amy Leverton
Onefai Mak
Michael Morrell
Dennis Mulder
Emily Olah
Bruce Radler
Miguel Sanchez
Joanne Schouten
Mathias Servatius
Will Shuler
Peter Stigter
Piero Turk
Niels van Weene
James Veenhoff
Murielle Von Reth
Kim Walsh
Steve Wang
Vivian Wang
Michelle Williams
Falco Webbink
Adam Yu

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