Founder’s Letter: Kingpins’ Unintended Beginning

The invitation and logo for the first Kingpins Show in 2004. The denim patch on the invitation was the “pass” guests used to enter the show. (From the Kingpins Show Archive)

It was in late fall in 2003 and the denim business was crazy good. Our customers were constantly increasing their orders, because no matter what they thought, they were under-projecting their needs. The “premium” jeans (meaning jeans retail priced over $125) business grew like weeds. Paper Denim & Cloth, AG and 7 For All Mankind had already taken over the genre pioneered by Earl Jean.

This year, Kingpins celebrates its 20th anniversary and I was asked to share the story of how Kingpins started. Twenty years is a long time and there’s a lot to our story, so for this newsletter, I’m focusing on our fortuitous beginning.

The Kingpins Show is a textiles story. 

Olah Inc., which started in 1959, was a textile marketing company that moved from Canada to New York in 1998. We thought if we were located in the United States, we would be able to sell more and we did just that. But the growth was not fast enough and did not satisfy me. Too often, we called potential customers who were disinclined to return our calls. How to meet new customers if they don’t return your phone call or email?

Alongside that frustration, our major supplier, Kurabo from Japan, had four independent textile units and it seemed to me that customers thought of it as one company, rather than four separate businesses. In my mind, it was like four restaurants within the same group. I wanted our current customers to treat each textile unit as if it was its own restaurant. 

With those two ideas dancing in my head, I decided a small event with a party was the perfect way to kill two birds with one shot. Everyone loves parties, especially the free food, booze and music. So I rented an art gallery at 25 Mercer Street in Soho (it’s now the showroom for Toto Toilets) with the idea that we’d open in the morning, serve lunch and booze all day and have four Kurabo booths — one each for Kurabo Denim in Japan, Kurabo Piece Dyes in Japan, Kurabo Denim in China and Kurabo Piece Dyes in Thailand. With separate booths, customers would be forced to ask “why are there four?” And with that (and a modicum of thought), the answer would be clear and obvious.  Presto!

But then I thought the idea was too mercenary and too much Kurabo for an all-day event. So I reached out (a forever thank you to Adriano Goldschmied) to what at that time were industry superstar suppliers like Martelli from Italy (who were universally regarded as the best laundry on earth), Cobra (best hardware), Cadica (best labels) and Olympias who were, if not the best, certainly among the best piece-dyed suppliers in the world (and still are!)

Friends also took up my call to fill the event and Sartex, the denim kings from Tunisia, agreed to come. (They are today better known as Denim House, but still remain a king in our industry.) 

A2 from Portugal (a niche but amazing garment supplier) supported us and joined the event, as did Suape from Brazil, and Asia United from Hong Kong, and even Western Glove Works, a jean factory in Winnipeg

As for food, Jane Ibarra, who worked at the Gap in those days, bought and brought all the cheese and I did the same, bringing Hungarian charcuterie to the gallery. The beer, wine, water and sodas were delivered and put in huge silver tubs filled with ice — the way my family partied in Toronto in the summer. I threw the first Kingpins party as if we were all in high school — but one key difference, which I insisted on. We had a guestlist and the ability to say no to those who wished to come but had no real reason to be there.

Once I put the roster together, I realized we had many leaders of the denim industry and I considered calling the show “Leaders.” But after realizing that would be a difficult word to pronounce for my Japanese colleagues, I opened a thesaurus to find a better one. That’s where I came across the word “Kingpins,” which is very easy to say in any language. And Kingpins was launched.

Our first invite, which is pictured above, was created by a graphic artist Adriano suggested. Her name: Vivian Wang. In my next Letter, I will share how Vivian and I have worked together ever since the second edition of Kingpins.

– Andrew Olah

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