One Man Brands – Karl Thoennessen and Rogue Territory
Editor’s Note: One of the most exciting aspects in clothing today is the revival of cottage industry manufacturing. The growing trends of small domestically made products, online based boutiques, and consumer appreciation for small business have all converged simultaneously in the production of raw jeans.
A boon of twenty-first century globalization is that one person — plus a lot of hard work — can create their own pattern on a laptop, source denim from a mill in Japan, have it cut and sewn in downtown Los Angeles, get the brand name out via social media and online forums, and then sell the finished product out of his basement to anywhere the world.
This is the first in a series of articles devoted to these One Man Brands redefining the nature of branding and authorship in the raw denim world and the fashion industry as a whole.
Like Disney, Apple, Mattel, and Hewlitt-Packard; Rogue Territory started in a California garage. This particular garage is behind a nondescript house in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale and inside it you’ll find the headquarters of one of the hottest names in raw denim today.
Dozens of cardstock patterns hang from a rack in the corner, framed Native American lithographs lay against bolts of Kurabo selvedge, and a Bichon terrier darts between stacks of broken twill jeans destined for Tenue de Nîmes in Amsterdam.
This is the world of Rogue Territory and it belongs to Karl Thoennessen — the one-man owner, designer, and everything in between responsible for classics like the Stanton and RK ISCs. He lives up front and his workshop/studio is in back, giving Karl quite possibly the easiest commute in Los Angeles history.
He may be one of the most knowledgeable people in the business today, but there was a time when even Karl didn’t know warp from weft. When he became “denim aware” in the early 2000s, the big names were Diesel and Lucky Brand but, “A friend of mine came back from abroad with a pair of Evisu’s, from then on I was hooked.”
He soon moved to LA, where his first break in the denim world was as Brian Kim’s (currently of THVM Jeans) apprentice. He had hardly any sewing experience, but caught onto the knack quickly, “I was expecting to sweep up denim and thread scraps but within two weeks I had made my first pair of jeans, soon I was working on custom orders.”
After three months of working under Kim, Karl started making custom jeans on his own at the denim bar of Los Angeles institution American Rag. The idea for Rogue Territory came on his second day, but he would spend the next two and a half years at the denim bar honing his craft.
“With custom jeans, people kept giving me their design ideas—make that pocket bigger, fell that seam—while I kept thinking up ways I would do it differently.”
Karl created many experimental samples during this period: firefighter pants made out of 1960s naval canvas, hickory stripe miner overalls, jeans with oversized buckle pockets. “Why copy somebody else?” he explains, “I wanted to make something you couldn’t find on the rack.”
Functionality became a major influence on his designs, “I was always looking for a pencil when I would draft up patterns.” Voila—the signature Rogue Territory pen pocket was born.
At the same time, Karl continuously worked to build a classic five-pocket jean in a fit he loved, a project called the Dean, “At first, I wanted all my fits to be named after classic movie stars—there would be the Brando, the McQueen, etc. But I realized that was kind of cheesy and gave it up.”
He finally found that perfect fit, and in October of 2009, Rogue Territory filled its first order. The Dean quickly became known as the Stanton (a takeoff on the word “standard”) and the rest is denim history.
Karl now has stockists all over the world including Need Supply Co., Dutil and a sizeable display at his old home American Rag. But the same skills he learned creating samples and custom jeans still drive Rogue Territory today.
He’s constantly checking up on the factory that does his production downtown. He keeps runs small but has a new run at least every month, “I don’t like to be constrained to seasonal releases,” he says, “If I have something new, I want to get it out there.”
Karl is never finished with his experimenting either. Whether that’s with a tote bag, apron, or some new pant monstrosity he’s always driven to put something “new on the rack” even if it’s just for fun.
Karl had three jacket prototypes out on his sofa, one of which would be released as the Supply Jacket, “If I’m going to make a denim jacket, I don’t want it to just be a trucker. Levi’s already does that so why make another? It’s got to be a Rogue Territory jacket.” It’s this dedication of vision that’s allowed Karl to create a cohesive and recognizable identity for Rogue Territory in only three short years.
He’s optimistic about expanding in the future, but only in a manner that doesn’t compromise what’s been built so far. “I’m in it for the long haul, building a lifelong connection with my customers,” he adds. “Selling out your name for a quick buck seems much less attractive when you’re the only member of the company.”
Going solo certainly has its advantages in terms of flexibility, but it also requires the self-discipline to constantly keep innovating while running the nuts and bolts of the business. Luckily, that’s a level of Zen Karl seems to have mastered.