Mar 21, 2024
by Karl Smith
Deadwood Studios Is Challenging the Sustainability Status Quo
by Karl Smith
Mar 21, 2024

“At first, everybody thought we were crazy.” This is what Deadwood Studios co-founder Felix von Bahder tells me, looking back at 2012 and the brand’s origins. An early adopter of Earth-friendlier practices and materials – first as a vintage store, then as a label in its own right – Deadwood has had sustainability at its core now for over twelve years. Which, realistically, is longer than most brands have even been pretending to care about the planet.

“We’ve been going against the grain for twelve years now,” von Bahder recalls of Deadwood’s time as a fledgling brand, “And I remember, even just twelve years ago, just the idea of mixing fashion with ideas of sustainability – it was unheard of, really. Difficult as it was, and in many ways remains, it’s a time von Bahder can look back on now with some affection and an equal amount of amusement. “It was like people thought we were making yoga wear or something – because, at the time, that was the only fashion that had some sort of sustainability claim.”

For von Bahder and his co-founder Carl Ollson, though, what once seemed insane to their friends and peers was a natural step for the pair – a progression that felt not only right but also necessary.

With a focus on upcycled materials – on giving life to discarded or unwanted fabrics – it’s a way of working that has simply always been a part of how they work. “Compared to the other fashion brands out there with a more sustainable approach, I think we’re lo-fi in how we go about things,” von Bahder says, “For us, it was a sort of natural evolution from our vintage store. Reworking secondhand clothing was just natural. If you run a vintage store and you have some surplus, some unsold garments, experimenting with remaking and reworking those garments makes more sense than just leaving them.”

But, while the move to upcycling materials might have been a natural one, the move from selling clothing to creating it wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. Not least of all because, despite now being the brand’s creative director, von Bahder wasn’t himself an experienced designer.

“I had worked as an intern at a skate brand in Sweden called WESC – as an assistant in product development,” he explains, highlighting the fact that, while it would be unfair to say he had no grounding in the industry, grounding itself would probably be the right word.

“With that, I got a glimpse of the inside, into the back rooms of a fashion brand – so that was informative,” von Bahder says of his time interning for the once-iconic Scandinavian skate brand. “But then Carl and I were working on the floor of a jeans store in Stockholm,” he continues, offering that this, really, is where it all came together – not with formal education or skills learned on-the-job, but with a mix of determination and daydreaming. “That’s where we became friends, and that’s where we fantasized about opening our own store,” von Bahder says, calling it a place that, to their minds at least, was going to be something that Stockholm had never seen before. “And I think we managed to pull it off in some way,” he concludes, smiling, clearly half joking but also very much half serious.

In making that leap, though – while unfamiliar territory on one hand – von Bahder and Ollson also stuck with the tried and tested mantra, go with what you know.

“We did the store for about two years. We didn’t know anything about running a company or, you know, managing a store, but the only thing that actually seemed to work, at least from a business standpoint, was the reworked leather jackets. That sort of became our thing,” von Bahder recalls. “We were riding on a bit of a biker jacket trend in Stockholm twelve years ago – that was like peak, peak biker jacket – so, even though the jackets were kind of crappy and they weren’t very well made, it was good enough to sort of take us out into the world.”

But, to borrow another idiom, all good things must come to an end. Especially if – well – they’re not actually doing so good. “We closed the store after two years of not having any money,” von Bahder laughs, with a characteristic tone that says well, as long as it got us here. “But, almost the same day, we got a call from our former employer – they wanted to buy 300 jackets. We were like, ‘Jesus, I don’t think we’ve ever made 300 jackets,’ but we said yes, and then we figured it out.”

How, then, does a brand come to be known for being progressively minded and sustainability-focused when – even to this day – its focus is on leather-based garments?

In short, it’s less about the “what” and more about the “how.” That Deadwood uses animal skins will surely rifle the feathers of some from a moral standpoint and, as von Bahder puts it, in terms of the “ick factor.” But, working exclusively with off-cuts and discards, materials that otherwise would almost certainly go to waste, the brand sits adjacent to the cycle of supply and demand rather than within it. Of course, that’s not to say von Bahder isn’t conflicted.

“We just turned that inside out, and then I went to town with a flamethrower. Now, I’m not sure about the emissions, the CO2 footprint of my flame-throwing session, but the truth is I had to burn it because the back side of leather is kind of funky.”

“There’s always going to be people who think it’s gross, and I totally respect that,” he acknowledges, without any detectable hint of defensiveness, “But, even if you don’t think it’s gross in that sense, you can still debate whether or not it’s ethical, whether it’s actually sustainable, or whether it’s even a good option in any way. We use materials that otherwise would have gone to waste, or would have possibly carried a very low value in the supply chain, and we upcycle it. Is that a good thing?”, he asks, semi-rhetorically but also clearly in the midst of thought himself.

“While it’s true that 30% or 40% of leather goes to waste, we’re still helping to finance the leather industry – we’re helping to finance leather production – and that’s probably not so great. That’s one thing that we’re struggling with a little bit and we’re not sure what to make of it. I still think it’s a better alternative than purchasing 10,000 new fresh hides from a tannery or making the clothes from plastic.”

Of course, this isn’t exactly a binary choice – that’s where von Bahder’s trepidation comes from. Deadwood could diversify, the brand has changed a lot in twelve years after all, and could in theory make the shift away from leather entirely. But things which seem clear from the outside, with no skin in the game, are rarely so black and white from an inside perspective. And it’s this realization which, in many ways, has proved most creatively fruitful for the label, leading to collections crafted from cactus leather and to a much-lauded collaboration with biomaterial company MycoWorks on a capsule of reishi mycelium apparel and accessories.

“We dabbled a little bit with the cactus material, but that has some plastic in it anyway, and we’ve experimented with with MycoWorks’ materials – but they’re not really what I’d call ‘ready’; it’s more of a fun art project at the moment – it’s not so comfortable and it’s not so durable,” von Bahder says, pointing to the other side of the coin when it comes to sustainable choices, being not just about the manufacturing and production of the materials but also about how well they last and whether they’re useable enough to be kept rather than discarded.

It’s also worth noting that Deadwood’s collection with MycoWorks consisted of six unique pieces, made to order but all very much available to buy – a move which bucks the trend of brands making getural overtures to next-generation materials, issuing prototypes and one-of-ones with no foreseeable plans to scale the product in any impactful way. These pieces, at least, are out in the world, demonstrating what the materials are capable of even if the end result isn’t exactly perfect.

“We felt that was really important,” von Bahder agrees, “I mean, people have to be able to buy the products, right? Otherwise it’s really just an art project – an object for its own sake. But we did it as a made to order thing, so that we could take it slowly, and, of course, because the material is fucking expensive.”

At this point, von Bahder dips away from the screen and quickly comes back with a reishi jacket in hand, holding it up to the camera. “We used the natural colored mycelium,” he says, gesturing to the piece, “but we also turned it inside out, so it’s even more uneven and funky.”

And that “funk,” as von Bahder puts it, is a point of contention too. Not ethically, but in terms of that same “ick factor” which understandably bothers people about animal-derived leathers. “It probably isn’t the same people – these are maybe opposite groups – but still, for every person who thinks there’s something gross about leather, you have another person that’s going to say it’s weird to wear mushrooms. And you know, it is weird, it does have that sort of natural feel. I mean, basically, it smells like a mushroom.”

The experimentation hasn’t ended with mushrooms, however. In fact, that’s really just the beginning, von Bahder assures me, holding up another garment to illustrate his point. “So, I don’t know if you’ve been in a Volvo recently, but this is Volvo leather,” he explains, pointing out the unique perforations which suggest its original purpose. “We just turned that inside out, and then I went to town with a flamethrower. Now, I’m not sure about the emissions, the CO2 footprint of my flame-throwing session, but the truth is I had to burn it because the back side of leather is kind of funky. But I burned off the weirdness and it turned out pretty cool.”

“At first, everybody thought we were crazy. Twelve years ago even the idea of mixing fashion with ideas of sustainability – it was unheard of, really. People thought we were making yoga wear or something.”

It’s an interesting process to hear about first hand – and not just because of the flamethrower. First, there’s the return to the “ick factor” – the notion that, if you have to burn it to make it palatable to people, there’s probably something not quite right about it. But there’s also something else – something slightly less obvious, which says more about the leather industry at large than it does about the material itself, and which relates directly to the notion of “Volvo Leather.”

And here’s the thing: While some statistics suggest that 40% of all hides are sent to landfill, leaving the automotive industry to pick up 18% of the remaining number, of those 35 million salvaged hides not all of them end up actually being used. The truth is, they’re only saved from wastage in the very first instance – there’s still off-cuts and discards and remnants that just don’t make the cut.

What happens to all of that material? Well, it’s either enter flamethrower or exit, once again, to landfill. And, realistically – harder-core vegan perspectives aside – one of these is demonstrably better than the other. Progress, as we say, over perfection.

And it’s this same mentality – not of absolutes, but of forward motion – that has seen Deadwood looking to branch out in other ways of late as well. “We’re in talks with the wool people in Prato,” von Bahder says, referencing the Italian textile capital which has seen a textile-to-textile recycling boom in recent years, “We’re looking to see if we can get a knit project going with them – we want to highlight what they’re doing with reclaiming wool.”

But, of course, it can’t all happen at once. “We’ll always be known for the leather side of things, you know? So change has to happen in baby steps.”

For now, though, there’s just enough creative and material innovation to keep von Bahder feeling fulfilled, to keep bringing in new customers, and to maintain a loyal fanbase. “In terms of upcycling, that’s always going to be maybe 80% of what we do. But then, on top of that, there has to be 20% that’s dedicated to innovation, to experimentation. That keeps things interesting for other people, but also for ourselves. And, of course, you can’t push consumers too hard too fast either – they’re only slowly waking up to the fact that you can make a leather jacket from old leather jackets.”

And it helps that von Bahder and Ollson aren’t alone anymore. In twelve years they’ve transitioned from outliers under suspicion of insanity to part of a growing scene of labels with shared ideals. “In Stockholm now, it feels like there’s something happening – there are a few brands who are really on the same wave. There’s one called Rave Review and one called HODAKOVA, who are both worth checking out – both really into the remake method. Now we’re like the bitter old guys who’ve been into this for ages.”

It’s not just the upstarts, either. “Then there’s the OUR LEGACY guys, too. They’re friends of ours and they’ve been doing this for a long time, but it kind of felt like they plateaued at one point – maybe ten years ago or something – and nothing really happened. Then, all of a sudden, sometime during the pandemic, they realized that they had all this overstock and they needed to do something with it. And that’s how they ended up with the Workshop,” von Bahder recounts, keen as always to shout out his friends and colleagues. “It feels like that sort of unlocked something in them – some creative nerve – and they just went through the roof, collaborating with Stüssy and all kinds of other projects. So that’s fucking inspiring.”

Is that a path Deadwood might pursue? “On our own, we’re always out of money and everything’s always, you know, upside down,” von Bahder laughs, “But it is what it is. And that’s part of why collaboration is so important – to pool resources, but also to keep the creative edge. It’s important, I think, to team up when you’re as small as we are.”

And, to that end, von Bahder notes at least two marquee-level collaborations currently in the works for Deadwood – one with legacy U.S. denim outfit Wrangler and the other with a mega-brand which von Bahder can’t name publicly at this point – both of which lend huge visibility and infrastructure to the label in exchange for its design prowess and the lending of its Earth-friendlier credentials. Then there’s a lower-key effort with Danish outfit (di)vision, which feels more like an exercise in creativity and comradeship and all the things which Ollson and von Bahder most enjoy, rather than what Deadwood needs to make progress in the most literal sense.

In terms of the future, though, Deadwood is keen not to push too hard. “For us,” von Bahder says, “I think introducing one new material each year seems like a reasonable rate. But then, you know, there’s also boredom that can creep in, and – as a creative – you always expand and work on new projects. But there has to be a balance.”

And balance is really what the brand is all about. A mix of the old and the new; of tradition and innovation – at once on the ground floor of materials that simply didn’t exist a year ago and immersed in a deep history anchored in geography.

“Go back 100 years and 90% of clothes that were made were made from leftovers or old garments or whatever because nobody could afford anything else. That was the way you had to do it – especially here in the North. In Scandinavia, people were fucking broke; Sweden was a really poor country in the 1800s. What we do is almost like going back to that a little bit – a sort of poor man’s mentality that’s colliding with the sustainability aspect. It’s a nice marriage. It makes sense.”

And sense, it’s fair to say, is what the fashion world needs more than anything.