Not for the first time that day, Pharrell Williams settled into a towering denim teepee inside G-Star's Amsterdam headquarters last week and seemed pleased. The teepee, after all, had been his idea.
A co-owner of the 25-year-old Dutch label as of the past couple of months, the singer was taking the opportunity to show off his new playground – a huge, highway-adjacent factory designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Miguel. Newly pink-haired and sporting rainbow-colored grills, Williams was dressed for the occasion: He wore white graffitied Timberlands, a baseball cap emblazoned with the word “Plant”, and a distressed denim jumpsuit that bore the phrase “Head of Imagination,” his official chosen title at the company, across his back.
“I see it as an awesome opportunity for me to express myself in terms of using the denim as a medium, to just make a statement whenever,” he told me of his new role.
Williams' title may sound flowery, but he's serious – and even infectiously enthusiastic – when it comes to sustainable designs. His interest began in 2014, when he collaborated with G-Star on a capsule collection called Raw for the Oceans that replaced the polyester threads in denim with recycled plastic found in the oceans, sourced from another company Williams co-owns, Bionic Yarn.
“You know how it works?” he asked me at one point, dutifully listening to my explanation before eagerly jumping into the nitty-gritty, statistics included: In the last two years, G-Star has jumped from using 15% to 61% recycled polyester, equating to 700,000 bottles every season. "Did over two million last year alone. Ten tons of plastic,” he tallied. “And that’s cool."
He took a serious pause, one of several during his earnest and at times meandering spiel.
"We’re very grateful that we were able to do that, but we don’t think that that’s enough,” he said. “Mind you, the planet is 75 percent, 85 percent water – just like humans are, by the way. But there is land. There are landfills.” Meaning, G-Star is now expanding from plastic found in the oceans to sourcing from the land as well, an attempt to “do something bigger and better and more robust" – a mission Williams seems committed to carrying out.
"Making me a co-owner... I don’t think there could be any bigger gesture [toward sustainability]," he added.
When Williams first joined G-Star in February, he let his imagination run wild. (He is Head of Imagination, after all.) The denim teepees, for instance, were an extension of a notion to create denim lawn chairs that came to him while watching the children's movie Inside Out with his son. The idea may sound fanciful and out of place with his sustainability-minded endeavors, but it's in keeping with G-Star's corporate culture, where employees see themselves less as designers and more like "product engineers."
Williams' tour of the headquarters, however, revealed that there was plenty more going on at the factory than making tents. "It's gonna get pretty geeky about denim," a tour guide promised of a room called "the denim laboratory." He wasn't kidding. The brand has long been fixated on reinventing the five-pocket jean, and two designers showcased about 15 examples from G-Star’s beginnings to today, including pairs dipped and baked in resin, wrapped up in zip ties, stitched up and restored, and coated in an oil wash, “almost as if you have oily hands and rubbed them on your jeans,” a designer explained. Finally, there was the Elwood, the famous curved pant they’ve sold 20 million pairs of since 1995, and their first-ever 3-D design, thanks to a pleat on the back that makes the legs curve out.
The tour was so comprehensive even Miguel and A$AP Rocky seemed to struggle to keep their composure. “We can sit? I ain’t gonna be rude,” Rocky said at one point.
The real action, though, was downstairs in the archive, where there were aisles after aisles of graphic T-shirts, military and workwear like police uniforms and diving equipment, motorcycle gear, knitwear, and, of course, vintage denim. Together, they made up essentially an ideal vintage store.
Hand-picked by the brand’s original designer, Pierre Morisset, the archive is where G-Star’s design process always starts, leading to hybrids like a mix between motorcycle and cargo pants. Given the chance to explore, everyone perked up: I found a great neon Courrèges snowsuit and a mesh Yamasha jersey, while Williams took a liking to the 1960s underwear – a section that got me sandwiched between him, his wife Helen Lasichanh, and Jillian Hervey of Lion Babe.
We made our way into more spaces, often waiting for a crew with cameras filming Williams, until at long last arrived at the teepee encampment, where Harley Viera-Newton DJ'ed at the end of the long hall. A$AP Rocky, meanwhile, pulled out his Polaroid camera to capture the tents and other imaginative denim structures, like a hooded canoe with denim sleeves stretching out to the oars.
As Williams kept it short on stage during his “initiating ritual” (“I’m shy,” he explained), and specifics were again avoided when it came to his future with the company, I thought back to what he told me earlier. “We want to grow. But while we grow, we’re also working on our recipe,” he had said. “It’s important to not overbuild and oversell when you’re perfecting the recipe, and that’s mainly what we’re doing. Yes, we’re opening stores. Yes, we’re making more denim. But I think what’s been number one for us has been getting the recipe right, just making sure the ingredients are there, the intention, the integrity.”
After all, Williams has only been a co-owner for a handful of months, and this was only his second time at the factory. His title may be lofty, but it’s one he appears to take seriously, well aware of how celebrities with fashion lines are more often than not treated as figureheads. “It’s one thing to bring me in,” he said, explaining why he feels so grateful. “It’s another thing to actually believe that I can actually help effectuate change.”
Plus, it means he’ll definitely be in Amsterdam a lot more – at least, more than he usually is: “Ever since I’ve been in N.E.R.D., I’ve been coming to Amsterdam every year for a show,” he said.
Music may be in the cards for G-Star, too: “It’s the skeleton key that opened this door,” he said, before chief executive Jos van Tilburg eagerly jumped in to say their commercials will no doubt be needing a soundtrack.
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Photos courtesy of G-Star Raw.