Interview by Margot van der Krogt
Pictures by Jordi Huisman
No bullshit – there’s no better way to describe Tenue de Nîmes co-founder Rene Strolenberg. He hasn’t taken no for an answer his whole life, from the day he moved out of his parents’ house at age 14. He claimed jobs he wasn’t qualified for, left one that promised him greatness, and eventually opened up his own denim store with companion Menno van Meurs at the age of 26. His one flaw, he says, is that he can’t just leave a job half done, even when it comes to tattoos; he doesn’t get just one, he gets an arm full. Strolenberg has been defying the odds since birth, his mismatched Chuck Taylors leading the way.
We take a seat at the dining room table in his newly renovated home in the east of Amsterdam. The exposed brick walls envelope us in a warm glow, yet there’s a raw edge to the place. A sleek porcelain jaguar peaks out from behind the drawing board while an eerie black and white photograph by Yamandu Roos of a German concentration camp makes us feel uneasy in its calmness. Despite the stark contrasts, the interior has been crafted with the utmost care. A candle burns steadily on the table, and a deep yet comfortable scent wafts through the air, one that can easily be identified as Tenue de Nimes. We’re home.
What’s your background?
I was born in Amsterdam but moved to Lelystad when I was five. At 14, I thought I had it all figured out. I had been kicked out of school twice at that point; you can imagine what kind of kid I was. At 15, I wanted to move out of my parents’ house. My grandparents were living in the Vogelbuurt in Amsterdam-Noord and I decided to register myself as living with them, without anyone knowing. I then wrote a letter to the housing association explaining that my studies were suffering as a result of living with my grandparents, and I asked if they had a residence in the area for me. The crazy thing is that they actually granted me a house! One evening, I packed my bags and told my parents that I was moving out; my father just laughed as I walked out the door. I’ve lived in Amsterdam since.
So at this point, you’re a 15-year-old kid and you’re living on your own.
Like most kids my age, I had to get a part-time job. I started working at a retail store in Amsterdam, Bendorff. Most kids delivered newspapers in the neighborhood, and I definitely didn’t want to do that. I also hated biking – and still do today (I always travel by scooter, tram or by car). But anyway, I didn’t want to deliver newspapers so I decided to work in a shop from 9am in the morning in the weekends. That’s when I was introduced to the world of denim.
What was it was about denim that interested you?
I can’t describe it. I think I was fascinated by how jeans were presented in the shop. While most items are hung on hangers or folded into piles, jeans really take center stage. Especially when you’re young and quite small, a denim wall can just feel immense. My daughter is six years old and every time she walks into our shop, she’s just transfixed by the denim wall. I think I had a similar reaction the first time I was introduced to denim.
And you’ve worked with denim since, right?
After Bendorff, I worked at Laundry Industry for a month before being picked up by Indian Rose to start working in denim distribution. They were all the rage back then. I also set up a store for them on the Leidsestraat, across the street from G-Star. One day I decided to walk into the G-Star HQ to tell them, “I’m going to work here.” They weren’t going to hire me but I said, “I think you will. It won’t cost you much and I want to learn.” I worked at G-Star for 7 years. At every place I worked, I basically told the boss that I had a path I had to follow. I told them whether I wanted to work part-time or full-time, as an assistant or as a shop manager, in visual merchandising or PR, etc. That’s how I learned everything in practice. I got to the point where I thought I was doing everything better than the others and figured it was time to start my own business.
What was it like to take that step?
It was quite a bold move. I was working at G-Star at the time; they often referred to me as “the street kid” since I started working there when I was 17. I had done just about everything there, and before I left, I supported the fashion shows, I dealt with PR requests, and I trained the Japanese sales team in Tokyo. There really was no reason to quit. I remember the manager Jim Terwee telling me that if I was leaving for another brand, he would chop my hands off [laughs] but he accepted it because I was starting something for myself. It was actually quite funny – I had a house on IJburg with my girlfriend at the time. When she left, I had a house with a mortgage for two people, and literally no income at all. Out of desperation [laughs] I signed up for this TV show called Deal or No Deal and at some point I got a call that I was invited to be on the show – I won €16,000 that night! Things started to look up at that point.