The Willy Wonka of denim

by Wendy Helfenbaum

“I always knew that schmattes were my destiny,” says Brandon Svarc, BCom’04, founder of Naked & Famous, a Montreal-based denim brand that has acquired a cult following since its launch in 2008. “My grandparents worked hard to survive in Europe and then started a business here that my dad continued. It would almost be like slapping them in the face to not keep it alive.”

Still, Svarc didn’t join the family business right away. After graduation, he spent about a year doing marketing for a friend who made watch winders for high-end timepieces.

“The trade show experience – how to make a booth look nice, how to attract people’s attention – was invaluable,” recalls Svarc, who then did a two-year marketing stint at Point Zero.

“One lesson I took away from a strategy and organization class at McGill was how to change people’s perceptions, and that’s what started my interest in the power of PR,” says Svarc, who left Point Zero to start his own PR firm.

“I knew all the stylists and magazine editors across Canada, and got lots of press for clients in the clothing and jewelry industries. But then I got jealous of all of them; I wanted to start my own brand that was very story-based, with crazy products that people would have to write about. And those stories would help launch my brand.”

Svarc, a self-described “denim nerd,” began building Naked & Famous by scouring the globe to find the best fabric. He discovered Japanese selvage denim, made on old machines from the fifties.

“There was a cult around Japanese denim, and I knew that if we could get it and make super high-quality jeans and offer them for half the price of all those ridiculous Hollywood brands, then we’d really make an impact.”

Svarc planned to position his products in high-end stores at the lowest price. But without a single connection in luxury markets, he had to knock on a lot of doors.

“My family has been doing workwear and prison uniforms for 60 years, but I wanted to sell to Barney’s and Holt Renfrew,” he explains.

Svarc brought Naked & Famous’ first jeans to market in February 2008, along with never-to-be-broken rules for his new brand: made in Canada from raw Japanese fabric, no advertising and no freebies.

That last rule raised a few eyebrows from the Hollywood handlers of A-listers like Justin Bieber and Zac Efron, as Svarc repeatedly turned down requests for free swag.

“They’d say to me, ‘You don’t understand – we’re going to wear these in our music video!’ I’d send them Barney’s address in Beverly Hills, and mention that there’s free valet parking,” laughs Svarc. “Isn’t it funny that the richest people in America want the most free stuff?”

The Naked & Famous factory – Svarc shares digs with father Alan, BCom’79, and sister Kari, BA’10, on St-Laurent Boulevard – employs just 12 people and sells to more than 30 countries worldwide.

Fashion mags have happily bought into Svarc’s vision: Naked & Famous has gotten some serious ink in GQ, Details and Sharp, featuring its glow-in-the-dark jeans, raspberry-scented scratch-and-sniff jeans and, most recently, thermochromic denim that changes colour with body heat.

On the fashion site, one Naked & Famous fan called Svarc "The Willy Wonka of denim."

“Willy Wonka appealed to the imagination and that’s how we design,” says Svarc. “When I come up with something new, I picture myself as an eight-year-old kid again. Glow-in-the-dark jeans? We made them because I had glow-in-the-dark stickers on my ceiling.”

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