Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canadian designer Stephen Kenn got his start in the denim business fresh out of high school after a year-long stint teaching English in Taiwan. “A lot of our friends were starting t-shirt companies, so we thought let’s start a jean company, because nobody was really doing that in Canada back then,” recalls Kenn, who launched his brand, Iron Army, with a friend Steve Dubbeldam when they were both still in their teens. “We took out a loan, bought 300 pairs, went to a trade show in Vegas, met a bunch of people in L.A. and they were all like, ‘What the heck are you guys doing, making jeans in Canada?’” Acting on that advice, the duo moved to L.A. in 2004, where they sold denim to Fred Segal, and hustled on the side. “You know that HBO show How To Make It In America? We were kind of living that out a couple years before that was on TV,” jokes Kenn. “We were selling jeans out of the trunk of our car in Whole Foods parking lots to rich kids in Venice and doing pop-up shops on the corner of Melrose a couple streets down from Fred Segal, totally tarnishing the reputation we had, breaking all the rules, but we learned a lot.”
Though Iron Army would fold, Kenn and Dubbeldam partnered with Hudson Jeans for another brand. It had the misfortune of launching during the recession, but the experience taught Kenn resilience. “Even though I was beat down a bit, I decided to stay in LA, and I started using this old military fabric to sew bags. My goal was to start in the morning, sew a bag a day, take a photograph at night and sell it on a blog,” says Kenn, who ended up hawking 88 bags over the course of nine months. With the money he paid his rent, bought a wedding ring for his wife, Beks Opperman, and proposed to her in India. Kenn later sold the company, Temple Bags, and realized his next move would be furniture. “I started taking a ton of furniture apart, just to figure out how it was made,” he says. “I broke it down into bones, muscle, and skin.” He forged the bones from steel, the muscle (or tensions) from reproductions of Swiss mule belts, and the skin from repurposed WWII military fabric. That breakdown worked. In the past two years, Kenn has grown his eponymous line, crafted in downtown L.A., to include an elegant chaise, ottoman, armchair, and his iconic sofa, a City Gym version of which just made its debut — wrapped in custom Faribault wool — in the Todd Snyder + Champion store. “I just want to use great materials that tell great stories,” explains Kenn.