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 his 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.
What’s the obsession with military fabric?
I was just very drawn to it. There’s a huge warehouse in East L.A. full of it and I started spending so much time there looking at all these old military bags, boots, and jackets and it felt like the truest, purest form of a museum. I would really get wrapped up in these soldiers names written on little wooden cards and really breaking it down in my head that this stuff was used by guys in 1944 and it was crazy to me that I was surrounded by mountains of it. It was such a shame that it was sitting in this warehouse and no one was appreciating it.
How did the City Gym collaboration come about?
Todd was working with Brad Shaffer from ACRE Goods & Services on the new shop. I met Brad three or four months ago and Todd happened to be in LA and Todd came over for a coffee and we started talking about putting a sofa in the space. We were originally going to use the military fabric and I kind of picked his brain a bit to see if he’d be interested in using other materials. He goes, “Oh there’s this company I’d love to use.” I said, “We should use Faribault Mills.” And he says, “That’s exactly what I was thinking.” I said I’d love to work with them, but I didn’t know anybody over there. Two minutes later Todd pulls out his phone, starts talking to somebody, and is like, “Can you get six blankets shipped to Stephen? What’s your address?” It was insane. We met on a Thursday for the first time, the blankets arrived Friday morning and the sofa was finished Saturday afternoon. I photographed it on Monday, posted in on Instagram. Todd was like, “Holy shit!” Then we had to ship it Monday afternoon so it would arrive in the store before it opened. It all came together really fast, but I really like how it came out.
How else is this sofa different from the military collection?
So for the military sofas the belts are modeled after a Swiss mule belt. We replicate the webbing for our collection, but the belts we did for Todd’s piece, we used two-inch, 100-percent cotton webbing that we overdyed a dark charcoal grey just to compliment the grey blankets. The blankets are all US Navy reproductions, and the brown leather on the belt just really compliments Todd’s brand. It's also an introduction for our commercial frame. The seat cushions are now affixed to the frame and the belts are only used on the backs and sides. This improvement to the design is in response to our sofa being requested for use in public spaces.
Are you thinking of going into new fabrics or shapes going forward?
We’re in the middle of a collaboration where the frame is dipped in copper and oxidized, and we’re having this woman downtown dip canvas in indigo. Her process is amazing and we’re going to have a hand-dipped indigo and copper version of our sofa. I think our design is very flexible because the components are just the frame, the webbing, and the upholstery. So I want to keep working with people and see how flexible we can get.
Are you working on other collections?
We just released a new leather bag collection called the Encounter Collection. We have a dining table collection that we’re working on. I’d love to keep moving into other categories. I’d love to do lighting collection and a fine art collection. I’m really interested in putting together an aesthetic material story and then a media piece about why we created it and then just let it be.