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How Asking for An Apprenticeship Launched this Cult Denim Line

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It's time to get to know some of the 50 finalists nominated for Racked Young Guns, our annual search for the country's most promising new fashion talent.

Designer Karl Thoennessen's denim line Rogue Territory started with a birthday gift. As a New Jersey high school student, Karl came across a pair of premium raw denim jeans at the Diesel store in Soho. "I told my sister about it and she wound up buying a pair for my birthday," he says. "I thought it was cool that they were $129. Coming from skateboarding, I would just skate in whatever I could and see how long it lasts. I thought there was something more to this; something more than 'Better jeans are just very expensive.'"

This curiosity led Karl to research and troll blogs, where he discovered Japanese denim. "I bought my first pair of denim jeans from Japan in college and started getting caught up in this niche market of Americans buying this expensive selvedge denim, but I was just a consumer at that point."

After college and a brief stint in San Diego, Karl landed in Los Angeles, where he stumbled upon an 8x10 space in the back of denim store American Rag. "No one was in there, but there was a mannequin with some jeans pinned on it," he recalls. The space, which was used for denim alterations and custom jeans, belonged to Thvm's Brian Kim, who then was the founder of Work Custom Jeans.

"I was inspired by what he was doing and talked him into taking me on as an apprentice," says Karl, who had sewn patches on jeans and t-shirts but never made a garment. "I told him I'd sweep, clean, organize, fold, and after hours, I'd sew. I watched [Brian] lay out fabric, press them, and cut out patterns. I took notes on every step of the process and wound up making my first jeans—a 5-pocket pair made with 13.oz Cone Mills selvedge—in two weeks."

That first pair made its mark through the years: the lasso stitch Karl sewed in the back pocket of those jeans wound up on several styles used in his line today.

Three months later, Brian moved on, but Karl stayed put. For the next two and a half years, he worked from the space under the name Rogue Territory, doling out alterations and bespoke pairs to everyone from entertainment and sports stars to his brother and future wife.

In 2009, things took a turn when Karl broke into readymade, introducing his first limited-run collection featuring the SK Skinny fit, a basic slim straight (first dubbed the Dean and now named the Stanton), and the Standard Issue, a modern take on the vintage 501 style. At that time, Karl also debuted some work shirts and the denim work trouser, which he says helped define his approach to design: a clean aesthetic and modern fit with workwear details.

The pair, which Karl still releases in limited-run anniversary styles, was designed with two loops on the front pocket that you could button up or down for two separate fits—unbuttoned for a loose, low-sitting jean and buttoned for a tightened-up, classic look.

"I was on a workwear kick, so I experimented with bigger hems and wider belt loops—that kind of stuff," says Karl. "I was focused on having one pair of jeans I wanted to wear every day. I was constantly modifying my slim straight pattern, tweaking the rise an inch, opening the sides slightly. I dwelled, and still do, over a sixteenth of an inch."

During this experimental phase, Karl also played around with pockets. "I was interested in a different pocket shape. My pocket is not symmetrical—the inside has an angle to it, which gives the pocket a nice, tapered look. It's lined, and there are hidden bar tacks at the top where the hem is."

In 2010, Karl left American Rag, and after two gigs—one making custom jeans in Vegas (think Build-A-Bear for denim) at a store called Weft and another out in L.A.—he shifted his focus to Rogue Territory full-time in 2012. Karl's wife, Leslie, also came on board to work on wholesale management, online fulfillment, and other nitty-gritty details.

As the made-in-L.A. line has evolved, it has grown to include shirts, jackets, shorts, pants, and other dandyish gentleman accessories, all crafted with denim and chambray that's primarily sourced from Japan's Nihon Menpu mill. "They focus on indigo dyes instead of fillers and chemicals to increase the depth and [color] intensity," says Karl on his choice to work with them.

"From the beginning of Rogue Territory, I was making stuff I wanted to wear and because I needed it," says Karl.

"I designed the Ar-G trousers because Leslie and I were going to Argentina and I didn't have any lightweight pants. I came up with the design two days before we left. In the upcoming collection, I wanted to work with heavier fabrics because I knew I was going to New York in January. I needed a heavy jacket for myself, so I came up with a blanket-lined waxed canvas jacket that's coming out this fall. I ask 'What do I want to see in my closet every day?' And if I have to think about it for too long as far as what I'd want to wear with it, it gets cut."

This process is exactly what helps the brand stay fresh. "Before the Stanton was called the Stanton, it was the Dean, and that's because I was inspired by the characters Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman were playing in the early 50s: rebels and loners," says Karl of the company's origin.

"I didn't want to use to use rebel or loner, so I came up with rogue. And territory was a way to define ownership over a pair of jeans. Everyone's pair of raw jeans break in differently and have different marks and fading. Everyone likes to take ownership over that. Rogue Territory is the rebel, badass dude that owns his look."

But over the years, the meaning of Rogue Territory has changed for Karl just as much as the line itself. "Rogue Territory is now exploration—there's always something to explore and something new to discover."
· Rogue Territory [Official Site]
· This Cali Designer Works with Materials Shed by Wild Animals [Racked]
· All Racked Young Guns 2014 [Racked]