BEHIND THE SEAMS: Kennington Ltd.
Being from Los Angeles, we here at Labeling Men have seen every type of up and coming designer in every style under the sun. But Kennington LTD is the definition and originator of the California lifestyle brand. With 40-50 years of design history and experience, Lance Tendler has taken his father’s legacy into the 21st Century with a poignant bang. Tendler and his design partner Alan Walters brought us into their world while shooting their brand new collection in a beautiful and spacious loft in Downtown LA. It was our privilege to speak with them both about their brand, steeped in history and recreating the past for the modern man.
ALAN WALTERS: I’m Alan Walters, and I am the director of Apparel. Kennington does things other than just garments.
LABELING MEN: Wonderful! So you’ve been with the company 25 years now?
ALAN WALTERS: Approximately, yeah!
LABELING MEN: How did you get started?
ALAN WALTERS: I was doing production with them before I became an employee. It was kind of like one of those Godfather things where you join us or we boot you out, you know. When originally there were two partners – Nick and Stan, who is Lance’s dad - and when they split amicably I was offered the position of Director of Production and I’ve been with them ever since.
LABELING MEN: Tell me about how the brand has evolved throughout the years in terms of design?
ALAN WALTERS: Kennington was originally a young man’s brand. In the 50s and 60s they captured a bit of the surf market. When they originally started, the East Coast was wearing button down shirts and they weren’t doing that in California. So the idea was to take that kind of stodgy button down shirt and interpret it into more of a California lifestyle brand, and that is essentially what we did back then. Now, I think we are going back to things that are more part of our roots, like the terry [cloth]. If it’s not something that we’ve done before we kind of stay away from it. So the terry cloth has been big for Kennington over the years, so this season we brought it back. We do all of our own prints, many are from the archives, some of them aren’t. So everything is proprietary to Kennington.
LABELING MEN: That’s amazing!
ALAN WALTERS: Yeah.
LABELING MEN: That’s very special and makes Kennington so unique.
ALAN WALTERS: Yeah! Because we probably do 25 prints a season. So it’s quite a few.
LABELING MEN: Wow! So prints have always been kind of the bulk of Kennington right?
ALAN WALTERS: It’s kind of been the story. Prints have kind of been the story. We did a lot of Hawaiians over the years. If you look online you’ll see Ebay and those kind of places even before our site because Kennington has been around so long. So a lot of Hawaiians, we printed in Japan years and years ago, and now we have a factory in Dominican Republic that produces all of our garments. We have been there 18-19 years, living wage, everything. We’ve been there and we have a great relationship with them, we are really responsible for a large part of that factory.
LABELING MEN: That’s important.
ALAN WALTERS: Yes, we pride ourselves on that.
LABELING MEN: Wonderful! So how would you label or describe the Kennington Man?
ALAN WALTERS: You know it’s difficult because we have two men really. We have the kind of younger, hipster kind of guy. Maybe a bit more Brooklyn-esque. And then we sell to a lot of surf shops. We really kind of have two audiences. One is a bit younger, maybe 20s or 30s, and one is 30 to 40 that’s a little bit more gentrified, more city like.
LABELING MEN: Perfect! So who or what are some of your current design inspirations?
ALAN WALTERS: More than anything I think we look at what’s been done over the years. Like I’ll watch movies from the 70s, 80s and 60s to try and look at what’s been done there. I was watching The Eagles documentary to see what they were wearing. I look at what we did back then and our old ads and try to go back to what we’ve done in the past. We also have a sweater factory in Italy, so when we are doing sweaters they have racing stripes from the past and the nylon jacket is exactly like what James Dean would wear. We kind of look back and make subtle changes. Like back then it was a cigarette pocket and now it’s a little larger to fit a cell phone in it. But essentially it’s the same thing. So we try to look to the past and make it real. Like even now, we want to take photos that make it real and so that real guys would want to wear it. We don’t want it to be pretentious.
LABELING MEN: So specifically for this upcoming collection, what was an inspiration?
ALAN WALTERS: I think it really was the 60s, 70s beach culture, because we really wanted to bring the terry back. I think it really is going back a little more to the beach culture; we’ve looked back at what we did then and really tried to recreate some of that. Keeping the same silhouettes but adding details that wouldn’t have been there before, updating a little bit but not too far away. So, yeah, I think just going back to the beach culture.
LABELING MEN: What are some of your favorites pieces from this collection?
ALAN WALTERS: I think the terry polo is one of my favorites for sure. There are some prints that we have changed the sizing of that I’m kind of fond of. The denim I really like, even though it’s not something we normally do. All of the bottoms are made in USA and the cord shorts we’ve sold out of for this season, so we are bringing them back again. So the bottoms that are made in the United States I’m really excited about because it’s so new and our denim is really light and has a bit of stretch in it, which is fun. I think it’s easier to wear than most denim.
LABELING MEN: So what would be a staple piece from the collection as a whole? One of your favorite prints maybe?
ALAN WALTERS: There are a lot of prints I’m really fond of, we’ve done really well with this print called the Naked Truth that we are doing in Black and White so it’s a little bit more contrast. It’s a vintage print from Kennington from the 70s and so recoloring it and changing the size and the contrast of that print is one of our best prints ever. Peace and Dove is a print we’ve done a lot for shorts, we’ve made it a bit smaller that way you don’t have to feel like you’re a dandy to wear it.
LABELING MEN: Haha, a dandy!
ALAN WALTERS: Haha, yeah, it brings it down a little bit. Changing that a little bit made it a little easier to wear.
LABELING MEN: Thanks for joining us Lance! I’d love to get a little bit of the history of Kennington - we’ve gotten to talk about the design and would love to hear about how Kennington was started. We want to hear everything!
LANCE TENDLER: My father started the company in 1957, he started really out of his parents garage almost rubbing a couple of nickels together to make it work and had a second job at night to support himself. You know what, it was a good time to start a business, his timing was excellent. I don’t even think he knew it at the time. When he started the company you know there was a very big difference between what was going on in the West Coast versus the East Coast. And California fashion wasn’t really a fashion beyond California. So Kennington was really a small group of people that put California and West Coast fashion on the map. So what I like to think is that Kennington was always a real guy, wearable, it was never supposed to be a super high priced item. In a way they were the guys that they were selling to. Young guys, working guys. It was sportswear, it was a way for people to dress up in a slightly more adventurous fashion which I think is what we are trying to do today. Because if it’s adventurous but it’s not wearable, it doesn’t do much good.
LABELING MEN: I love that. So when did you take over the company?
LANCE TENDLER: Kennington became a really big company. I came in because we had other businesses to run. I didn’t have a background in fashion, it was really on taking over a family business that had grown. So I’ve been at Kennington for over 20 years, I’ve been the CEO for about 20 years. The re-launch was really the key and that was two years ago. Up until that point, my focus really wasn’t on apparel, it was on running a business. The re-launch sucked me in in a way that wasn’t intended the first time around. When I came in 20 years ago it was to worry about everything else. Two years ago we were all in.
LABELING MEN: So what brought that about?
LANCE TENDLER: You know, we had put the Kennington man to rest if you will. We had moved on and the Kennington man was retired. We had a number of people approach us about licensing and frankly it wasn’t that motivating from a financial point of view. But more importantly for me, it felt like I was threatening a legacy. You know the Kennington man did great things for us and I was very concerned about cheapening the legacy for a few bucks. So essentially we were like, I think there is some real interest here and there is a market, let’s just do it ourselves, keep it in the family and control it. Alan has worked with us for a long time so we decided to dive in and between us we more or less have divided the responsibilities, and without Alan the line wouldn’t be what it is now. Pulling from the archives, he’s been pulling for 30-40 years of history. He’s been the linchpin in terms of the re-launch, production, and design. Between the two of us, we have been taking the assets of an old plane with the energy of a start up. Which essentially is what it is. We didn’t throw money at it; we just stuck our toes in the water and gave it a try. We showed very modestly at a couple of tradeshows, we wanted to see what we had and we weren’t trying to force it on the world, we wanted to test. We think we are getting affirmation and it was dumb luck timing. It was more about Kennington finding that a lot of people remembered the name and it brought a smile to everyone’s face. We really developed a strong sense that there was a place in the market for what we were doing. It’s very important to us to try and play within our game. It is very important to us to be believable. There are a lot of great designers doing all kinds of wonderful things, but we are trying to make sure that we are doing something that stays consistent with the legacy and again is believable, wearable and believable from our point of views.
LABELING MEN: Keep the Kennington love alive!
LANCE TENDLER: Yeah! There are some very young, hip and edgy people doing all kinds of things. We are selling a brand, almost a lifestyle and reviving the spirit of something. If we didn’t have the brand history or legacy I don’t think we would be doing it at all. Great looks, the legacy, the history and hopefully us handling all of that in a dignified fashion together, I think makes for a real possibility. The story without the looks wouldn’t help a whole lot and I don’t think good looks without the story would sell as well either. People are attracted to the idea that it’s a family-owned business and there is consistency and it’s not just someone buying the name. This is our labor of love, heart and soul, and true legacy.
LABELING MEN: That is wonderful! I would love to get a few of your favorite pieces from this collection and collections past.
LANCE TENDLER: Prints are a big part of what we do. It’s a matter of flavor, style, and sensibility of the prints because Kennington did everything from Hawaiians to the sort of disco type print to what we are doing now, which is more of a modern take on the old Ivy’s from the old days. But prints are always a big part of the story and attraction. So we always have our favorites and I think Kennington was a shirt company at the heart of it and when I was growing up, the bread and butter, but we are trying to create more of a sense of a line and collection and try to expand a bit. So I would say our shorts and pants and outerwear, knits, that’s rounding out what we’ve done and what we are really good at.
LABELING MEN: And Allen said all the prints are designed in house.
LANCE TENDLER: Yes! They are either archival or archival prints that we’ve repurposed or something that we’ve created from the world around us.
LABELING MEN: How does it feel to see everything your dad worked on when you were a child and taking it on yourself?
LANCE TENDLER: Well, I don’t try to walk in his shoes. He started something and we aren’t trying to duplicate it. What we are doing is taking advantage of 30-40 years of success that he’s created. We have been in a lot of businesses and this is near and dear to our hearts. This is something far more than winning, but there is more than that going on here. There is a great deal of pride and I think that has a lot to do with why I didn’t want to license to someone else. I like to have the control and my dad liked the control as well in the old days, he had a lot of opportunities to sell off but he liked doing it. It was a labor of love to him then and it is a labor of love to us now. I know that sounds cliché but that’s really how we feel. There is more ways to make money but there is not more ways to make money enjoying it the way we have. It’s very gratifying. So if I can do my father proud, and if he’s proud of what’s going on and he’s excited and it works for him, it works for me.
LABELING MEN: Love to hear that! Final question, what is next for Kennington?
LANCE TENDLER: Really I think it’s about widening the footprint. We want to put Kennington back on the map. I feel that we have a start but there is a lot of territory to cover. The difference is that Kennington started in a very regional world and now it’s global. We believe that there is appeal beyond the United States. Japan, UK, so what I would like to see is us grow deeper roots here but I would really like to see us grow into a global brand.
LABELING MEN: Well I think it’s on the horizon!
Shop Kennington’s latest collection at kenningtonltd.com
Interview by Mischa Teichgraeber
Photos by Eric Fulcher
This interview has been edited and condensed.