There's a special level of appreciation for denim in Sweden. Acne, arguably the country's most directional label, began as a project to make a few pairs of jeans for the founders' friends. Fast forward to today and, on top of Acne, there are a host of denim brands whose cuts have endeared them to the fickle undercurrent of raw denim lovers including Nudie, Cheap Monday and other smaller brands who specialize in working with raw denim. Perhaps it's the country's affinity for utilitarian apparel, its strong subculture scene or maybe simply because Swedes gravitate toward quality above other more aesthetic attributes.
Almost a year to the day of its opening, we took a trip to Unionville, a specialist denim and workwear emporium on Stockholm's Södermalm island to speak to Douglas Luhanko, who co-founded the store with his brother, Hampus and fellow denim specialist, Fredrik Johansson. Unionville sits on a quiet street behind its sister store, Sivletto—Stockholm's Rock a Billy paradise—stocking a carefully selected blend of Japanese brands like The Flat Head and Iron Heart alongside classics including Levis and Wrangler and local labels Denim Demon and Blue Highway.
Blue Highway marks the work of the Luhanko brothers, whose passion for denim runs much deeper than just designing it. "We started six years ago," explains Douglas. "My brother and I were still in a small town in Northern Sweden and we've always has this shared love of jeans and the history of denim itself. So Blue HIghway actually started out as a blog where we talked about vintage denim, its cultural references and history," says Luhanko.
Pointing to one of Unionville's hand-sourced machines, Douglas tells the story of how he and his brother acquired it after seeing a local advertisement—although it was only a single-seam stitch, it was enough to start with, and Blue Highway began to morph from a blog into what is arguably Sweden's only truly custom denim brand. "Despite living at the time in Eskilstuna and working from a small basement there was a clear benefit in the small, isolated town in that it's got a really long, industrial past," says Douglas. "So we were able to pick up more machines over time, which are the ones hissing in our workroom here at Unionville."
"I love how raw denim is brought to life by the person wearing it," he adds. "Even though it may look like a normal pair, the owner knows that behind each line, fade, mark and crinkle is its own personal story." While the brand has been growing organically for six years, the brothers have been involved in garment-making for much longer. Sharing a strong desire to return to the ideals of an 18th-century tailor, the Luhankos create everything from scratch for each client.
As Blue Highway began to pick up more clients, the pair began their never-ending search for authentic deadstock rolls of denim. "We've been through about 15 different types of denim," Douglas says. "At the start we just hunted on Ebay but in Sweden that's really expensive. We've gotten better at sourcing as time has passed," he continues, pulling out their latest find, Cone Mills deadstock. "This one was meant for Levis, and it's a little wider than the narrow shuttle loom denim we've had in the past," he explains. "It's about 11 ounces, and not so slubby like you'd get from Japan, but already now, when I feel it, I can see the possibilities."
The brothers make everything in a workroom at the rear of the store, in full view of visitors. "Each pair takes around six hours to make," Douglas points out, going on to explain that Blue Highway will never be about the money. "For us, it's about the attitude of creation itself and paying a genuine homage to each piece of fabric and exploring the limits of our own creativity and cratsmanship at the same time." He is quick to stress that their brand will always be completely handmade, so their vision remains imprinted on every aspect of the finished garment.
Given the duo's pedigree as denim historians, Blue Highway's cut is proudly based around a classic 1950s five-pocket cut. Each pair is single-stitched and overlocked on original, period sewing machines, while belt loops and bartacks on the rear pockets are completed by hand. Blue Highway denim sports special brass hardware that's embossed in the workshop, and hand-cut, stamped leather patches. Perhaps in homage to Levis, Douglas is quick to mention that they don't do riveted pockets. That said, they have added their own special twist on the coin pocket, which is sized large enough to fit a watch, with a slightly scooped cut to enable faster access to its contents.
The cost for this labor intensive process runs around 3,000 SEK (approximately $440), available at Unionville.