Interview: Karl Thoennessen and Leslie Yeung of RGT

I met Karl randomly while shopping for a new pair of raw denim. It was around 2009, and I didn’t know at the time that our paths would cross several years later at a dinner with a few common friends. I would ask him to let me stock Rogue Territory at my fairly new store. As time went by, we developed an extremely close friendship as well as a successful business relationship that would become the most important brand in our roster. We’ve shared holidays, ideas, been snowed in together, watched their family grow, and see the brand develop into what RGT is today. So, naturally we’re able to talk candidly about how Rogue Territory came together, what Leslie brings to the table, and where they see things going.


What made you decide that denim is what you wanted to do?

Karl: It was around 2007…I was working for Verizon selling business solutions and wearing a suit everyday. Leslie and I were dating and she wanted to buy some new denim. Being new to LA, we heard about American Rag, so we went to check it out. I was really into researching what made a good pair of denim. There was a guy in there who had a small space in the corner who did repairs and hemming which I thought was kind of interesting. Somehow, I convinced someone who worked there to give me his number. I called him and he was nice enough to invite me to his small studio in Echo Park. Thinking about it now, if he had been a dick, I probably would’ve just dropped the whole thing and not thought any more about it.

So you had an interest in it? What were Leslie’s thoughts on it?

Leslie: I kept Karl on track. We were new here in town and I was still in school. Karl was kind of going around with all these random jobs but I needed him to stay focused.

K: My original goal was to do marketing for an action sports brand or streetwear type label. There were a lot of unpaid internships that led nowhere and ended up costing me quite a bit of money.

L: It took a bit of convincing, but Brian, who was the guy doing the repairs and custom denim at American Rag, finally let Karl come by and see what he was doing. He had gotten a lot of calls from people wanting to do denim and just learn and leave. But most people weren’t willing to do all the small stuff that a clothing maker needs, so it always wasted Brian’s time.

K: I was honest with him and told him I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do in denim, but I was willing to do anything he needed me to do. So, I just said, “Let me show up and clean up after you”. Leslie was super supportive and pushed me to figure it out. There was lots of organizing and sweeping up. I also helped with a bit of branding since I had experience in marketing. But learning the nuts and bolts of what it took, and seeing another side of denim was the real catalyst.

L: It always seemed very serendipitous. Lots of things just presented themselves early on.

K: Definitely. Timing played a huge factor. After a few months, he finally told me to jump on a machine, since I'd been watching him work, had me grab a pattern and see if I could make a pair of denim. I already knew what denim I wanted to use so I sat down and started. I had never sewn anything before but it kind of came naturally.

At what point did you stop working for him?

K: Well, eventually, Brian took a full time job at a designing gig and decided to close up the small shop at American Rag. I asked him if he thought they would let me take it over. I reached out to the store manager, and they agreed to meet. I brought in five pairs of denim I’d made and told them this is what I learned in three months. They happened to be looking for someone to be in store to do hems on the spot. They agreed and I started working there.

How long were you working there?

K: About 2008 to maybe 2010.

 

 

When did you start making actual Rogue Territory branded denim?

K: In 2009 or so. American Rag asked me if I would make some ready to wear pairs of denim for the shelves in the shop. I'd never really thought of doing more than custom denim, so that was what made me think that wholesale could be a way to grow and continue to make denim.

So without that opportunity, none of this may have happened.

K: Totally. Being in that shop everyday allowed me to meet a lot of industry people. And in that, I met my first and current factory. I met the owner of Dutil in Vancouver, and then Chris Green from Need Supply who had seen my stuff on Superfuture, and he convinced Need to stock the first Rogue Territory.

So three important stores right outta the gate. It takes being open to recognize the signs and then capitalize on them.

K: Fate or whatever you like to call it, but definitely right place at the right time.

What were you doing Leslie, when Karl was working on getting started?

L: I was in my last year at USC. We moved in together. My student loans were pretty much carrying us and we were trying to figure out how to navigate the business since we were both pretty naive. There were a lot of people wanting to take advantage of what Karl was doing and the buzz that was developing. He had made some custom denim for a few NBA players, but we decided that maybe that wasn’t the best way to go about building a business since custom denim was expensive and with only Karl making them, there was a finite amount he could produce. After making some denim for Kanye, he came calling on Karl to make the denim program for Pastelle, but that line didn’t really go anywhere. That led to Karl meeting the owner of Diamond Supply and so Karl did production design for them for a while.

When did you know, Leslie, that Karl had something special with RGT?

L: I knew pretty early on that he needed to focus on Rogue Territory. In spite of all the interest that people showed in wanting to work with Karl, I really felt that he was getting taken advantage of and it definitely caused a lot of arguments between us. I was always asking what he was doing and what is the plan? Keeping him focused was difficult.

Now you’re at Diamond Supply, but still doing custom denim. How long did that last?

K: It was about a year. I learned a lot from that job though. February 2012 was when we decided that I should go full time with Rogue Territory. Leslie was making good money working in marketing at Toyota and had insurance so she really allowed me to go full time on my own denim and see where I could take it.

When did Leslie come on full time?

L: It was in 2013. RGT was still really small, but we realized we couldn’t grow it how we wanted to with Karl having to do everything. He’d be managing production, designing, sourcing materials, packing orders, and at the end of the day doing all the accounting and numbers related stuff. And a lot of the time, I was helping out with that after getting home from work. I decided it was time to leave Toyota. That’s when we started making a lot more denim and shirting and a full collection basically. Karl was finally able to focus on design and production, while I managed all the numbers and back of the house stuff.

So when Karl and I bumped into each other at the Farm Tactics pop-up, 2012 I think, we still didn’t know each other. We ended up at a dinner together. I’m not sure I begged, but what made you decide to let me stock the brand?

K: You begged. *laughs and eats a gummy bear*

L: I actually remember this conversation. I was managing all the wholesale and accounting. Karl came home and mentioned you and your store across the street from American Rag. He said you guys really connected and felt that you’d do a better job representing us and the brand.

 

 

RGT really took off for us pretty quick. It had great word of mouth and a loyal customer who really seemed to get it. I think all we had was the trouser, one style of Stantons, and the ISC work shirt.

K: I just knew it could be great. I could see what General Quarters was doing, even as small as it was then. I liked the way you treated the product and people.

For a while when we first got the brand, you had time to come in and hang out and just chat. That’s kind of when we started to find our footing as friends.

K: Ahhh, simpler times.

Totally. Social media has played a large part of the early success of the brand. How did that get going?

K: I was always a hater on social media. I didn’t understand it. But Leslie, coming from marketing, was all about it. She was one of the first 100,000 users on Instagram. And people seemed to connect with it since it was more about the journey of the brand versus being sales driven. And then at one point we were a featured account on Instagram and the following really took off.

 



With RGT going on 10 years, how do you feel about the state of denim currently?

K: I still have the same passion and excitement for denim that I always did. I guess what I don’t love is the novelty aspect. Meaning all the extra bells and whistles that sell a pair of denim as a quality product. I think simplicity is better.

Leslie, you’ve played a large part in the business since its inception. What was your passion for it?

L: I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit. That’s why I went to business school. I knew I was capable of running a business and be my own boss. I just wasn’t sure I had a talent that I could market as a product. When Karl and I first started dating, we both wanted to do something creative. I think that's why we work so well together. We’re opposites in our strengths and weaknesses.

K: For sure. If it was just me, I would’ve never brought it to market. For me, it's a lot to talk about what I do. I'm not much of a self promoter. It took Leslie to bring that part out of me.

I love the uniqueness of the relationship you two have. Neither of you fail to give each other credit. You both seem to know who the other really is.

K: Definitely a partnership from the beginning. It couldn’t have happened any other way.

Ok, time for a few fun questions. What's a classic car you would own?

K: I really don’t think about owning a classic car because the list changes so often. If there was just one to pick, it's a 1967-68 Pontiac GTO. Maybe an older 911. What’s yours?

There’s a list. 1960-71 Scout 800. A 1978 Jeep CJ7. But the favorite is a 1965 Mustang…my Mom’s first car.

L: Whatever car he likes is fine as long as he goes and picks up Chic-Fil-A in it for me.

Ok, so what's for dessert then?

L: I'm more of a salty than a sweet. But probably cheesecake or a good chocolate chip cookie. Pretty basic.

K: I'd probably lean towards good chocolate, strawberry shortcake, or chiffon. And a peanut butter milkshake. But I could probably live on chiffon. With strawberries and whhhhhippped cream.

One brand you would do a collab with?

L: Furniture! I think it’d be rad to do something with IKEA. I could talk about them all day.

K: I'm not sure. Something outside of what I already do would be awesome. The tendency is to be pushed to do something denim related. But whatever it is, something very thoughtful and designed with intent.

You can go anywhere right now. Where to?

Both: Japan

L: Inspiration all around. Europe is very nostalgic and feels historic. But Tokyo seems like the future. It seems like everything is new for the first time. But also how the history and culture align.

 


Aliens or ghosts?

L: Aliens…fuck ghosts. Karl has a soft spot for ghosts.

K: I do like ghosts *he laughs*

L: He wants to make a connection. I have to yell at him….he always wants to invite them in! *she laughs*

What is your favorite conspiracy theory?

K: I think the one about the moon landing being a hoax is fun.

L: The one about the “unacknowledged”. It’s about the real people in power that control everything and have contact with aliens.

In the pending zombie apocalypse…what is your plan?

K: *just stares thoughtfully out the window*

L: KARL!!! What is our plan?? We don’t have a plan??? I think we’ll just call you…that is our plan.

K: After calling you…we'll close up the house…but we do have a lot of big windows….hmmm. *ponders how to protect the windows*

Favorite movies?

L: This is always hard for me. I have favorites from my youth like Clueless and Empire Records. But not really anything recent.

K: There Will Be Blood. It's not one I need to watch a lot, but it was the first time that a movie made me fully immersed in the emotion and rawness of the character. The sound, the performance, and of course the styling. It was very visceral for me. Also, Shawshank Redemption.

And last one. What is your best advice for surviving a bear attack?

K: Hmmm…you better have on some good denim. Maybe Rogue Territory. *laughs* Maybe you stare that motherfucker right in the eyes and plant those feet. Stand your ground. But you better be wearing a Supply Jacket. *we all laugh at the shameless plug*

L: RUUUNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!