Catching up with Ruedi Karrer, whose love for the indigo fabric led him to open the world's only jeans museum in Switzerland
At first glance, there is nothing unusual about Ruedi Karrer - unless, perhaps, you count his preference for wearing socks with sandals. He seems like your everyday bespectacled sexagenarian with an infectious smile - except that he loves to ski, run, hike in the mountains, chop up wood and engage in all manner of outdoor activities. Ruedi's claim to fame, however, lies in his wardrobe.
A true denimhead, the Swiss native is the founder of the Jeans Museum in Switzerland - the only one of its kind in the world - and has amassed a leviathan collection of 14,000 pieces of denim, including 8,000 jeans and 6,000 jackets from all over the world and dating as far back as the 1950s. Such has been the evolution of denim - and Ruedi's collection - over the decades that the museum has once again outgrown its current location of 140 square metres, which it had moved to in 2011. Never married, the revered denim collector proudly considers his epic collection his children.
Born in 1959 in the remote mountain village of Ratitsch in the Swiss Alps, Ruedi was one of 10 siblings. His father worked in a small mechanic's shop to make ends meet. It was a case of sheer serendipity in 1973, when the family received a clothes parcel as a donation, that the young Ruedi first came into contact with denim. The parcel contained two used Levi's jeans - and it was love at first sight for the soft-spoken youngster. Although he had to wait his turn to get his hands on them, considering he had two older brothers, it was the beginning of his romance with the indigo fabric.
To feed his passion in the 70s, the hungry denim addict-in-the-making started collecting jeans from flea markets, auctions, secondhand stores - and anywhere else he could get his hands on them. When Ruedi realised that, despite being one of the most worn garments around the globe, there was no independent denim museum, he decided to take things into his own hands.
His love of raw denim is nonpareil. What drives such passion? "Wearing jeans gives me a chance to express myself and makes me feel powerful. like a rebel," says Ruedi, who belongs to the rare band of denimheads who don't believe in washing their jeans and prefer their natural fades instead. He has, in fact, never washed any of his prized possessions. "I love the denim evolution and, more importantly, I want the coming generations to appreciate the beauty of raw denim jeans."
A gregarious person by nature, he says he is not averse to approaching random people to ask what brand of jeans they're wearing - in case he does not recognise it. "It always brings a smile to people's face," he says. The denimhead also hands out his business cards often, asking people to send them their jeans once they feel they've run their course, so he can store them in his museum.
Since 1995, Ruedi - who works as a geographer - says he has been spending 20,000 euros per year on this passion, including rent for the museum, attending the many trade fairs around the world, and purchasing jeans to add to his collection. "Eighty per cent of my time goes into working as a Geographic Information Specialist for the Zurich City Council," he explains. "The remaining time is spent on the museum." He humbly confesses it's just a hobby - though quite an expensive one!
The museum, located in Zurich, is mostly visited by either school tours or private groups. The avid denim collector is a regular feature at trade fairs - be it the Pronto Denim Carnival in Thailand, the Kingpins in Amsterdam or the Selvedge Run in Germany, he makes it a point to be there and hobnob with different brand owners and denim enthusiasts around the world.
One imagines Ruedi would be a great asset to many fashion brands, given his vast knowledge of denim evolution. Surprisingly, this Swiss gem has never worked as a consultant for brands. He is more than gracious, however, when it comes to offering his expert opinion to anyone looking to buy their first raw denim jeans. Going by the Instagram handle of @swissjeansfreak, Ruedi enjoys a sizeable social media following of more than 44,000 followers and is constantly engaging with denimheads around the world through the platform.
If there's anything that troubles him, it's what will happen to his collection after he retires, as Ruedi does not make money from the museum, which is solely dependent on him. All viewings are private and taken by appointment.
Ask him if he has any favourites in his collection, and he confesses he loves the Lee Storm Rider Blanket Lined denim jackets from the 60s and 70s so much that he has about 300 of them in his bedroom. These are part of his personal collection, and not counted among the 14,000 pieces on display at the museum. "The vintage style with old blanket lining has great fading potential, if worn the dry way forever," he reveals. When it comes to preferences in jeans, it's more complicated, however, as he has about 800 jeans stored in his room. His favourites range from APC, Edwin, Indigofera Jeans, Nudie Jeans, Pike Brothers, Tellason and Rogue Territory - not to mention, several Japanese brands and Indonesian brands such as Oldblue Co, Sage, Nobranbdedon, The Worker Shield & Company, Mischief Denim and more.
A lesser known fact about him? Ruedi has a sweet tooth and is obsessed with the local chocolate brand Branchli, distributing them generously at the various trade shows he attends - although he confesses he only buys them when they're on sale. Hopefully, this obsession won't drive him to open a chocolate museum too.
(Aman Behl is founder of SHLT Jeans and an avid follower of all things denim.)