If you ever find yourself on the Zeedijk, a street that winds its way around the edges of the Amsterdam’s red-light district, you’ll pass by the Tossijn shop. It’s the one with a mannequin impeccably dressed in a dark shirt or sweater standing proudly in each of the three windows. Inside the neatly painted door you’ll find Koen Tossijn sat behind a sewing machine or sketching on paper. The whitewashed walls are decorated simply with a grid of a series of gradient black and white artworks by his brother, Dorus. Milk bottles with a single white tulip inside are the only other adornments. The simple interior is a testament to Koen’s fascination with the super normal: products or forms that have become so common that they belong to everyone. A square, a t-shirt, a dish of spaghetti aglio, olio e pepperoncino.
Koen believes in improving or refining these icons instead of focusing on the new. By designing as little as possible he gets to the core of each object. These are subsequently made with the best materials Koen can find by the best craftsmen in their field. These products form a foundation of outstanding garments on another level: The New Standard. It’s been something Koen has been working towards his whole life.
“Everything in the house I grew up in was modernist. It wasn’t just the Rietveld chairs or a Malevich poster. More than anything, there was a vibe of taking an object and shaping it the way you want it. Everybody around me was always making something. My father and grandfather built tables and chairs and our entire kitchen, my grandmother was always on her sewing machine. For me that’s what modernism’s all about – going forward.”
After leaving home, Koen set out on his own creative path. He taught himself to sew and studied fashion and textile at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. However he quickly grew disillusioned with what he perceived as a reluctance to question the fashion industry’s system.
“I learned a lot there but I quit after 18 months because I don’t believe in pumping out a new collection every season. We don’t have to constantly be on the hunt for the ‘new’ or try to stand out with gimmicks. Common products like a t-shirt or jeans might not be special, but that’s exactly what makes them so special. There is beauty in the ordinary.”
With this in mind Koen started creating made-to-measure jeans. Every seam, every stitch was sweated over, researched, altered, updated and improved, time after time, customer by customer, as he learned how to understand and control the manufacturing process. It was the birth of the new standard and the first ordinary piece of the foundation made in an outstanding way.
“A pair of jeans is essentially just two legs. There’s not much you can change – at least that’s not what I’m interested in doing. I want to get to the core of these iconic products and make them as well as humanly possible. The way I do this is by designing as little as possible. Stripping away everything unnecessary will eventually reveal the purest form of each product.”
This ethos is inspired by another of Koen’s homes: Toscanini, an Italian restaurant in Amsterdam where he worked for a long time. “There’s a strong link between my work and Italian cuisine. Italian food isn’t about sauces, it’s about the ingredients – and when you work with minimal ingredients, you have to work with the best. Take the simplest dish imaginable: spaghetti aglio, olio e pepperoncino. Because there are just four ingredients, making it perfectly requires so much craftsmanship that it’s a challenge for every chef, no matter how good they are.”
As you’ll discover if you visit the Tossijn shop, Koen has an innate connection to fabric and eye for quality. Whenever he starts talking about his products and what they’re made with, he can’t help but get up and run his fingers over them (and invite you to do the same).
“Choosing the right material is one of the most important parts of my work. I love digging for fabrics to find the one that perfectly fits the product I want to make. No matter whether it’s for a shirt or shoes there are certain qualities that I look for: a fabric needs to be comfortable, it needs to last long and gain character with age. Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, I follow my intuition. A fabric has to feel good. I like fabrics that look normal but when you feel them, you can tell that there is something going on. These materials are rich, but they don’t scream that they are rich by being too shiny or out there. I’m constantly searching for something elegant and modest.”
Although he would never say so, those last two qualities also neatly encapsulate Koen himself. While he is aware of his talent, he’s also conscious of his limitations, which is why he entrusts the production of his clothing to other people. “What I do is a combination of design and craft in which that the manufacturing process is equally as important as the designing. Giving each discipline the same importance you can create products that become a better version of that product.”
These are brought to life by craftsmen who Koen selects with the same care and intuition as his fabrics. “I believe in the makers. They’re experts and passionate about what they do. The sweater, for example is made in the mecca of the knitting world, Umbria, Italy, where every village has a little factory. The people there are super-skilled and thanks to them the sweater is not sewn but knitted together in an intricately crafted seam-free construction over the shoulder. The technique is called fully-fashioned knitting and it’s done by hand, loop by loop.”
The result is a foundation of products for men who appreciate the importance of quality in everyday life. “People that choose quality over quantity and appreciate luxury without having to show off logos.” By creating less – and eliminating the unnecessary - Koen hopes to create space in the wardrobe and beyond. “In this era dominated by choice and information, I think these clothes offer the right balance for someone looking to be more tranquil and focused, somebody who wants to improve life.”
Indeed, Koen’s vision stretches far further than the realm of clothing. “I don’t think the collection will ever be finished. “Refining stuff is just something I do naturally. It probably goes back to my family always trying to improve our surroundings. In the future the new standard could be applied to anything from gardening tools to shaving sets or tableware. One thing I’d love to make is a car. It’s definitely something to aim for.”