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Making It Personally

March 27, 2012

Catherine Salfino

This newest movement may be small in numbers, but it is big on ideals: American independent denim makers, designers who are producing small batches of top-quality jeans.

In an age when more is better and speed is everything, these producers are part of a movement that celebrates local influences, personal attention to quality.

“I couldn’t compete with bigger companies doing business in the standard manner,” says Williamsburg Garment Company’s Maurice Malone, owner and designer.  “Small became my advantage.  I’m able to react quickly to the market, choosing to build relationships and patiently working on the foundation of my brand.”

Despite their small size, these local denim houses are well situated in the current marketplace.  Denim jeans account for almost one-fifth of all cotton apparel offered at retail, according to Cotton Incorporated’s Retail Monitor™ research.  And 74% of American consumers say they “love or enjoy “wearing denim, and wear it four days a week, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey.

[quote]That sentiment, though, goes beyond a simple appreciation for denim: 55% of U.S. shoppers say it is important the clothes they buy are made in America, according to the Monitor survey.  These respondents say made in American is important because most (87%) prefer to support the U.S. economy, and 38% also say apparel made here is better quality.

Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko, founders of Raleigh Denim, could not agree more. The company launched in 2007 when the pair began making jeans in their North Carolina living room.  These days, every pair is made in their downtown Raleigh, NC, workshop using traditional construction methods, vintage machines and denim from Cone Mills White Oak plant in Greensboro, NC.

“Raleigh Denim’s customer is someone who is interested in fit, style, and authenticity,” says Sarah. “The brand was built in North Carolina and remains true to staying local as much as possible.   The jeans are made in small batches in our small workshop — quality over quantity.”

Raleigh’s fall ‘11 sales were up 40% from last season.  It opened its flagship store, the Curatory, last November and hopes to open a New York City location this fall.

Meanwhile, at Motor City Denim Co., which launched in 2010, the denim is infused with a distinct Detroit flavor.  Sharon D’Andreta-Wahler, vice-president, says the firm came about when parent company and automotive supplier TD Industrial Coverings needed to diversify its business.  TD had specialized in sewing industrial coverings and suffered greatly when the global recession crushed U.S. auto sales.

“I think we’re competing on a different level than big manufacturers,” DAndreta-Wahler says.  “We are not making 100,000 pair of jeans at a time. What we bring to the market is the fact that we can make jeans that personify the spirit of Detroit. Our fans tell us that they are proud of our story and feel good about supporting the brand.”

These small manufacturers hang their hats on craftsmanship and attention to detail.  And that kind of effort is appreciated by denim consumers: the Monitor finds 98% say fit and comfort are important in their denim purchase decisions, followed by quality (92%), price (91%), color and durability (89%), “makes me look good” (88%) and style (83%).

At MaTias Thread & Denim, owner and designer Matias Sandoval says recent tough years led buyers to a focus on silhouettes and fabric, rather than just extra embellishments on traditional jeans.

“It’s super important to have local denim artisans coming in, asking why jeans should be a certain way aesthetically and then deconstructing the basic five-pocket,” says Sandoval, who operates from a Los Angeles studio. “It gets consumers thinking about what they’re buying, why they’re buying it.  And if more little brands do it, more customers and retailers will say, ‘Hey this is what we should be getting into.'”

The average American owns seven pairs of jeans and spends about $33 per pair, according to Monitor data.  Just 9% of shoppers have purchased jeans that cost $100 or more, but those wearers are the likely audience for the small denim movement.

Motor City Denim had been selling at $189, but plans to launch a line in August that will run for about $125.  MaTias retails from $160 to $220, while Raleigh Denim sells for $215 to $350.  And Williamsburg Garment Company’s jeans go for $102-to-$125.

Sandoval says these companies and their prices reflect the local denim movement: “People doing their own thing and being very artisanal about it.”  He points to retailers like Brooklyn Denim in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, and American Rag in Los Angeles as great supporters of small denim brands.

Williamsburg Garment Company launched last fall with “small” in the company mantra: “Small Time Operation, Cash Only to the Trade.” Malone says it means goods must be paid for before shipping. This makes it possible to sell his premium denim for a relatively low price, as there are no markups for unpaid invoices or discounts.

“A small company like mine is going to be successful because it takes chances,” Malone says.  “After all, if you’re dressed the same as everyone else in the parade  and moving in the same direction, how do you expect to stand out?”