Some people express themselves through the piano, others prefer the flute. Felix Valdez’s instrument is a 450-pound Washex machine.
Valdez is a principal in The Finish First, an El Segundo, Calif.-based enterprise that focuses on developing new washes for jeans. Given the fairly standard silhouettes that are selling best these days — low-waisted, tight, slightly flared five-pocket jeans — finishing is becoming an increasingly important part of the design process.
The problem for many designers is coming up with a process that mimics the effects of time and wear on jeans in a predictable and repeatable way. That’s where Valdez comes in.
At his company’s 7,800-square-foot facility, he focuses on refining the look that whiskering, rinsing and coating can give jeans. But he rejected the label of industrial laundry.
“All I do is development,” he asserted. He acknowledged that his company will do small production wash orders of less than 200 pieces for some clients, but said the bulk of his business is in developing new wash ideas.
“I’m more in the artistic side of it all. That’s what I want, to create and enhance,” he said. “When it comes down to a whisker placement, the color, the rubs, the detail work that needs to go into a better product, this is what we’re being judged on.”
His particular specialty, he said, is ensuring that washes are replicable on a massive scale — when companies are turning out thousands of pieces. His company is backed by Sunbelt Solutions, a chemical firm that sells the solvents and other substances used in industrial washers.
“When they’re having a hard time achieving it in Hong Kong, I make the formula here and sell the formula, so they can go to Hong Kong and repeat it,” he said.
But given the amount of hand-sanding that goes into whiskering other weathering effects, his services go beyond just mixing and selling a formula. For labor-intensive processes, Valdez can burn DVDs that workers overseas can watch to learn how to get a certain look.
Valdez, 28, said he got into the washing business accidentally. He had been studying education when he applied for a clerical job at Sunbelt and wound up getting pulled into development. While he has no background in chemistry, he learned the trade of developing finishes in his six years on the job.About 10 people work at the facility, where the equipment includes three 50-pound washing machines, three 125-pounders, a 250-pounder and the big 450-pounder. The poundage measurement refers to how large a load of garments — including the water, solvents and other implements like stones — a machine can handle. The 250-pounder is big enough to do about 80 to 100 pieces.
As for the 450-pounder, Valdez quipped, “You could tumble yourself in there if you like.”
Valdez noted that with the increasing emphasis on unique finishes in recent years, the average cost of washing a pair of high-end jeans that retail for $100 or more has risen substantially. Some particularly complicated washes for high-end products can cost $16 to $24 a pair to execute, primarily because of the amount of hand-sanding required.
Asked what he thought the next hot wash trend would be, Valdez said, “Pigment coatings with acid-washed products. But don’t think of the old 1980s open-end acid wash.”
While the acid wash on open-end denim resulted in a light-looking fabric, a new jelly form of the acid on ring-spun fabric creates a brighter look. That works as a ground to add other colors.
“It’s about color now,” he said. “That whole subtlety thing was going on for a while...but the next big thing, I think, is pigment coatings.”
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