Denim Designers: The New Generation

A new generation of denim designers and entrepreneurs are ready to make their mark on the jeanswear industry.

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A new generation of denim designers and entrepreneurs are ready to make their mark on the jeanswear industry

Simon Miller, Simon Miller Jeans

In his downtown Los Angeles office-cum-bachelor-pad, Simon Miller devotes an entire black bookcase to countless pairs of jeans. Some are clearly a source of inspiration for the New Zealander transplant (minimalist Helmut Lang in gray from 1990s, for instance). Other, more fanciful specimens, with their baroque embroidery and unnatural washes, seem to provide a cautionary tale for a new L.A. denim designer looking to personalize his stripped-down wares without making them kitschy or clownish. “I definitely want to start branding the line a little bit,” the jovial Kiwi tells DNR during a recent visit. “In five years time there will just be some new designer who’s younger and better-looking with a Danish accent that will be doing the basic thing. You’ve got to take it further, you know?”

Miller is a newcomer to premium denim, but not to retail. At 25 he opened Fabric, a boutique in Auckland that carries Junya Watanabe, Comme des Garçons and Dior Homme, among other designers (Miller still owns the shop with co-owner Martin Andrews, but lives full-time in the U.S.).

Launched in 2006, his eponymous denim line has become a go-to clean jean for Steven Alan and West Coast retailers like Ron Herman and Seattle’s Blackbird. Miller, 33, is partial to raw denim in dark indigo made of Japanese fabrics, but he’s also introduced vintage and medium washes for men with neither patience nor desire to break in jeans with a stiff hand that approximates cardboard. He started with just one cut—a no-frills slim-straight, positioned as an alternative to A.P.C. and produced in L.A. Now, he’s expanded to four cuts, with a skinny scheduled for January. Selvedge denim in the line retails from $225 to $350.

he label will also introduce a limited amount of branding for upcoming product. A simple back-pocket stitch design is currently in the works, as is a leather back patch with Miller’s name repeatedly replicated and cut indiscriminately (picture “IMONMILLERSIMONM,” for example).

The denim middle ground he wants to strike is not simply about aesthetic moderation. If Miller gets his way, his brand will cut across disparate groups: “I want to appeal to people who are just hardcore into their jeans,” he says, “but still be accessible to everyday guys.” 
—Andrew Harmon

Trace Ayala, William Rast

Justin Timberlake may get most of the swooning press attention and Johan Lindeberg may get credit for the revived fashion collection, but at William Rast it’s partner Trace Ayala who oversees the core denim line. “I’m pretty much 100 percent involved with the jeans collection,” explains Ayala, who cofounded William Rast in 2005 with Timberlake, a childhood friend, and then-partner Danny Guez. “We started with denim, and me and Justin are denim guys. On our days off you won’t find us in anything but denim.”

Ayala, 27, first started working with denim while on tour with Timberlake, serving as his assistant back in the ’N Sync days. “I actually brought a sewing machine with me on tour, and I used to customize jeans for everyone,” recalls Ayala, who was taught to sew by his mother when he was growing up in Tennessee. “I would take jeans apart and sew them back together. I used to get hell in the beginning from the guys, but then everyone wanted me to make them jeans.”

That passion for denim and fashion was the spark in creating the William Rast brand (named after Timberlake’s and Ayala’s grandfathers). “I started to get offers from some big players to work on a line—Chrome Hearts approached me and Puffy [Sean Combs] approached me—but Justin said, ‘No dude, wait until the time is right,’” says Ayala.

The right partner came along in 2005 in publicly traded People’s Liberation, then run by Guez but now headed by CEO Colin Dyne. William Rast is owned 50-50 by People’s Liberation, which manufactures and distributes the brand, and Timberlake and Ayala. William Rast currently makes up the majority of People’s Liberation sales. For the six months ended June 30, net sales at the company jumped 62.2 percent to $13.7 million, which was attributed to “a significant increase in sales” of William Rast product, even as People’s Liberation sales declined. William Rast is currently sold in about 650 department and specialty store doors.

The bulk of William Rast sales is in denim, although the brand is making a push into collection sportswear after signing up Lindeberg to overhaul the design. “We’ve created a jean that you can dress up or dress down. I rope steer in mine,” says Ayala. “For spring, our jeans have a rockabilly look—lighter-weight denim that you can roll up, with a lot of distressing.”

Ayala name-checks Diesel and True Religion as influences on his work. “Me and Justin were major fans of Diesel starting out, and you have to give credit to True Religion—they paved the way with the big back pocket and the heavy stitching,” he explains.

He notes that learning the denim business has been a process of trial and error, and he spends lots of time in the William Rast production facilities, which are located 10 minutes away from the company’s L.A. headquarters. “My main thing is that I can’t stand the manufactured distressed look. So I’ll always tell them to nick the jean in different places,” he says.

Ayala began touring with Timberlake as his assistant right out of high school, so he doesn’t have any formal design training or a college degree. “I’ve had huge insecurity being surrounded by people with design degrees or who went to business school,” he admits, “but I think some things just come natural and you just have to go with it.” 
—David Lipke

Samuel Ku, AG Adriano Goldschmied

Ask a denim brand who’s doing the best jeans in the market this season, and invariably they name themselves—this industry is no modesty contest. But ask for a runner-up, and plenty will say AG Adriano Goldschmied, as they did during an unscientific DNR poll at Project Las Vegas in August. The brand’s new AG-ed collection of vintage washes and treatments leads the field in the distressed-and-destroyed look, one of denim’s most reliably cyclical trends.

Goldschmied, an industry veteran, left his own namesake brand in 2004, one that had launched three years earlier in a partnership with Yul Ku, founder of Koos Mfg.

Talk about big design shoes to fill. But Ku’s 29-year-old son, Samuel, said he didn’t flinch when he became men’s and women’s design director this year—a position once held by Monarchy head women’s designer Kristopher Enuke following Goldschmied’s departure. “This industry is known for its characters, people who are really wound-up,” he says. “I’m pretty even-keel and easygoing. That’s my personality.”

At Koos’s 400,000-square-foot headquarters, located eight miles south of downtown L.A., Samuel Ku cut his teeth in all stages of denim production, starting with R&D in the company laundry, then moving on to the sample sewing room. “What I learned about sewing construction was invaluable. A lot of designers have no clue what goes into actually making the jean.” From there, he became an assistant designer for Big Star Jeans (Koos has the U.S. exclusive license for the brand), before assuming the role of AG men’s designer for fall 2006. Ku also lived in Milan for a year, where he set up the company’s Italian business and showroom.

At one point, AG skewed clean, with dark indigo rinses and subtle whiskers. But last year the brand introduced the AG-ed line, a spectrum of vintage looks that range from slight signs of wear to thoroughly destroyed looks. New AG-ed styles on the horizon include selective patchwork with contrast washes and a selvedge style modeled after vintage 1950s denim and woven on Japanese shuttle looms.

How does he do it? Nice try. The AG-ed process is proprietary, and Ku is tight-lipped about the details. “It allows us to create the most realistic wear patterns. I can’t go much more specific.” 
—Andrew Harmon

Ben Taverniti, Hudson Jeans

Not all French transplants in the L.A. fashion scene design embellished T-shirts. Case in point: Ben Taverniti. The affable 28-year-old left Paris in 2005 to design the denim line Yanuk, owned by Blue Holdings and based in Commerce, Calif., near downtown L.A. His father, Jimmy, worked with overdyed and stonewashed denim during the 1980s in Toulouse, and later founded Taverniti So, also a Blue Holdings brand.

Denim is clearly in the family blood, but high fashion is an equal influence for Ben. After studying for two years at l’Ecole Supérieure des Arts et techniques de la Mode, he opted to leave school and work for Jeremy Scott at the age of 19. Later, he started his own line, Taverniti Couture, known for its leather and Japanese twill military jackets.

Now design director at Peter Kim’s Hudson Jeans, Taverniti is focused on building business for the company, which has reportedly tripled sales in the last 18 months. Known for its flap back pocket, Hudson is overwhelmingly a women’s brand, though Taverniti would like to change that. He revamped the men’s brand to be more fit driven, with new five-pocket styles true to the brand’s original, unembellished ethos. “It’s really very elegant,” he says of the men’s styles. “I’m going with this European look, with really detailed washes, and basic but a nice fits that you can wear every day.”

Unless, that is, you were to wear Taverniti’s svelter fits—namely a super-skinny style with a 13.5-inch leg opening that may look good with Dior silver high-top sneakers, but would prove impractical for tree-trunk thighs. If so, stick with a straight-leg.

Taverniti exclusively uses Japanese and Italian fabrics for Hudson, which averages $175 at retail and is currently sold mainly to department stores, including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. The goal, he says, is to create a distinct identity for the men’s line, not an easy feat when a denim brand starts as a predominately women’s label. But Taverniti is convinced his perfectionism for cuts will give Hudson men’s plenty of future cachet. “If something’s wrong, it doesn’t go out,” he says. “I’m really, really difficult when it comes to details.” 
—Andrew Harmon

Steve Dubbeldam and Steve Opperman, City of Others

Who resides in the City of Others? Probably not you—unless you’re young, hip, charity-minded, addicted to social networking and have some weird, non sequitur phrase on your outgoing voicemail greeting, like “That’s enough, thanks.”

Call City of Others cofounder Steve Opperman’s office line, and that’s what you’ll hear. Opperman and Steve Dubbeldam, two 25-year-old Canadians, have created one of premium denim’s most whimsical new brands, one that sells at about $100 and features a vibrant online marketing campaign.

Hailing from Edmonton, Alberta, “the Steves” produced their first premium denim brand, Iron Army, in 2005. Creating the line was a ragtag operation at best, Dubbeldam recalls: “We bought our town out of bleach, and spent, like, $300 at the coin laundry.”

Looking for a surefooted production, the two left Iron Army and teamed up with Hudson Jeans in July for the City of Others launch. Both serve as creative directors and collaborate with Hudson design director Ben Taverniti for fits, fabrics and washes. The brand uses Turkish denim and employs stretch for its slim and relaxed fits, all with minimal distressing. “The price is what’s going to hook you. It fits like a $200 pair of jeans,” Dubbeldam says.

City of Others’ two-bracket logo is featured on its front button, fashioned to look like it fell off a typewriter keyboard. A numerical code found on the inside tag can be entered into the City of Others’ Web site, which allows customers to donate to one of several charities sponsored by the brand.

YouTube videos feature the cofounders in multiple denim-inspired shenanigans, including driving around the L.A. area in the “Jeansmobile,” an Audi A4 wagon covered completely in indigo-dyed fabric. (To drive, Dubbeldam and Opperman have to jump through the windows, Dukes of Hazzard-style.) 
—Andrew Harmon

Brandon Svarc, Naked & Famous Denim

Svarc is not yet famous, nor by all accounts was he naked during a recent telephone interview from his Montreal headquarters. “I wanted to make fun of all the overpriced Hollywood glamour brands, the ones that charge $350 for jeans that are not worth $350,” he says of his brand name.

These are not the populist ramblings of an uninformed Quebecois. Svarc’s Naked & Famous line, known for a topless young vixen on the back-pocket label, has targeted an accessible premium denim tier at a time when even the well-heeled are watching the Dow Jones with anxiety. But Svarc, 26, doesn’t mince words when asked whether he’s in the same category as Cheap Monday or other easier-to-reach premium brands: “Cheap Monday is brilliant, but their concept is fast fashion, which is why they were bought by H&M. Cheap Monday jeans fall apart. There’s a built-in obsolescence.”

Svarc is particularly proud that his denim is produced in Montreal—made possible by his family, owners of Beaumarche, a company that manufactures workwear, basics and other categories (Svarc owns the Naked & Famous brand, however)

Fittingly, the brand is all raw. Svarc sources fabric from Okiyama, Japan, for three cuts: Skinny Guy, a straight-skinny fit; Slim Guy, a straight, tube-leg; and Weird guy, a low-rise style with a tapered leg. Retail prices start at $120, though he offers an organic selvedge style for $265. Since its launch in February, Naked & Famous has landed in Barneys Co-op and American Rag. Look out for a few curveballs from this emerging brand, including python skin belts and selvedge ties.
—Andrew Harmon

Adam Vanunu, Rigid Brand Jeans

Adam Vanunu graduated from Beverly Hills High School just last year, but already he’s incorporated a company, Rigid Brand Jeans, and showed his first denim collection at Project Las Vegas. “It wasn’t a big show in terms of orders, but I got my name out there and things are starting to pick up,” he says of his first foray into the hyper-competitive denim business.

Vanunu, 19, was born into a denim-making family—his parents operate an L.A. production company called American Dye House—and he’s embraced his heritage enthusiastically. “I would come to the facilities after school and I learned everything from fit to grading to sewing and washing,” he recalls. After graduating from high school, Vanunu headed to Israel for a study-abroad program, but cut it short. “It wasn’t for me. I think hands-on experience is always better than book studies.”

With his father’s advice and guidance, Vanunu began work on creating Rigid and his first line of jeans. The collection is clean and sophisticated, with a look belying its designer’s youthful status. Retail prices range from $160 to $240.

“Every day I’m in the office from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m.,” says Vanunu, who operates the business with the help of a single assistant and two showrooms that handle sales: Place Showroom in L.A. and The High Street in New York. So far that work has gotten the Rigid men’s line into a handful of specialty stores, including Denim Bar in Arlington, Va., and Lime Leopard in Oklahoma City. More orders are expected to be finalized this month.

“All my friends go to college,” relates Vanunu. “I am missing out on that experience. But if you have an opportunity, you have to take it when it’s presented to you. I’m at the right place at the right time to be doing this.” 
—David Lipke

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