Sep 6, 2016
A Guide to Brooklyn Denim
Denim… jeans… blue jeans. These words are as integral to our fashion vocabulary as any. But denim is more than a piece of fabric turned into an article of clothing. It is an attitude about clothing; it signifies the way we want to be and be seen in the world. And while nearly everyone has a pair of jeans, everyone has their pair of jeans: worn continuously, weathered with abandon, and outlasting nearly every other item in the closet. An old pair of jeans is like a comfort blanket for the adult, but one that also makes you look good, and be more yourself, at the same time. Denim has been obsessively, diversely, and prodigiously iterated, and, in the past decade, a resurgence in heritage-style jeans—unwashed, non-stretch, straight-leg denim—has given it a reboot in the world of fashion.
While jeans have been the Brooklyn uniform for decades, before 2010, not many came from Brooklyn designers. But then the economy tanked; entrepreneurs, fresh out of jobs, took note of this hole in the market, and a denim scene on the other side of the East River emerged.
So we hunted down a crop of these Brooklyn-based jeans makers to find out who they are, and what kind of rugged, wearable, good-looking denim they are making. And, while we were at it, we learned a lot more. Have you heard everyone making a fuss over selvedge and Japanese denim but not understood why it matters? Are you confused when people tell you not to wash your jeans? How could that be a good idea? And what, then, is raw denim, or 14oz versus 8oz fabric? We got these answers for you, too.
In their nearly 150-year run—from the time Levi Strauss got a patent to make pants with rivets, to the first pair of $100 designer jeans in the 80s, to today’s meticulously tailored heritage style version—jeans have come a long way. And yet, the basic formula endures; because, just as with people (you know, the salt-of-the-earth, best kind), denim only gets better with age.
Brooklyn Denim Co.
“I always tell people jeans are made to be worn.
There wasn’t vintage before. People went to work in their jeans
and played football in them and got grease on them
and that’s why they looked good—they made them their own.”
Frank Pizzurro, Brooklyn Denim Co. Est. 2010, Williamsburg
When Frank Pizzurro got a scholarship at the age of 17 to the University of Michigan, he opted out, and worked in a Nerf factory instead. “You know,” Pizzurro told me, sitting in the back office of his large denim store on the corner of North Third and Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, “working in a factory was not really for me.”
Wearing converse, cuffed pants, and black-rimmed glasses—and now almost seven years into his widely-respected denim business—this sentiment was not surprising. And yet, he told me, as sewing machines thumped away on the other side of the wall, running his own denim company wasn’t something he saw coming either.
But, to me, it made perfect sense. Pizzurro had shown an early interest in nice clothes: While traveling with an ice hockey team in Montreal, he realized their European-style garments looked a lot better than the ones back home. So he bought a bunch of the stuff, walked into the best menswear store back in Detroit, and got a job.
“I was part-time for two weeks, full-time in six weeks, and, within six months, I was the buyer and manager for two stores,” said Pizzurro. Clearly, the man had a knack for retail, and a nose for fine fabrics.
Pizzurro opened Brooklyn Denim Co. in Williamsburg in the wake of the financial crisis. For him, the entrepreneurial moment was ripe. “The neighborhood had an edginess and creativity,” said Pizzurro. “Every single person was walking through the neighborhood wearing a pair of blue jeans, and there was no single place in the neighborhood to buy a pair of jeans.”
At that point Pizzurro had worked in retail and denim in Los Angeles and New York for more than twenty years. “No matter what I was selling, I wanted to know about it,” Pizzurro told me. “When I was doing suits, I did all the fitting, and learned how to sew so that I would understand how it should fit, so I could sell and talk with authority.”
And that took him far. Pizzurro is friends with the man who created the stone wash, François Girbaud; he was vice president at Lucky Brand, where he opened 24 retail stores in 10 months, and filled leadership roles at Diesel, Dolce & Gabana, and two of the most highly-respected denim retailers in Los Angeles, Chanin’s and American Rag. So, despite the rough financial shape of the country, Pizzurro moved ahead with the store. “The business was supposed to be small,” he said. “It just turned out differently.”
Pizzurro estimates Brooklyn Denim Co. carries 40 to 50 different brands, from Levi’s to another one of his old employers, AG (jeans by Adriano Goldschmied), in addition to T-shirts, jackets, and vests. A large jeans repair business is also run from the store and, of course, Pizzurro sells his own label, Brooklyn Denim Co. He is the designer and works with an assistant designer and pattern maker. All of his jeans are made from selvage denim, which prompts their wearer to cuff the pants, showing off a smooth, finished seam. His designs are also straight-leg, per Brooklyn’s heritage-style trend.
“I always say that people buy jeans to be the person they wanna be, they want that look to reflect what people think of them,” said Pizzurro. “Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter—they want this image, and jeans have become an image maker.”
Merica Lee Jeans
“You can’t tell class by wearing a pair of jeans. It’s your ultimate,
universal piece of clothing.”
Merica Lee, of Merica Lee Jeans, Greenpoint
Merica Lee Moynihan, of Merica Lee Jeans, is a force of nature: A Floridian who moved to New York City, sat at a bar, defended a bad 70s-era Rod Stewart Song, hooked a boyfriend, a bandmate, and a husband, all in the same man who sat next to her and defended the same bad song; and the woman who, without any prior design experience, developed some of the most highly-coveted jeans in New York City.
Merica Lees are a classic, high-waisted bell bottom made from 14oz raw Japanese denim. But they are also much more. To put it lightly, they make the derrière look alive. I asked Merica Lee, sitting across from me at Nights and Weekends, sipping happy hour rosé, how she pulls this off.
“It’s all about the yoke, and then the tie kind of pulling it all together,” she said, referring to the lace-up in the back of the pants. “The yoke is this seam here,” she says, pointing to the ridges on the jean’s back-side. Considering this emphasis, I asked, how much of her inspiration for making Merica Lees was maximizing the potential of the butt?
“One hundred percent,” she said, skipping no beat. She had walked into the bar that evening in a white pair of Merica Lees, looking fantastic. “You should want to walk backwards into a room, you know what I’m saying?”
“You should want to walk backwards into a room,
you know what I’m saying?”
Merica Lee’s personal aesthetic skews 70s, but her bell bottoms are bigger than any decade. “Look at Jane Birkin, she fucking looked so good!” said Merica Lee. “Even sailors from the 30s, and think of Katharine Hepburn, even 90s club kids wore those shapes,” she continued, bringing us closer to the present. And, “Both men and women can wear them.” She took out her phone and showed me a gorgeous image of a tall man wearing white Merica Lees.
But beyond looking good, Merica Lees last. Their denim is loom-state, so they’re stiff as hell when you buy them. Merica Lee ascribes to the school of denim addicts who do not believe jeans should be washed; washing shrinks the fabric, and dye is removed uniformly, rather than naturally with wear, which gives them character and whiskers over time.
“I think most people don’t wanna work a little bit to make ‘em look good—which I get,” says Merica Lee. “If you wanna wash your jeans, wash ‘em, I don’t care. But I think try them on, they’re really fucking tight; wear them around. Eventually, they’ll look good, it’s like really that simple.”
Upcoming, Merica Lee is collaborating with Lockhart Embroidery, whose designs have been made famous for appearing on one of Drake’s jean jackets. And, this fall, her bell bottoms will be available at Brooklyn Denim Co. Beyond that? Merica Lee is sticking with what’s good. “Once I perfect [this shape], I’ll feel like, huh, time to move on,” she says, before walking home for a customer fitting. “But, for now, I feel like there’s more to do.”
“Levi’s has always been one of my favorite brands growing up; going to Mervyn’s, getting shrink-to-fit, raw and rigid, and four sizes too big.
You knew your size and mom washed them down and they fit you.”
Loren Cronk, Loren Cronk Est. 2010, Greenpoint
The first pants Loren Cronk ever made were snowboard pants. The impetus was selfish: Cronk went to college in Utah and was a competitive snowboarder. But his instincts led him to start an outerwear brand and that, eventually, led him to jeans.
“My brother lived in San Francisco and worked for an advertising agency, and his company worked on a Levi’s account,” Cronk told me, sitting in front of an industrial strength sewing machine, inside of his well-ordered Greenpoint shop. “I didn’t have any experience, but it totally schooled me in the whole denim world, and I just really, really loved it.”
Fast forward 17 years, and Cronk has come a long way from making boxy winterwear. Inside his Nassau Street store, he and a small team of sewers make every pair of jeans for his label, Loren, by hand. He sources selvage denim from Japan and Cone Mills, America’s only remaining producer of selvage denim. Cronk also has a wholesale label, Black Smith, made exclusively from Cone Mills selvage, which includes a collection of heritage style workwear.
When Cronk opened his store, the idea was to float the business with a wholesale label, so that, in the meantime, he could fabricate jeans by hand. He had taught himself how to do it years earlier, treating each pair like art. It took him 12 hours to make one garment. But by the time he’d made and sold 20 pairs, he could really make some jeans.
While at Levi’s, Cronk learned he loved creating washes—taking raw denim from the mill and watching it evolve. “I love washing, and working with fabrics, and washing them down and you really kind of see the true character of how they look as you wash them,” said Cronk. But washing requires a lot of resources, not least of which are fabric and water. “Right now I’m just kind of doing the you ‘break them in, and you wear them, and that creates the wash itself, basically.’”
All of Cronk’s designs, handmade and wholesale, are fabricated with intricate details. I asked him to walk me through them: the size of the thread; the stitch per inch; a tack button in front hidden by fabric; copper brass rivets influenced by Wrangler; one pair, he says, has a leather patch on the pocket—and on and on.
“It’s just putting the thought into it,” says Cronk. “When you’re working with big companies, you can churn it out, but when you’re focused on making one or two or three items, you really focus on the time to make all the details,” he says. “Every little thing, to me, needs to be right, you know?”
“For so long everything was so soft and limp, and there was
no real denim around. So we always did real denim—
even when the market really wanted that stretchy-stretchy,
we never went there.”
Lisa Fuller, Courtshop, Est. 2011
When I called Lisa Fuller, founder of Courtshop, she was at home in Williamsburg with her six-week-old daughter, Simone. I wondered, what were her runner-up names?
“They were all names that I’ve named different denim styles,” Fuller said, amused. “I kind of didn’t want to do that, but all the styles are girls names I’ve liked, and any names I’ve like, I’ve used.” Stella and Cleo were close seconds, which, indeed, exist as jeans in her store.
Fuller’s naming dilemma reveals an essential philosophy behind Courtshop: to offer a wide range of styles and silhouettes. “There are 30 styles to choose from, as opposed to three or four in other brands,” says Fuller. The goal, simply, is to provide jeans for as many body types as possible.
“We’ve always been a good, honest pair of jeans
that you’re going to wear all the time, and you’re
not going to get sick of. Our thing has always been
to not have a thing.”
Fuller started her own jeans label in 2011, after opening her first retail store in 2008. She saw a hole in the market: affordable quality denim for women. “I was just not seeing a good high-rise, for the right price point, in the right fabric,” says Fuller. “To this day, I still can’t get down with a $200 basic pair of jeans.” At the same time, Fuller says she is not skimping on quality. “Our basic skinny is $135. We’re using premium denim fabric, and the price reflects that, but it’s not outrageous.”
Fuller works with a manufacturing partner in India, a significant producer of cotton. But unlike the heritage trend happening now, Courtshop denim has a little stretch, usually around two percent of the fabric. “A few styles here and there are 100% cotton, it let’s you get an authentic wash with no stretch,” says Fuller. “But in order to fit more people, you gotta add a little stretch.”
Rather than focus on intricate fabrication details, Courtshop keeps it simple. “We don’t do whiskers, there’s no distressing,” Fuller says of the post-loom treatment. Instead, her jeans stand out for their color: at any given time, high waist skinnies are available in 15 different hues. “We’ve always been a good, honest pair of jeans that you’re going to wear all the time, and you’re not going to get sick of,” Fuller summarizes, “Our thing has always been to not have a thing.”
As she speaks, it’s been six years since Courtshop debuted its own label. “I get so excited, being around Brooklyn, and seeing girls wearing Courtshop. It’s like, oh my god, we got on one of ‘em,” Fuller enthuses. “If you travel the world, no matter where you go, look around and 90 percent of people have jeans on. That really gives you an idea for the scale of the market. It is so huge, and I feel so lucky that we’ve been able to be a part of it for as long as we have.”
“They’re your Friday night jeans, and now they’re your
weekday jeans, but they’re still something you’re into,
and that you’re gonna keep wearing.”
Kelsy Parkhouse of Carleen
Carleen, the label designed by Kelsy Parkhouse, is an example of where the future of denim—we hope, if we’re lucky—is headed. Parkhouse studied fashion design at Pratt, but jeans were not where she thought she was headed when she graduated. “I just kind of looked at myself and what I wear, like a daily staple,” Parkhouse told me, sitting with beers in the backyard of Iona. “So then I started bringing [denim] into the collection a lot more. It started with one pair of jeans.”
At the time—in preparation for her fall ’14—she couldn’t find newly-manufactured jeans, at any price point, without any stretch. For some denim wearers, Parkhouse included, stretch turns the denim into something else, removes it from the sphere of rugged workwear that makes the garment true jeans in spirit.
But Parkhouse acknowledged she was no denim expert; if she was going to do jeans, she wanted to add something to them to make them stand out. Her first pair were inspired by patchwork, per the rest of her line, an old pair of her boyfriend’s Wranglers, and Drop City, a counter-culture artists community formed in Colorado in the 60s. They were high-rise, non-stretch, and straight leg pants made from raw denim. To add a Carleen touch, she incorporated two large panels in a lighter hue over the knees. All of her fabric is sourced from a supplier in California that sells deadstock from American Cotton Growers mill in Texas; she’s started to work with Cone Mills denim, too.
Her original pair was completely unwashed—but that was a hard sell. “They wanted something to be comfortable right away when they put them on, and these were not those pants,” she conceded. To expand her reach in the market, Parkhouse started giving her denim one short industrial wash. “That was a turning point for me,” said Parkhouse. “Just washing it, having it soften up, made it so much more approachable and really changed my denim business.”
This fall, Parkhouse is doing a gorgeous 13.5 oz high-rise wide-leg jean. But—this gets to where denim is going—she’s also incorporating the fabric in other parts of the wardrobe: for SS ’16 she did a staple denim dress,
a skort, and, this fall—get a hold of this—a denim T-shirt. (CourtShop, too, has some fantastic denim dresses and overalls.) “I really like seeing denim as a fabric that can be made into anything, not just jeans,” says Kelsy, “even though jeans are amazing.”
Parkhouse acknowledges that making jeans requires a lot of water, but its longevity, for her, justifies the process. “I just love that denim is indestructible,” says Parkhouse. “Denim made out of cotton is used forever—I feel like that is a fair trade off. ♦
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