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For Denim Designers, Success Lies in Explaining the Process — and the Price

Three experts weigh in on bridging the information gap.
Florence Kane, Jane Bishop, Scott Morrison, Jacqueline Cameron and Kara Nicholas at SCAD on Tuesday, talking about all things denim. Photo: SCAD

Florence Kane, Jane Bishop, Scott Morrison, Jacqueline Cameron and Kara Nicholas at SCAD on Tuesday, talking about all things denim. Photo: SCAD

What makes a great jean?

This question, asked over and over again by press, prompted Scott Morrison to start the brand 3x1 four years ago. On Tuesday, at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he said that no matter how many times he tried to explain the process to magazine editors, the information didn't translate. "They’d never been to a laundry, they’d never been to a mill, they’d never been to a sewing factory," he said on a panel led by Jane Bishop and Florence Kane of Jean Stories. Morrison opened a store in SoHo with an on-site studio and brought the jean manufacturing to the retail floor. "We invite people into the conversation and to design their own stuff," he said.

Morrison was joined on the panel by Kara Nicholas of Cone Denim mill and Jacqueline Cameron, the designer of online brand AYR. All three agreed that sharing the production experience with customers is a key part of the denim business. 

Cameron previously worked at Calvin Klein, where she oversaw up to 500 different styles each season across Asia and Europe, producing jeans at prices ranging from $20 to $350. Since she founded AYR, which reached its first year mark in February, she has been able to focus much more attention on radically fewer styles: the brand launched with only 14 styles of denim and prices range from $150 to $325. "Now that we’re in our sixth season, it's interesting to see how our customer has presented herself to us," Cameron said. "In our denim, we sell to teenagers and I think our oldest customer is 86 years old." AYR's fit focuses on comfort and a flattering backside; the most popular cut is a skinny leg. 

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Nicholas works on a completely different side of the industry, but transparency with the customer is just as crucial to her business. Cone Denim mill has been selling denim to brands since 1891 and still has some functioning looms from the 1940s. "We do a lot of collaborations with different brands — they tell our story for us," she said. "We provide the tools." The mill's heritage is an important part of its identity, which designers value, but it also has responded to the market trends by developing sustainable and performance denim. 

Yarn technology has changed radically in the last 20 years, and Morrison says that has contributed to the rise in prices. "I could spend three times the garment cost 20 years ago just on the wash," he said. Nicholas added that, to make a pair of jeans with selvedge denim requires double the amount of fabric of a washed denim garment, not to mention the costs of developing new technologies and trial and error. Cameron called out the precision of fit, where she works within 1/8th of an inch and has to ensure the fit scales along the entire size range of the brand. "So many people touch fit, so many people touch wash," said Cameron. "The amount of hands that touch jean is incredible. It's very technical."

The costs quickly add up if a designer is trying to do something special, which is a priority to all of the panelists. For students watching in the audience, however, they agreed that they should start learning the basics even though the technology is rapidly changing. 

"Go work in a mill, go work in a laundry," said Morrison. "It's not the sexiest thing you could possibly do, but it's paramount to start with an understanding to develop and learn a lot."

Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodation in Savannah to cover its week-long speaker series, SCADstyle.