Welcome to our new series, Factory Tour, in which we're taking you inside the manufacturing facilities of some of our favorite brands to find out how the clothes we buy are actually made. First up: We took a closer look at how denim is made by touring Citizens of Humanity's massive, vertically-integrated facilities in Downtown Los Angeles.
These days, there's an element of prestige and novelty when a brand says its products are "Made in the USA," but one product that has been made in the USA since before it was trendy has been denim. Los Angeles, in particular, has been the country's unofficial denim manufacturing hub and the birthplace of the designer denim boom of the early aughts: Companies like J Brand, True Religion, 7 For All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity all started here and many other brands, even if they're not based in LA, have their denim cut, sewn and washed here. Even Uniqlo, which is based in Japan — also a noted source of denim — operates a research and development facility in LA focused on design and testing new styles and washes.
Unfortunately, LA's reign as a denim manufacturing epicenter is being jeopardized by factors like a rising minimum wage (meaning an even bigger cost discrepancy between manufacturing locally and manufacturing in Mexico or Bangladesh), immigration reform that could threaten local workforce and drought. (Denim production wastes a lot of water, but more on that later.) So while lower-priced brands may move production overseas, premium brands are better able to manufacture locally and maintain a healthy business.
Take Citizens of Humanity, which has grown and evolved significantly since its early-aughts heyday. It's now the parent company to five brands: In addition to CoH, Agolde, Goldsign and Fabric Brand also produce denim. Earlier this year, the company's executive team took ownership of the brand, buying it from Boston-based private equity company Berkshire partners, and founder Jerome Dahan (who recently launched a new line), and named Karen Phelps creative director of all five brands.
One of the United States' few vertically-integrated denim production facilities, CoH seemed like the perfect place to observe every step of the process, from design to sampling to sewing to washing to marketing and distribution, all of which take place in CoH-owned facilities in and around Downtown Los Angeles. We spent hours touring them and took lots of photos. Scroll on to see what I found and learned.
First, we toured OHeck, the company's 52,000 square-foot sewing facility, adjacent to its offices, where up to 4,000 garments pass through the production line every day according to Eric Kweon, the facility's president. There are around 240 employees and each one specializes in a specific aspect of the garment: Some might only sew on pockets while another only sews on zippers while another only sews the inseams. There's a lot of repetition. Currently, they're working on summer 2018 styles.
The development process, which takes three-to-four months, starts with fabric: A member of the design team looks at what's trending in the market for the season but the brand also doesn't stray too much from its signature fabrics — "not only for consistency and fit, but for customer loyalty," says Creative Director Karen Phelps. While design, cutting, sewing and washing all take place locally, most of the denim material is sourced overseas — mainly from Japan and Europe. "The last [good] American mill recently closed, it was big hit to the industry," she says.
Inside the headquarters are pattern-making and sample rooms with their own teams of pattern-makers, cutters and sewers, just downstairs from where the design team works. According to Phelps, the whole design team, which is divided up by brand, is very "hands-on" during the production process given their proximity to it; they do much more than simply send sketches off.
"Within our team, it's a very fast paced environment; our laundry drops five times per day, we're constantly getting product in every day, we have the capacity to flash product if we need to," explains Phelps. They sign off on designs before they're cut, and again before they're washed, and again before they go to the warehouse to be shipped.
Samples are given to the sewers with instructions and information on thread, cut, branding, etc.
Finishes like back-waistband branding and hardware are sometimes added before the garments go to the wash house and sometimes after, depending on the desired look. If the jeans are meant to have a distressed or vintage look, they'd most likely be put on before washing.
One of the first processes a pair of jeans might be put through after sewing is laser — a relatively new innovation. A laser machine can be used to create whiskering, holes, "damaging," special designs and more according to Celso Cervantes, Research and Development Manager at CM Laundry. A computer program dictates the intensity and pattern and the process is quite fast. A typical whiskering effect takes just seconds.
The effect isn't always the most natural-looking straight off the machine, so an employee might use sandpaper to make it look less like the whiskering was done intentionally.
Aside from fit, washing is one of the most important steps in the denim production process. It's where the look and feel of a pair of jeans is created, where it becomes light or medium or dark wash, where it's made to look distressed or vintage, and ultimately it's what makes a pair of jeans look cheap or expensive. "A lot of the cost is in the wash, that's why we pride ourselves in the industry... I think we do have the best washers in that [they pay more] attention to detail," says Phelps. "We do a lot of handwork; it's not all by machines."
A more expensive pair of jeans will have more effects done by hand as opposed to by machine. For instance, a lightening bleach treatment can be artfully applied by hand with a cloth to lighten the right parts of the denim, as seen above. A cheaper (and more toxic) method is to spray the chemicals on, as seen below.
After the above effects are implemented, the jeans go into industrial-sized washing machines, though there are also smaller machines just for making samples.
The big ones can fit up to 120 pairs of jeans at a time. As you can see, the wash house isn't the cleanest. Puddles had accumulated throughout and there was a subtle chemical-y smell within the facilities (no more than one might expect). Certain areas required protective gear to enter.
Washing creates the shade and feel of the jeans, which is controlled by the amount of time in the washer, the amount of bleach or other chemicals used, and if stones are used for stonewashing — a process that makes denim softer.
All the while, the jeans are checked against samples to ensure they have the right holes and coloring. Once they're washed and dried, jeans are sent back to the sewing facility for finishing and quality control checks.
Then they go to the warehouse for another round of quality control and shipping.
While on our tour of the warehouse, Phelps pointed out a pair of jeans with a red tag, indicating there was something wrong with them and they couldn't be shipped. She couldn't even tell what was wrong with them, implying that the company's quality control is that aggressive.
One of the most-discussed aspect of denim production (and all apparel production) these days is sustainability. Traditional denim manufacturing is notoriously polluting and wasteful of water (which is particularly ironic given that Los Angeles has been in a drought for years). Indigo dyes also have a large environmental footprint. Citizens of Humanity has a small range of eco-friendly equipment including Jeanologia/LST ozone and laser machines, Tolkar dryers and Smartex washers. The lasers cut down on the amount of Indigo disposed of and the ozone machines and washers create a washing process that requires up to 60 percent less water and less chemicals. Still, most of the company's product is put through a traditional washer which uses up to 300 gallons of water per garment.
Brands like Reformation and Everlane have dominated the sustainable denim conversation this year with new launches. Reformation, which also produces in LA, claims its saves 1,468 gallons of water per pair of jeans by eliminating traditional production techniques, such as the use of toxic dyes, and that it's working to bring its water footprint to zero.
Everlane uses an innovative, eco-conscious factory in Vietnam that uses renewable energy and recycles 98 percent of water used to a drinkable state. And its jeans only cost $68.
As the fashion world continues to get woke to its unsustainable, polluting manufacturing practices, these factory tours are sure to get more and more interesting, so watch this space.