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.
Real estate in New York is notoriously expensive, and SoHo's stylish streets — home to luxe shopping destinations like the Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana stores — are no exception. So why would any brand choose to invest in converting thousands of square feet in the pricy shopping neighborhood into a mini manufacturing hub?
It's a question premium denim label 3x1's building in SoHo naturally provokes. Part retail destination, part denim atelier, the brand's Mercer Street space is unlike anything in the area. And though a factory in the heart of SoHo seems an unlikely proposition, 3x1's founder Scott Morrison points out that the brand has grown every year since its founding despite a tough retail climate. So what makes the unexpected model work? As far as Morrison's concerned, it's 3x1's combination of baked-in transparency, emphasis on quality and completely customizable offerings.
The transparency bit is partly literal — when you walk in, you can see straight into the glass-encased mini factory where sewing machines are buzzing and denim is being cut into pant-shaped patterns just feet away from where shoppers are trying on jeans. While 3x1's continued growth means it now produces its women's ready-to-wear collection in Los Angeles, it's this SoHo factory where everything started. The workers in the space are still responsible for making all of 3x1's men's ready-to-wear collection, in addition to functioning as the production arm of the brand's thriving bespoke- and custom-made business.
"I really liked the idea of doing something small but fully vertical," Morrison explains when I meet him for a tour of the company's facilities. "We can manufacture it, we can wash it, we can do it all right here."
There's another element to 3x1's transparency, too, that has more to do with telling customers where materials are sourced. Since 3x1's founding, the brand has made a habit of sharing about the specific mills in Japan, Turkey and the U.S. that its fabrics hail from. For Morrison, a serial denim entrepreneur who successfully launched two other companies before 3x1, that stems from a desire to share about the rich stories and quality behind the products more than anything else.
"I saw it from friends of mine who own restaurants," he says. "You started to see this movement happening where people have access to more and want more information. And personally as a consumer, I want to know what I'm investing in."
It was this desire for openness that prompted 3x1 to invite me into their SoHo factory. Scroll through to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the brand answers the question "Who made my clothes?" by doing it right in front of their customers.
More than 1,000 different varieties of selvedge denim have passed through 3x1's hands since the brand started. Morrison, whose decades in the business have made him into a walking denim encyclopedia of sorts, gets most excited about the rare or unusual finds that mills pass along from their archives. Communicating that story to customers — and seeing them engage with the process behind their clothing as they select their ideal fabric — is a big part of what makes 3x1's retail-slash-atelier concept special.
"We've started as this place where people can come in and really see it happen," he says.
3x1 offers both "bespoke" and "custom-made" jeans in addition to the ready-to-wear collections. For the brand, the former means creating a made-to-measure pattern for a customer, while "custom" means letting shoppers choose everything from thread color to button details to pocket fabrics using pre-existing fits. While 3x1 actually loses money on any given consumer's first pair of bespoke jeans, Morrison says the investment is worth it because most people ultimately opt to have multiple pairs made from their bespoke pattern in the long run. Justin Theroux, Karlie Kloss and basketball player Tyson Chandler are among those who have opted to go the bespoke route.
When asked about sustainability concerns, Morrison focuses on the way that 3x1 is working with mills that use best-in-class water-saving technologies and advanced machinery, in addition to producing high-quality products that will last a long time. The brand also offers in-house repairs on all 3x1 products and sells "denim solution" specifically formulated to gently care for denim and prolong its life. Products like these denim coasters made from fabric scraps show other ways the brand is trying to cut down on waste.
"We're trying to repurpose as much as we possibly can," Morrison says.
Design, sampling and finishing are all conducted in the same building as the atelier. Here, a printer used for creating paper patterns is set up in one corner of the brand's offices, which are located underneath the retail space and factory. Custom jeans take about three weeks to make, a process that could be slowed down if each stage of the process happened in different facilities.
It's easy to see in and out of 3x1's sewing room from the shopping area due to floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Inside, jeans are sewn from start to finish by one sewer, rather than being pieced together by an assembly line.
"What's amazing about this is that by everyone having complete ownership of their garment, [defective] 'seconds' almost disappear," Morrison explains. For a company looking to up quality and do away with waste, not having to deal with imperfect product is a huge gain.
3x1 employee Andy lays out paper patterns on selvedge denim to be cut by hand before passing them off to be ironed, sewn and washed. While high-end finishes like 3D whiskering and oven baking are done in LA, Morrison says about half of the brand's custom bespoke business involves simple rinse washing, which means garments are made from start to finish in the New York facility.
After patterns are cut, individual pieces are "pre-pressed" with steam-powered irons to make sure that placement is exact and pockets are perfectly flat.
"I can't tell you how much better that makes it, but no one does that," Morrison says. "Typically in manufacturing, especially cheap manufacturing, there is something called an automatic back pocket setter that will actually grab the jean, lay it down, then another [mechanical] arm comes over puts the pocket down, and stitches it up. Ours are hand-placed and pre-pressed... The idea is that we want it to be perfect 100 percent of the time."
Extra rolls of fabric are stocked downstairs. Morrison estimates that there are between 70 and 100 different types of denim available in 3x1's space on any given day for customers to choose from when customizing their own pair of jeans.
Each person on the team completes about two and a half pairs of jeans a day. That means that the factory is not turning out huge quantities at a time ("we're a small company — we're under $20 million in revenue," Morrison notes), but it also means that extra time can be given to focusing on quality.
One of 3x1's sewing machines in the factory. Most of those in use are single-needle machines.
The photos on the wall were a gift from Cone Denim, which ran the last selvedge denim mill in America before it closed last year. Cone was a major supplier of 3x1's denims prior to shutting down its last U.S. facility.
"I believe in Made in America," Morrison says of why he keeps the pictures on the wall. "I want to keep this factory as a footprint for U.S. manufacturing and focus on the value of the fashion ecosystem in New York."