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Entrepreneurs/ A Crash Course in Denim

Fed up with "premium" jeans they couldn't wear, two local businessmen decided to make their own.

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Stiles Anderson and Glen Schwartz faced one major hurdle when they decided to start their own denim company: neither of them knew anything about making jeans. "Looking back, people must have thought I was an idiot," Anderson says. "But sometimes being an idiot is a good thing. You don't have to admit that you're stupid--you just have to keep asking questions."

The two unlikely fashion mavens might not have known the difference between denim thread and regular thread, but it didn't take them long to figure things out. After a couple years of research they launched BYA Denim in September and are almost sold out of their initial run. Local boutiques like TK Men, Koros Art + Style, Active Endeavors, Guise, and Only She have carried their jeans, and Macy's snatched them up for its Chicago Designers' Shop in the State Street store.

Schwartz and Anderson, neighbors in a Lincoln Park apartment building, met in the fall of 2004. Schwartz, 32, was an environmental cleanup consultant and something of an entrepreneur, running a real estate business on the side. Not long after getting to know Anderson, a financial analyst, he casually suggested that they go into business designing and selling T-shirts. Anderson, 25, wasn't crazy about the idea, but it did get him thinking and he suggested trying to create the perfect-fitting pair of jeans, something he says he's had an "obsession" with finding since high school. "I want something that fits my body and looks good," he says. "I have thighs and an ass--I'm not a skinny European guy. There weren't any pairs in the premium world that fit me properly, and Glen felt the same way."

Schwartz was game: "For me, it didn't make a lot of difference what industry I was a part of--the general concept of sales and marketing is the same," he says. "It was, 'OK, let's give it a shot, but if it doesn't look good after a month, we'll look at a different avenue.'" An initial analysis of the market, which Schwartz says consisted primarily of "reading articles on the Internet and understanding who the major players were," convinced them there was a niche for utilitarian jeans that had the look and fit of premium brands, but came without obnoxious beading, shredding, or embroidery. They wanted to make something appropriate for both a night out at the bar and a night in front of the tube.

The next several months were spent fine-tuning the concept through focus groups and online surveys. They spent thousands of dollars on different jeans, inspecting every last detail, while Anderson pored over textbooks on garment construction and pattern making. "Not to be artsy-fartsy, but it is an art," Anderson says. "Businesspeople don't think that way. I had to train myself to think like a designer." There were numerous tiny decisions that had to be made, from pocket size and placement to the color of the thread (Schwartz jokes that it took Anderson a year to settle on one). "In a month and a half I taught myself Illustrator and Photoshop, because everyone needed the images in an electronic format," Anderson says. "We had to learn not only how to construct the jeans and development, but also the finishing work, how you sell it, how you show it. It was endless hours of analyzing and reevaluation."

Although neither Schwartz nor Anderson wanted to position BYA as a socially responsible company, they did agree that they wouldn't purchase denim from countries with unsuitable labor practices. They eventually settled on a facility in Turkey that uses a blend of organic cotton; all of the manufacturing takes place in the U.S. The distressing is done by hand with sandpaper at a company in Kentucky that also dirties up jeans for Levi's and Calvin Klein. "The finishing side is where you end up eating a lot of time," says Anderson. "A lot of finishing techniques you can't do by machine--you have artisans going over those areas by hand."

The jeans, which combine old-school stiffness with sleek lines, come in three cuts for women and two for men. BYA stands for "billions of years ago," and the various finishes are supposed to reflect different stages in the evolution from almost new to comfortably worn. The washes range from a faded "medium indigo" to dark blue with a tan cast. One style, the Emmett 2.5, features markings on the front pockets that seem random--until Anderson explains how the owner of the distressing company came up with them. "This one came from where his cell phone was sitting in his pocket," he says, "and this one is where he always carries Altoids." Little touches can be practical, like a higher waistband that covers your underwear when you lean over, or purely whimsical, like tags stained with tea so that they appear aged. The cloth used to line the front pockets of every pair replicates the upholstery of an 18th-century chair in Anderson's grandmother's house.

BYA doesn't yet have the name recognition or hanger appeal of brands like True Religion or Citizens of Humanity, so Anderson and Schwartz rely on retailers who can talk their product up. "It's not just telling someone, 'Don't go with the straight leg'--you should also show them how to launder it," says Schwartz. (He claims you should wash jeans rarely, if at all.) "When you're dealing with a product that isn't overly branded, you have to be careful to position it right," Anderson says. "Some retailers just don't get it, and we have to turn them down." He envisions their typical customer as "somebody who really has an appreciation for denim but isn't a denim head, somebody who wants more than overly embellished flash-in-the-pan-type products, something that will last and be in their closets for a while."

Schwartz says they've pumped around half a million dollars into the company so far, financing it largely with loans, equity, and their own bank accounts. He continues to work at his day job to make ends meet, although Anderson now concentrates on BYA full-time. But neither is looking to turn this into a billion-dollar operation and they don't intend to expand into other clothing lines, as some denim companies have. "We have no visions of grandeur," says Schwartz. "There are better designers and better businesspeople than us, but the bottom line is we're very well respected and have a nice niche we want to maintain. We don't need to be recognized through the entire world." The jeans aren't cheap--a pair typically costs around $200--and Anderson admits they can't fit everyone. (No kidding--even going up one from my normal size, I can't come close to zipping a pair.) "That's why we've got a market with 300-plus jeans companies," he says. "Everyone's targeting someone different."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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