The Art of Bespoke Denim

June 11th, 2015

Bespoke denim is a tough business. The difficulty is that jeans are not made with seam allowance (extra fabric beneath the sewing lines), so you can’t let them out. And taking them in is tricky too, as the proportions and pocket placements start to get off balance. That means the cutter needs to hit a home run every time, or else he’s remaking them from scratch. Add picky customers to the equation and you can see why bespoke denim is a high-risk business.

It took me a while, but I finally found someone making bespoke jeans in downtown LA. His name is Camillo Love, from Oakland California. He’s a self-taught hustler who started his own denim brand –Red Cotton Denim – through pure hard work, determination, and a passion to learn how to create a world-class product.

We met up with Camillo at his place in downtown Los Angeles – a live/work space with a bedroom, kitchen, and 14 industrial sized sewing machines. He made Alex and I each a pair of bespoke jeans, taught us a whole lot about the process of working with denim, and shared his story about how he went from a Merchant Marine in the Navy to an artisanal denim craftsman.

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Camillo hand picks each roll of denim that he offers to his clients; mostly selvedge in all different hues of indigo. Of course, if you’re looking for something specific, he knows where to find it.

“I almost exclusively use selvedge denim from Japan or Cone Mills in North Carolina. The quality of the denim is paramount to a good, long-lasting jean.”

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This was supposed to be a story about bespoke jeans, but the real story worth telling here is one of conviction, perseverance, and entrepreneurship.

“I was in the Navy for four years stationed in Yokosuka Japan on the USS Kitty Hawk CV-63. I worked on the ship as a engineer. My job was to fix the ships boiler and engine. Basically I turned wrenches for a living… While stationed in Japan I noticed almost immediately that the Japanese valued quality fashion. Clothes and bags handmade in America or Europe were highly sought after. Since I always had a desire to start my own business, Japan seemed like the best place for me to start.”

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“After the Navy I moved to Tokyo and became an English teacher. I enlisted my fellow co-worker, who was a Canadian teaching English in Japan, to join me on my new fashion importing venture. My initial idea was to import graphic T-shirts, but he convinced me that it wasn’t a great business plan, and that we should go into the vintage denim business. Despite knowing nothing about vintage jeans, I went along with the idea because I had found someone just as passionate as I was about starting a business. Then, naturally, my Canadian business partner got cold feet and backed out at the last minute…

So here I was with all my savings invested in a bunch of old jeans, which turned out to be low quality second-hand jeans that were probably donated to the Salvation Army for free…and then sold to me. I might have sold 3 pairs out of the 500 I bought. My small Tokyo apartment was full of second-hand jeans, which, on top of the financial loss, gave my place a real funky smell… I lost all my money. But I was very young then and I was excited that I had the guts to try, fail, and learn from my first entrepreneurial experience. To be honest I was pretty depressed that it didn’t work out, but I eventually got over it.”

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The next step after measuring is both the most important and difficult; pattern making. In true bespoke fashion, Camillo creates a unique paper pattern for each of his custom clients.

“The first step to making a custom pair of jeans is meeting with the client to talk about what fit they are looking for, then you take as many measurements of the client as possible. After that it’s all math. You need to balance the client’s measurements and proportions across the different pattern pieces. Lots of fractions, multiplying, adding and subtracting. I have a very good calculator. Next is pattern drafting, which is probably the trickiest part. Once the pattern is complete you can begin sewing, which now I have down to a complete science.”

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“I started long before Kickstarter. There were none of these small denim brands that you see now. I couldn’t afford to pay to have jeans made at a clothing factory, so I had to learn how to make them myself… The first thing I did when I got back to America was walk into the middle of a fashion school class (I didn’t have money for design school) and told the teacher that I wanted to learn how to make jeans, and nothing else. The teacher asked me what I knew abut denim and I told him that I knew how to put jeans on. I couldn’t believe I said that. I was sure he was going to throw me out. But, he didn’t. He recommended a sewing class at a fabric store in Berkeley that lasted 3 Saturdays. Once the class was finished I took the same class over again, and eventually made some really ugly jeans.

After that I joined a collective in Oakland that allowed members to use their industrial single needle and overlock machines. You had to start by taking a class that taught the basics of how to use those industrial machines. The guy teaching the machines class knew that I wanted to learn denim-making and told me about this guy Roy Slaper who was hand-making these amazing jeans upstairs in the same building. Eventually I met Roy and we became good friends. He became a mentor of sorts and his workshop really opened my eyes as to what I could do working with denim. This dude is one of the best craftsman in the world when it comes to hand-making makes jeans from start to finish.”

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“I spent years in my apartment sewing jeans over and over again. I made every mistake possible. This is the best way to learn, in my opinion. Many days I would not leave the house until I had completed a full pair of jeans. I even hired Levi’s head pattern-maker to come teach me about fittings, to make I wasn’t missing anything by not going to fashion school. It took a long time, but eventually I learned the craft. Now I can make a pair of jeans in a few hours…but it took years and years of practice.”

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“I have 14 sewing machines now, and it’s just the beginning of my sewing machine collection. I own a Union Special felling machine, a Singer waistband machine, 2 Kansai Special chain stitch machines, a Juki bar tack, 2 vintage Singer bar tack machines, 1 single needle, 1 double needle, a Coverstitch machine, 1 needle feed machine, a walking foot machine for sewing leather, and a Reese keyhole machine. They’re all in my living rom. I have invested a lot of money in machines over the years and will invest a lot more. What can I say? Some people like cars, some folks like to shop, I like to collect sewing machines.”

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“What sets me apart is that I hand-make all of the jeans myself, in my apartment. I’m making jeans that go directly from my hands to my customer. It’s a one-person company. Most of my competitors (in the growing boutique denim space) buy jeans from manufacturers, put their labels on them, and sell them to their customers. This means that I can sell directly to my end consumer and ultimately keep my prices down and my quality up. But more importantly, it means that you’re getting a product that was hand-made in the old one-man artisanal way.”

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“At the moment I only offer ready to wear on my website Red Cotton Denim. I do custom jeans for customers that are in Los Angeles. They have to be able to come in person for a fitting.”

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The final touch is a custom tag with the client’s initials that Camillo free-hand hammers into a piece of leather, a carry-over from his days working in the boiler rooms on Navy ships. It doesn’t get much more American than that.

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And voila. Roughly five hours of meticulously-practiced labour later, the finished product:


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    Check out Red Cotton Denim to shop Camillo’s ready-to-wear jeans, or if you’re in the Los Angeles area you can book an appointment to have a custom pair made.

    Either way, you’ll know exactly where they’re coming from and you’ll be supporting the American dream for at least one guy who served his country.

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    Thanks, as always, for reading.

    Yours in style,

    Dan Trepanier

    Photography by Alex Crawford.

    • Trankster

      Great article about a great guy. I have a small problem with how you describe his business Camillo’s business as a denim brand. Maybe this is part of the new hipster lexicon speak like saying a beer is ‘sessionable’ (give me a break) but saying he has a denim brand implies he makes denim, which he does not. It would be like a beer company saying they are a hop company.

      He makes jeans from other people’s denim. He buys the denim and makes things with it. Cone Mills or Kurabo Mills are denim brands. I think he does a wonderful thing but it is somewhat insulting to actual denim makers without whose ingenuity this clothing would not exist.

      That being said, how much for a custom pair?

    • axxy-axxaylion

      Very inspirational,is like chasing a dream .Bro,I the same dream and i need a training too.

    • Jewel Arif

      One of my favorite articles ever from you guys. What an interesting
      look behind the curtain. Love his story and his drive. Doesn’t hurt
      that his jeans look solid. Great work all around.
      IT Outsourcing Fort Worth

    • Timothy Kiah

      OMG! such a great article, with such detail about his background. I will be looking to purchase a pair of these. I’ve been looking for someone that is offering well-made jeans. So hard to find these days, but I think I have finally found them here.

    • Stuart

      Need to meet Camillo. He seems like one of the few guys that loves denim more than I do. I respect the hell out of the hustle and passion.

    • Max BornInTheNineties

      Brilliant photographs! Camillo Love has lead such an interesting life.

    • Unseen Flirtations

      Awe inspiring.

    • TO

      Can we see Alex’s denim too??

      • Alex Crawford

        Oh you will!

    • Shawn

      Very cool story, I’d have shit my pants going thru the ups and downs he went with! Hope one day I can buy a product of his and help his business grow further!

      • Shawn

        Sorry I meant: […] the ups and downs he went through […].

    • TO

      This is a fantastic article. I absolutely love the shots of the panels of denim! It’s amazing that all clothes (well except sweaters) come down to that, a standard or highly specific pattern.

      Great to know that this is out there for jeans, I’ve always wondered if this sorta thing existed. Best of luck to this fellow.

    • Greg Lee

      I loved this story. Such a hard working, humble, likeable guy. Even from Australia I’m seriously tempted.

    • Jay Kapor

      This is very interesting, You are an overly skilled blogger.
      I’ve joined your feed and look ahead to seeking extra of your magnificent post.
      Also, I have shared your website in my social networks!
      IT Outsourcing Dallas

    • Rams

      Thanks Dan this is the second article i’ve read spotlighting this home grown, sartorial, entrepreneurial beast. Whew!! Cliche I know but, “hard work has it’s rewards”. Continued success Camillo and AOF.

    • Eric

      As someone who cannot fit RTW denim to say his life (blast these short legs of mine!), doing denim bespoke seems like an awesome idea!

      If I may, what sort of prices are we looking at for bespoke?

    • Miguel

      Outstanding story and article, a true inspiration, I hope his business elevates.

    • Jeff P.

      Probably one of the coolest articles I’ve read on here!

    • Steve O

      very informative article…

    • Michael

      everything about this is awesome, I hope Camillo sees a spike in sales. Great feature Dan

    • d4nimal

      One of my favorite articles ever from you guys. What an interesting look behind the curtain. Love his story and his drive. Doesn’t hurt that his jeans look solid. Great work all around

    • Ryan Reshad

      Great read! Keep it up homie. I’d love to this while in LA.

    • Not_Friendly

      He used to come into my job and we would see each other at the gym in Berkeley. Had a brief conversation about the military and shit. Never knew he made denim. Crazy!!!

    • From Squalor to Baller

      So glad to see Camillo Love on here! Great story, great product, great guy. When he lived in Oakland he would deliver my orders of custom jeans right to my office…no other vendor I’ve worked with has ever done that.

    • eddy

      what a story. the denim he makes are cool but the story just knocked me off my chair

    • JoeFromTexas

      The jeans are great. But the stories are even better. The incredible stories really are my favorite part of this website.

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