The Art of Bespoke Denim
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
And voila. Roughly five hours of meticulously-practiced labour later, the finished product:
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.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Yours in style,