Hidden behind frosted glass in Parkville, Leigh Martin runs an empire that cranks out a million pairs of jeans a month and makes $130 million a year
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
November 09, 2007
If you want to know where blue jeans fashion is headed, book a ticket to Tokyo.
That’s what Leigh Martin, one of three owners of Axis, a blue jeans designer and manufacturer with some very cool offices in Parkville, does every year.
Martin had recently returned from a trip to the Far East when we found him last week thumbing through a pile of women’s jeans stacked on one of several large black wooden tables that take up a good portion of his company’s 3,500 square feet on the third floor of an industrial red brick building at 1477 Park St.
Axis’s offices, with the highly polished original wood floors found throughout the building, are hidden behind walls of frosted glass with the company’s major bases of operations — “New York — Connecticut — China” — lettered on the frosted doors. You can almost feel the buzz behind the panes of glass.
“The reason Tokyo is the leader is that generally as a society they’re very individualistic. Each person almost designs their own look. There are a lot of young people and they’re very well accessorized,” said Martin.
Dressed in a pair of unremarkable blue jeans and a black long-sleeve T-shirt, the lean and kinetic Martin brought to mind a young Steve Jobs.
The world of blue jeans fashion is a world of details, and Martin points out a few in the stack of jeans from Tokyo. There’s the double-dyed thread on the pant seam that changes colors every three or four inches. And the random belt loops made from canvas rather than denim. And the small brown leather flap stitched to the fly.
“In the U.S. we wouldn’t do this,” says Martin, fingering the flap. “We generally don’t want to draw attention to the fly.”
Everyone from the premium jeans makers to Wal-Mart goes to Japan to look for inspiration, says Martin.
“The difference is how they interpret what they find for their customers,” he said.
And the prices, of course. Jeans from brands like 7 For All Mankind and True Religion generally start at about $150 per pair and go up from there.
Martin, 30, grew up in Bristol, and in the fashion business. His family owned a chain of clothing stores in Connecticut that has since disappeared from the scene. Three years ago, Martin started Axis with two partners. Four employees help him manage everything from graphic design to finances and scheduling pants production in the Parkville office.
Ling Kwok, a childhood friend from New Britain, is the money man in New York. Kwok is a partner in a leveraged buyout firm, and does Axis on the side. At this point, says Martin, Kwok can raise virtually unlimited funds for the business, which will do $130 million in sales this year and has been growing at a rate of 40 percent yearly. Axis currently makes about a million pairs of jeans a month in their factories in China.
In New York, the company has 4,000 square feet of offices at 70 West 40th overlooking Bryant Park where Martin meets with clients like American Eagle. The mall staple for fashionistas ages 12 to 21 makes up about 35 percent of Axis’ business.
The third Axis partner, Patrick Wong, is Chinese and runs the factories in Shanghai, where Axis keeps 5,000 workers busy making jeans in five factories, three of which they own, and two of which they contract. Martin and his partners plan to top out at annual sales of about $250 million.
Martin readily admits there is no reason for the company to be in Hartford.
“The only reason we’re here is because this is where I’m from,” he says.
Martin ticks off the virtues of Parkville: rent is cheap, restaurants are plentiful, and crime has not been a problem in the three years they’ve been on Park Street. But there is one little catch. All of Axis’ customers are in New York.
“We have a lot of excess travel,” said Martin, the company’s chief salesman. “I travel to New York one to two days a week. Everybody in the office is in New York two to three times a month.”
Travel would be inevitable, though, no matter where Axis set up shop. Martin has been to China 10 times this year. And he and his partners are already looking at Vietnam as the next site for their factories. Wages in China are on the rise.
“We’re a global company. Even centered in New York I would still be traveling around the world,” said Martin. “We might as well have a home where we’re happy and comfortable.”