Hartford's Denim Boys Keep Manufacturing Tradition Alive
By Rick Green
February 14, 2012
Maybe it's good karma that the Hartford Denim Co. is rising in an old building where generations of Americans made practical and useful products for a busy country.
The pay phones once built here by the Gray Manufacturing Co. are long gone, but in a state where young people and manufacturing leave, a trio of hopeful young men in their 20s are staying put and making something real.
On the old factory floors that helped to make Hartford a powerhouse, the Hartford Denim boys are beginning their bluejean revival, using industrial, aging sewing machines they find on craigslist and the best un-Sanforized denim they can scrounge from suppliers.
The jeans makers could be edging closer to the brink of something big. Look for their pants in a major retailer's SoHo store later this year. These trousers cost around $250 off the rack and more for custom-designed models. One day, Hartford Denim would like to produce a pair for $129 — the amount they say is the inflation-adjusted price of a pair of Levi's in 1889.
That's a lot for a pair of jeans. Then again, these pants are guaranteed for life and handmade with material and machines in Hartford, which is more than what you'll find atWal-Mart.
"You grow up and everything around you is imported from China," Luke Davis said as we sat on the fourth floor of the old Gray Manufacturing building on Arbor Street, in Hartford's Parkville neighborhood. "No one knows anybody who makes stuff. We are carrying on a tradition that otherwise would be lost."
"The idea is to make the vintage clothes of the future,'' said Davis. Most of "the clothes that are made now no one is going to care about."
Davis, Marshall Deming and Dave Marcoux grew up in West Hartford, graduated from Conard High School and spent years building a bond on frequent camping trips together before departing for college. A couple of years ago, all three found themselves in the Hartford area. For years, they were all interested in sewing with leather. Back together, Davis had an idea about making pants.
"I had been experimenting with making a pair of pants," said Davis, who put about $1,000 of his own money into the project at the start. "I had bought an industrial sewing machine to try and sew leather.''
It wasn't so good for leather, but the guys found it worked pretty well on denim. Davis, who is 25 and has been sewing since middle school, helped Deming and Marcoux, who are both 27, learn the basics. Since figuring things out on their own is a big part of the business plan, they just started making jeans.
At the beginning, they worked in their parents' basements and garages in West Hartford. A year ago, they moved into a building on Pratt Street in Hartford. Around that time they got an invitation to a New York fashion show, where the three bearded guys from Hartford were a big hit, cutting and sewing their distinctive jeans with the Connecticut-shaped leather patch on the rear beltloop.
During one of my recent visits (I kept going back), Deming and Davis worked a couple of vintage Singers in one room, sewing the front and back panels on blue canvas work pants. "Right now I'm working on 14 pairs at once,'' Deming said. "That's going to take two or three days.''
In an adjoining room Marcoux attached rivets and the buttons — old pennies — for the fly on each pair of pants, using an old button press from Scovill Manufacturing in Waterbury. There are nearly 50 steps to produce a single pair of jeans.
"We always shopped in thrift stores,'' Marcoux explained as he pounded copper rivets. "We developed that eye early on. It has helped out for where we are now.''
It's all a lesson in a buy-local, handmade economy. The rivets come from Baltimore, the thread from New Bedford, the buttons from Waterbury, and the denim from North Carolina. They use only old equipment, made in the USA, most of it made of steel.
"We scour craigslist. People sell those old industrial Singers. It's like they are the keepers of the tradition, these owners of old industrial Singers,'' Deming said. "We'd like all the kids to have ethically produced, locally produced, jeans.''
To learn about jeans, they bought the best vintage American jeans they could find, which, sadly, are made in Japan. To get the high-end denim they need, it's constant wheeling and dealing in an industry where the big manufacturers control the product. Deming, the mechanical one, maintains the machines. Along the way, they met a Nigerian immigrant who had been sewing clothes since he was a small boy in Africa. Kola Zubair now helps out at the Arbor Street factory as does another friend, Charles Walsh.
The factory floor, with big windows that look out on downtown Hartford, feels like a visit to another century. There are bicycles, sewing and other mysterious machinery and everywhere, pants in various stages of production. Meanwhile, a drum set, keyboards and electric guitars sit on a platform in the corner of one large room, a reminder that it's not all about sewing denim for these guys.
Deming demonstrates how they hand "peen" every rivet, pounding a ball-peen hammer on one of the copper rivets to demonstrate. Later, he proudly shows me a recent acquisition: an old machine that sews button holes, replacing a time-consuming process
The three founders say they haven't borrowed huge sums of money to get started, using their own savings and some investment from friends. They have no full-time employees. To get by, Deming delivers pizzas. Marcoux works at the nearby Firebox restaurant at night.
In two years, they've made perhaps 400 pairs of jeans, teaching themselves to sew and assemble bluejeans and navigate the world of New York fashion and cut-throat denim suppliers.
It could be a long shot, but I prefer to think of it all as a glimpse of what could be here in Hartford: young people, borrowing from the city's rich history, building something for the future.
"This is a mystery. We are kind of unraveling it," Marcoux told me. "Our idea was just to just try something. Get to work and make it happen. So here we are, a Hartford company.
"It's going to be great.''
To learn more, visit the Hartford Denim Co. website at http://hartforddenimcompany.com/.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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