Hartford Denim Trio Make The Journey, And the Leap, To Big Apple For Launch Of Timberland Collaboration
"I Don't Want To Get Too Big For Our Britches"
By Dan Haar
October 16, 2012
NEW YORK --- Marshall Deming, Dave Marcoux and Luke Davis spend their days toiling at sewing machines in a fourth-floor Hartford factory, so an evening of eating hors d'oeuvres and mixing with downtown New York fashionistas to the sound of house music took some adjustment.
The happening on Broadway was part of doing business for the three partners in the Hartford Denim Co., a fledgling firm that was featured Wednesday at the Timberland store in SoHo.
Timberland unveiled a collaboration with Hartford Denim, and invited writers from Esquire, Lucky and other fashion publications to see the company's handmade jeans and leather bags — handmade by the partners themselves, on vintage machines in a historic factory building on Arbor Street in Hartford.
It's a scene that would appear to be precisely what three young hipster entrepreneurs would dream up if they could write their own script. Timberland, large enough on its own, is itself part of VF Corp., a giant holding company whose brands include The North Face, JanSport, Nautica, Lucy, and two jeans-makers called Lee and Wrangler.
A breakout event for the 21/2-year-old company? Yes and no. The Hartford partners want their firm to grow, and they respect the New York fashion world. But they're driven by old-world craftsmanship, sitting at the machines and sewing, making things that make their grandpas proud, as they put it — and by a deep egalitarian virtue that disdains mass marketing.
Yes, this is a chance to sell some product and gain recognition, but it's also an opportunity to ply their anti-marketing philosophy — on Timberland, an unsuspecting national marketing firm, and on global manufacturing culture.
"The only way that these guys can start standing for the right thing is to support small companies like ours," Davis said in the SoHo Timberland store. "This is part of the change."
It's a fully grounded philosophy of small mercantilism, coming up against the pull of success. And if they're swayed by the bright lights of Broadway, they're not showing it. At their factory space in Hartford on Tuesday, they worked on an order for 24 jeans from a 21-year-old college student in Indiana just starting a company — and talked about it with as much zeal as they had for Wednesday's SoHo opening.
More zeal, in fact.
"It's more exciting for us to work with a guy that's getting into it for the first time than it is to sustain a giant company," Marcoux said.
Brand marketing, certainly spending money on mass marketing, appears to be a dirty word to these partners — unless that's the brand marketing. All three guys make the jeans by hand, and although there's some specialization, no one is singly in charge of the business side, and they don't have such traditional accouterments as a bank line of credit.
"I'm grateful toward all my customers," Davis said. "One doesn't mean more to me because it's a brand name. That kind of marketing mentality is what destroyed craftsmanship, that kind of focus on marketing — taking quality out of the product and putting it into brands."
The Timberland order resulted from months of work, starting around Thanksgiving last year when designers from the New Hampshire-based boot-and-apparel company contacted Hartford Denim. The deal was sealed in March, at the time the largest order for the young company: 50 pairs, selling for $298 apiece.
That seems minuscule, and by industry standards it is, but it represents weeks of manual work by these three owners and their crew of occasional part-time employees.
And, of course, Timberland could easily order many times that — a number that would force Hartford Denim to scale up dramatically.
"Our collaborations usually do pretty well," Samantha Racki, spokeswoman Timberland, said at Wednesday's event. As for Hartford Denim, she said, "We share the same New England roots … we do create boots that have a real timeless look to them."
These guys — all in their mid- to late 20s — would like to grow, and they say they can get space, machines and employees quickly. But they will not move toward mass production, they say. They're proud of having started by making two pairs of jeans on a cheap machine.
Where does Timberland fit in? Setting aside the fact that scaling up is not easy, and has sent many a young company onto the shoals, these guys just don't seem motivated by the chance for a "big break."
"It's all been bootstrapping," Marcoux said. "I don't want it to grow beyond our capacity. I don't want to get too big for our britches."
"We're going to keep this and scale it to growth," Deming said.
"Maybe we can build custom factories out of hardwood and stone," Davis added.
It's an idyllic dream that fits into the downtown New York mind-set, if not the reality of high-end boutique culture. One guest Wednesday, style consultant Michael Hunter, lives a few blocks from the Timberland store and owns Piknik Art and Apparel on Martha's Vineyard, which carries HTFD Denim jeans.
"It's catching on," Hunter said. To appreciate these jeans, "you have to understand what real denim is, and an artisanal fit."
As for the three partners, Hunter added: "They're going to be fine. They just have to realize that marketing does not mean China."
Far from moving toward manufacturing in Asia, they're selling goods there from Hartford. Since the Timberland order, they've had an order for 60 pairs from Japan, and another one is in the works in Thailand, much larger still.
In 2012, their third year, they will sell 500 to 1,000 pairs of jeans, priced from $250 to $360 retail. That's not enough for three guys to make a living and pay the bills and reinvest in the business, but, Davis said, "It took us two years to do 200."
The business model of handmade jeans of the highest quality materials on Earth can lead to a profitable enterprise for them, the partners say. They know they're doing something for Hartford, in Hartford, and they ought to be willing to make a filthy, stinking fortune at it, if that's what it takes.
"Growth is exciting," Davis said, in a view that ties together just about every business regardless of philosophy. And if growth means joining the fashion world for an evening, or longer, so be it.
"If they're going to have a party and invite me to it," Davis said, "I'll be there."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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