Mary James & Co. – Liz Valashinas’s Traveling Denim Brand
On South Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina, denim tailor Liz Valashinas is hard at work in Hudson’s Hill. She’s putting the final touches on her first adventure of denim independence before heading back home to Los Angeles. Halfway through 2015, Valashinas–who’s also known as Liz Tailor–created the very first batch of Mary James & Co. jeans, the GSO-1: a unisex denim dedicated to the home of the Cone Mills White Oak Plant.
You may not have heard of Valashinas’ name but her pedigree is nothing to sneeze at. Prior to Mary James & Co., Valashinas was one of three tailors doing the work for Levi’s Lot No.1 project – made to order, custom jeans for each client. Her skills in tailoring and love of workwear are derived from wearing men’s clothing for as long as she can remember. Men’s workwear is built to last longer and uses beautiful fabrics, but never fit Valashinas’ smaller frame. As a necessity, she took to tailoring items she purchased so that they would better flatter her own body. Before long there was a burgeoning obsession, which then led to a career.
The main premise of MJ & Co. is to operate a satellite workshop with small batches of production. Each city’s pair is geared towards its culture. Since Greensboro has long had a worker’s mentality, Valashinas wanted her design to reflect that. Her classic 5-pocket jean was hand-felled at the seams, single-needle stitched, and lined with an olive ripstop leg panel for durability. Its tapered leg gives the jean an aesthetically pleasing fit meant for casual work.
In January, Valashinas’ move back to Los Angeles finds her in her own stomping grounds and the location of batch two. Based on the style of LA and the denim she has acquired–Cone Mills stretch S Denim–batch two will be for women, with a mid-to-high rise and tighter fit.
Of course, since she’s a tailor, the other side of MJ & Co. is custom work. If you’re a guy and you want to change the measurements of the LA jean to better fit your body? No problem. Leather backed copper rivets? Doable too. Depending on what is available to her in each city she has set up in, the customization options are quite dynamic.
Valashinas knows that people are going to be picky about an item like her jeans, and accordingly thrives when working on these pieces. It’s more than just making jeans for a client. It’s about learning their story, creating a dialogue between each other and celebrating another person who shares her passion. Speak to Valashinas about denim and classic clothing and before long, an hour has gone by, time replaced with the sense that you’ve found a new denim compatriot. The people who walked through the doors at Levi’s were some of the first people she got to know, but now this denim wanderer will have the entire world to access new clientele.
She may become Roy Slaper meets Jack Kerouac – set up shop in a new city, a new workshop, and learn the environment. The new denim will be inspired by the experiences that Valashinas accumulates in town. Therefore each piece is a perspective of each city through her eyes. It’s a concept that pushes denim beyond the world of craftsmanship and into the headiness of art. Its romanticism is also perfect for denim heads, whose bleeding hearts for fades and fabrics and details are eclipsed only by a garment’s great story.
So where better to start her own journey the Greensboro, home of Cone Mills and denim the world over?
At the first Denim Bruin, nearly five years ago, Valashinas was pulling double duty at both retail store AB Fits and Levi’s. A man named Evan Morrison praised her vintage jacket, he was one of the three future owners of Hudson’s Hill.
The world traversed by denim lovers is quite small, so despite living on opposite coasts, Valashinas and Morrison have ably kept in touch. When Morrison heard about Mary James & Co. and its concept, he offered up Hudson Hill’s workspace. The light bulb went off for Valashinas and she set out for a city she had never been before.
The GS0-1 was a success for Valashinas, but many of the built-in advantages of Greensboro will not always be available to her. For instance, she was able to source the GS0-1’s leather patches from the Blue Bell building two blocks away and Cone Mills was not much further.
Then there are the machines. Right now she’s got vintage machines such as a 6911 Singer Bartack, early 1900s Singer button machine and needle feed, and of course a Union Special. These machines create a unique signature that Valashinas holds dear, one that you can’t find when looking at modern made garments. But it’s hard to find these type of machines in one workshop. Then you’ve got to find someone who is willing to cooperate with you.
“It’s kind of like asking someone out for a date,” Valashinas said with a laugh.
After sorting through the potential collaborators, summoning up the nerve to convince someone to share their space isn’t easy. Despite any superficial innocuousness of the proposal, each jean takes 16-20 hours (remember, single needle construction) to make over the course of a couple days. If Valashinas works non-stop, 8 hours every day, that means that just 50 pairs will take over three months. Assuming she’s human, breaks will be needed, pushing such a project to the time frame of four months. Then there is meeting with people who want custom work, having materials shipped in, and access to other necessities over time. That’s a big commitment to ask of a brick and mortar business in this economy, even if they are your friends. Consequently, the next batches will be in smaller numbers.
“There were even a couple of nights where the Hudson Hill’s guys were being put to work,” Valashinas admitted. They were kind enough to help out with cutting out pockets and other tasks in order to ease the load on their counterparts shoulders.
Despite the aforementioned hurdles – compounded by potential economic hurdles – Valashinas is determined. To compensate for locations that may not provide her what she needs, her upcoming LA trip will also serve as a chance to set up a home base. Being near her family and friends will help offset the time on the road, while having a home base will also allow her to visit a location, meet with clients, and return to her shop to produce. Channeling Ray Kinsella and Shoeless Joe Jackson, she believes that if she builds the denim, people will come. Hopefully she’s right.
The skill is there and the resume backs it up. But how many people stop what they are doing and run all the way home, because their favorite 1930s denim sack coat has arrived in the mail? Or have enough fun to cleverly leaving paper patches in the waistband of client’s jeans? The smart money is on Valishinas succeeding, and one day, coming to a town near you.