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Re/Done – Denim Born (Again) in the USA

From the days of the Industrial Revolution through Henry Ford’s perfection of the assembly line, Industry has focused on efficiency, streamlining the manufacturing process however possible to make everything from cars to Carhartts faster, cheaper, and arguably better. (Give me a little latitude here, I’m building to something.)

Over the decades, this sensibility has been aggressively applied to the garment industry. After all, the workwear classics of the post-war period we all love and cherish weren’t made “artisanally” to be fetishized or stored in a Tokyo vault — they were churned out of factories…utilitarian goods to be worn, worn out, and bought again. You know, PROGRESS, and ever since, this philosophy has largely been accepted as Business 101. That is, unless you’re the folks behind RE/DONE, a newish company that has made its bones by undoing 250 years of giant leaps for mankind in the name of creating the perfect pair of jeans.

There’s an old line about the actress and dancer Ginger Rogers, that she did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in heels. When compared to other brands, there’s a wide stripe of that sentiment in the DNA of RE/DONE, a quip transformed into a business model. As their Web site puts it…

Vintage Levi’s denim carries, within its stitching, stories of years of wear – a history of a past life. Its travels have been recorded in the frayed pockets, the whiskered coloring, the torn knees, and the faded denim. These pre-loved jeans have circulated owners and changed hands over the past few decades, transforming them and giving them a life of their own. Like a fine wine, the Levi’s denim only gets better with age. Our RE/DONE jeans are a celebration of the Levi’s jean’s past and a continuation of the jean’s individual story. We take the vintage denim apart at the seams, repurposing it as the fabric of our new jeans.

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Having spent an afternoon with co-founder Jamie Mazur and Sourcing Manager Chris Mittweg at their facility in the industrial heart of Los Angeles, I can tell you that’s a dramatic oversimplification. Maybe I’m wrong–here’s my understanding of how the jeans at RE/DONE get redone.

First, Christopher has to find…nationally, internationally, and from parts unknown…vintage Levi’s 501’s, and only 501’s – mostly XX STF’s – from the 1980’s, 90’s. and 00’s. (Apparently, there was too much variance in the top blocks of 505’s to make them suitable to this madness. And they do occasionally stumble on a pair of older, more historically significant Red Tabs, but don’t have the heart to disassemble them and instead squirrel them away for inspiration.)

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Christopher is part of an elite cabal that knows where these stockpiles of jeans are, but then once he finds them can only accept a small percentage that meet his strict grading standard (condition, appearance, size, and where (and to what degree) the wear is).

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Then, they’re shipped back to R/D HQ in L.A. where they’re – all by hand – sorted and measured (good damage is differentiated from bad damage), then laundered, then unstitched, then retailored to a more contemporary cut (more of this in a bit), then holes are potentially patched or stabilized, then each pair is resewn back together, then laundered once again, then photographed, and then meticulously hung and stored until finally they are sold. When you see a pair online, you’re not buying a pair like the ones pictures, you’re buying that exact pair.

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And all this has happened to the tune of two thousand cherry-picked pairs of jeans a week, multiplied by just under three years in business, and that’s a solid mid-six-figures of RE/DONE Levi’s. “We have two factories, Christopher says, “and we need to feed the machine. It’s a beast and it keeps eating!”

With most RE/DONEs selling for north of $3oo, all things considered, they seem almost like a bargain. Honestly, to find a more wildly labor intensive process, you’d have to go back literally hundreds of years. (Henry Ford is surely on a rotisserie in his grave.) When presented with this observation, co-founder Jamie Mazur nods without emotion, like a made guy in the garment mafia, seeming to say, ”This…this is the life we have chosen, and this is what comes with the territory.”

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Jamie is a self-described “vintage guy,” an aesthetic on display not just in his own personal style, but also throughout RE/DONE’s office space, with mid-century furniture, vintage Levi’s prints on the walls, and classic guitars never far from of reach.

As a vintage guy, Jamie is from the camp that believes older isn’t just older, it’s better.

“There are all these vintage Levi’s,” he says, “worn in jeans that have beautiful wear on them but don’t fit well. And then there are these companies that take new fabric and do all these complicated washes on them to make them look old, and they always look fake to me. I do know that there are millions of pairs of Levi’s out there that nobody wants—they’re big sizes and they don’t fit women, and I wanted to see if we could make these vintage Levi’s into good fitting, modern jeans.”

You know that in our universe, the 5-pocket Levi 501 is the sun around which all things revolve, and you’re likely either wearing an actual pair or one inspired by the original, perhaps made anew in a slimmer, lower rise fit from newly-loomed, historically appropriate denim. That’s the new standard for the vast majority of premium denim brands, but just wasn’t good enough for Jamie. For him, “it came from a place of passion for vintage Levi’s because the most beautiful jeans are vintage Levi’s. Every jean ends up with a different fade and wear pattern, and that’s the beauty of it. As a kid I always noticed how jeans faded…I was aware of it. It’s weird that I’m in this business…I guess it was meant to be.”

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The only word I can use to describe the RE/DONE work space is overwhelming. There are piles of Levi’s everywhere, all stacked and coded and waiting for the next step in their Frankensteinification (only in this case, villagers love the monster), and the vertical space above the piles is fitted with rods where yet more pairs are hung according to style, color and gender. That last one is important. Unlike the vast majority of denim brands we tend to cover, at RE/DONE, women’s styles get much more than equal attention—their needs are driving the design process and future of the business.

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There are numerous styles of jeans…the Elsa and Leandra leading the charge, plus plenty of variations on cuts and leg styles, slims and boyfriends, shorts and skirts, high-waisted and no waist at all. Perhaps most fascinating, every pair started very not for her…a denim mini for Eve made from Adam’s old 501’s. With just a hint of braggadocio, Jamie declares, “We’ll always be known for our Levi’s–they’re the jean every girl wants.”

And what does Levi’s—the Mother Ship–think of all this? They love it. “We’re very lucky,” shares Christopher Mittweg, “we work with Levi’s, we have an agreement. Our tag says RE/DONE Levi’s, and we’re one of the only companies that can do that (co-branding).”

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Most recently, RE/DONE has reinvented the Hanes white t-shirt (another brand only too happy to share label space with RE/DONE), by reverse engineering vintage examples to reveal the original cut and construction, right down to the exact alchemy of long and short cotton fibers. Right now, RE/DONE makes them just for women (“Ladies first, and men have different shopping habits,” Jamie says), but a men’s version is on the way.

Jamie and Chris were gracious enough to give me one for my girlfriend (she is to white tees what I am to denim), and to say she loves it doesn’t come close to describing the emotion she feels for this shirt. She has become less an unofficial brand ambassador and more an evangelist. There truly is no zealot like a convert. Beyond the jeans and tees, there is much, much more to come from RE/DONE, but I was sworn to secrecy. What I can say is we can look forward to more “hybrid” items, a reimagining of the vintage into something unmistakably contemporary, as well as outerwear and tops and bottoms designed in-house and made from fabric that is brand spanking new. What a novelty!

As I was leaving RE/DONE, aside from being mesmerized by the entire process, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d won a Golden Ticket of sorts and got to hang with denim’s own Willy Wonka and (Christopher, I mean this with love and respect), Head Oompa Loompa. These guys know they launched this brand (with co-founder Sean Barron, away in Paris during my visit) with 200 pairs and a dream, and it worked, so now they have no choice but to continue, no matter how Everlasting Gobstoppery their approach may be. And while it’s a kooky amount of labor, it’s certainly one of love. “It’s an intense amount of work,” confesses Christopher, “and it’s all hands-on. Three years ago, I would have looked at all these jeans and thought they looked the same. Not anymore – now I can spot subtle differences that will eliminate a pair or make them perfect for our business.”

In talking about the future, Jamie Mazur knows that he’ll always rely on the past. “The cool thing about vintage jeans and shirts is that, by studying them, you can unlearn some of the bad habits the clothing business has picked up over the decades. But more than that…it’s like having this giant archive you can go back into and say, that was great, I want that! That’s what inspires me and gets me excited about what we can do next.”