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Gustin – Building a Better (Selvedge) Mousetrap?

I got married last fall, and as we were planning the event, we asked our invitees to respond as to whether or not they would be attending. Nothing out of the ordinary–the idea of the RSVP…”Répondez s’il vous plaît”…French for, “Hey–are you coming or what?”–is hundreds of years old.

We did this to know how many guests to expect, but more importantly to know how many pumpkin sage fritters and short rib entrees we should prepare. It didn’t make sense to simply invite as many as we wanted, have no idea what percentage would show up, and order way more food than we may need. After all, it’s not like we could plop the uneaten tureens of pumpkin soup on the restaurant’s sale rack to recoup some of our expense.

And while oversimplified, this parable pretty accurately illustrates the scattershot, wasteful model that many, many clothing brands apply in making and selling their wares. “Will people like this style, this fit, this color, this size? Hopefully! But…we better jack up the price and have those 40% Off signs ready just in case we’re wrong…”

Inefficiencies in a market–any market–are costly, and that cost is always passed on to the end consumer:  you. Big fashion brands have to hedge their bets (granted, there’s some method to their madness), and that hedge means they have to charge more for all the pieces they do sell to make up for the ones they inevitably don’t (at least not at full price).

Another facet to this scenario is that, even while they do need to pad their prices, the great majority of brands also know they need to keep prices somewhat reasonable, so they manufacturer their clothing for as little as possible, and that means by foreign workers in foreign lands (where safety and human dignity regulations are often far more lax), and out of lower quality materials. So we pay more for inferior things made by people who earn less and in likely unwonderful conditions. In the words of Mad magazine, Blech! Thankfully, not not everyone follows suit.

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We’ve written about the Gustin brand here in the past, and not always in the most glowing terms. They are but one of the many companies that used Kickstarter (and other similar sites) to launch their crowd-sourced approach to getting into the jeans game, promising premium denim at non-premium prices (their pitch, specifically, was $81 instead of $205). Some of these companies didn’t deliver–literally–and others that did fell short of their promises.

It’s also easy for the more curmudgeonly amongst us (present company included) to feel hesitant when we feel that something we hold precious is being co-opted by those kids and their new-fangled technology, or is being done so by those trying to game the system. In 2013, our own Managing Editor David Shuck talked about the idea like this:

Selling direct to consumer on Kickstarter may make it easier for an aspiring designer to get some attention, but the flipside of removing the middlemen — the standing arbiters of taste — is that it’s nearly impossible to tell the signal from the noise. Without that filter, many Kickstarter hucksters are just modern snake-oil salesmen, stringing together as many generic menswear tropes as possible in two minutes or less and you have to decide — product unseen and unmade — if they deserve your money. On the rare chance that a Kickstarter brand actually has an interesting product or story to share, it’s often overshadowed by swipes at overseas manufacturing or half-baked brand ideology.

In an arena where failure has almost no consequence, designers shouldn’t be so generic, safe, and boring. Almost every brand is making (or promising to make) omnipresent staples like jeans, sweatshirts, oxford cloth button downs, and t-shirts — and the pitches all follow a similar semi-jingoistic script. That’s the problem, these companies aren’t trying to make clothes, they’re trying to build brands around a two minute video regardless of whatever product they happen to be hocking.

David was not wrong. But that was five years ago, and at that point Gustin had already been in business for six years. That means they’ve managed to stay afloat now for 11 years–a long time in this incredibly competitive denim world. I believe it’s time to say that Gustin has broken from the pack, transcended their Kickstarter beginnings, and delivers on their promise of higher-grade offerings at entry-level prices. They’ve built a working mousetrap, and it’s full of denim heads just like me.

In order to test drive the Gustin process as authentically as possible, I participated in it like anyone else would. I went to their site, saw what models (jeans, chinos, tees, shorts, bags, sneakers–they’ve grown beyond a denim brand) were being offered, “Backed” four pieces (saying that, if that style got sufficiently “Funded” I was committed to paying for the size and fit I selected), and waited. Everything I wanted did get funded, and about eight weeks later they arrived at my door.

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OK, the eight weeks part begs discussion. Since the bedrock principle of Gustin’s approach is that they don’t make anything until they know how many and of what size and fit they’ve sold, it takes a while to take delivery. Even on the relatively small scale on which Gustin does this, it takes time, and this is an example where time is money, money you get to keep.

Before I get into a review of each style I received, here’s a bit of a conversation I had with Ren Sanchez. “I’ve had a lot of titles here at Gustin,” he said, “but I guess you could now say I’m the Product Development Manager. Basically trying to get more products on the ground and help continue expanding what Josh and Stephen have started.” (Gustin was co-founded by Josh Gustin and Stephen Powell.)

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Heddels (John Bobey): OK, one more time for the cheap seats–what exactly is Gustin trying to do?

Ren Sanchez: The process we have is such that we want to truly cut out the middle man. In this way, we also get rid of the question of how many of a given size to produce and figure out how to market them throughout a given season. With our business model, our customers tell us what to produce in sizes they need. As a conglomerate, our customers become the retailer in a sense. If they don’t like something that we put out, they’ll let us know by not ordering it. No harm, no foul. On the other hand, if they do like something, we know exactly what sizes to make to ensure that the waste is at a minimum.

H: Obviously, less waste is a good thing all around. What are some other benefits to this approach?

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RS: One of the unique aspects of running a business in this manner is that we can put out exotic fabrics and our customers will let us know if there is demand. Our customer base has a wide range of budgets, so we try to meet that by producing things like the 1968s for $68, to some of our really off-the-wall stuff like our Unsanforized Persimmon X Indigo which has a persimmon warp with natural indigo weft. As a loomstate denim, this one also has an amazing slubby texture. Of course this pair catches a bit of a premium at $350 (our most expensive pair of jeans).

H: Delayed gratification is not a virtue embraced by all (a strong suit of mine it ain’t)…the long lead time…do you get pushback?

RS: Typically jeans take about 6-8 weeks to complete. Some customers get antsy about the wait (mainly first time customers), but most of our regulars know to just sit tight and wait knowing that “Christmas” is around the corner.

H: From posting a new style needing backing to knowing whether a style will live or die…what’s the timeline for that?

RS: Regarding campaigns, we usually know within about 48 hours if something has enough traction to move forward with production. 100% is always a goal, but the actual percentage will depend on the item. For instance, if we hit 80% for duffel bags, we’ll produce them since there is no size break down. However, for things like jeans, we really like being close to, if not at 100% simply because we need to know what sizes we need to produce. There’s a lot of moving parts from category to category, but overall, a very large majority of campaigns get funded and go to production.

H: There’s a certain, “Of Course!” to this whole approach, but when I’ve mentioned it to people, there’s always a bit of hesitation. Internally, what have you found to be the barrier to entry?

RS: The barrier is always the question. What is it and how do we lower it? However, if I had to choose one thing, it would be lead time. That’s the only thing that truly separates us in terms of a shopping experience. The lead time is a central part of our business model, and it can be a deal breaker for some, but it does allow for really interesting upsides. Since we take orders before production, we can offer customers a ton more options. We’re now approaching our 400th denim in about five years which would be impossible in a traditional retail model. We also minimize any overstock, which as a business, is a huge plus and helps keep prices low.

H: And patience is often in short supply…

RS: The trouble is that we’re competing against a culture of instantaneous satisfaction, where companies like Amazon and Zappos have created the idea that 1) shipping is “free” and 2) you should get said item within hours of you ordering it. We’re quite the opposite. That said, we think the value in the wait is what makes the purchase that much more sweet.

H: Finding your fit is a thing whenever you try a new brand of jeans…have you thought about offering samples to try on at home to find your Gustin size?

RS: As for a Warby Parker-type try on system, we have discussed a “fit test”-type garment, but the one thing that makes it difficult in the world of raw denim is that denim stretches out after each wear. We get some returns which are completely stretched and we end up tossing them.  An approach like this works for glasses and I’m sure many other things, not so much for raw denim.

Plus, running a program like this would have to add costs that we think are unnecessary. Instead, we’ve taken the approach that measuring garments you already own and comparing them to a set of garment measurements we provide will give you a pretty good idea of how the sizing will work out. As you know a size 32 in Levi’s could be 3 inches different than a size 32 in a pair of A.P.C. and that makes for a confusing experience. We figure that comparing apples to apples is a good method, assuming you’re willing to do a little bit of work to find the right size.

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H: The one surprise for me was that my jeans arrived in a pretty generic package. I was expecting something more…elaborate? For instance, I recently received something from Mr. Porter, and there was a box within a box, and then black tissue paper sealed with a label that had my name on it in fancy script. I was half expecting a magical elf to emerge to hang things in my closet, and then make me a latte. Gustin’s approach is much more bare bones.

RS: We’re a bit different that way. Some customers hate that we don’t dress up our packages and I’m sure we’ve lost customers because of it, but I’m also sure that our core customers would rather things come in USPS packaging rather than spending more money. Using flat rate mailers is a huge savings cost to our customers considering we ship out every order individually. Not the prettiest packaging, but very effective.

Using USPS, shipping a 3lb package to NYC (from San Francisco) costs about $15 in a non-flat rate package, not including the cost of a custom box. However, using a USPS flat rate mailer it’s about $8. Very effective. Our take is that as long as the order arrives safely and in good condition, it’s a win. We don’t like spending on things like hang tags and fancy packaging since these things just get thrown away and don’t really add any value to the quality of the jeans. In our minds, these are unnecessary costs that ultimately get passed on to the customer. Sure, there’s something to be said about the “unboxing” experience, but aside from that, people rarely talk about how cool a package was. As you know, denim heads are much more interested in how the denim looks a year later, rather than how they looked new.

Point taken. And I agree. Yes, my Mr. Porter order did feel luxe, but I didn’t save a shred of the packaging, and no magical elf. As for sizing, I followed the Gustin instructions, and ended up in a 35 waist, just as I do in most other brands. So what did I get and what did I think?

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The 1968 New

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The 1968 Worn In

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Let’s start with THE 1968, offered at the, “How is that even possible?” price of $68. I opted for the Slim fit in a 35″ waist (actual measurements 35.5″ waist, 10.3″ front rise, 23.9″ thigh, 16.5″ knee, 15.5″ cuff opening, and a 36″ inseam). This is obviously their base model, and a great place to start…sanforized Cone Mills #172 1968 selvedge denim. The 1968 is a tried and true weave, loved for its bright, “electric blue” quality as it fades, the whites being especially white. And it’s made here in the U.S.A.

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The Japan BlackXBlack

The quality of construction rivals your basic A.P.C., and a pair of those will run you almost three times the price. (And as you likely suspect, this Gustin is about $10 cheaper than a pair of Levi’s from the mall, and those are made from imported non-raw or selvedge “denim,” and likely sewn in Indonesia.) The selvedge line on the belt loop is a fun detail, and the faint blue stitching across each back pocket provides just enough visual interest.

Normally, a slim cut jean will have a cuff opening at least an inch smaller than these, but if you’re a boot guy you may appreciate the extra room (as I wear my jeans rolled and usually with Vans, there’s not much difference for me). For my money, you really can’t go wrong with this wardrobe staple, especially when you consider the denim is American made, and they were sewn in San Francisco. Everybody is getting inventive with hardware and patches these days, and the ones offered here are plenty cool enough. Were I to recommend a pair of starter jeans, these would be it.

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To up the ante, I also went with Gustin’s #99 Japan Black x Black. ($99) According to Gustin…

A jet black warp and weft come together to form a saturated selvedge denim, woven right in Okayama Japan. This style uses a rich, dark black warp woven with a black weft. The result is a highly saturated black fabric when raw. As the fabric wears in you begin to see white showing through and it ages to a beautiful charcoal finish. It’s a dense 13.5oz selvedge and has a crisp starchy feel when raw. To keep the dark look going we’re sewing these up with tonal thread and a matte black patch.

The Gustin offerings can get much more exotic, but this total blackout option (my only pair of non-indigo jeans) spoke to my inner rocker. I got these in the 35″ Skinny cut (unlike me and Mega Stuff Oreos, my inner rocker subsists on American Spirits and the adoration of his fans)…35.5″ waist, 10.3″ front rise, 22.5″ thigh, 16″ knee, 15″ cuff opening, and 36″ waist.

What a difference in a small adjustment to the measurements–these are tight–had I a quarter in my back pocket, you could surely read the date. But I knew that going in, and I love having this option in my closet. These sure won’t be my Taco Tuesday jeans, but when I feel like pretending I’m not 49, these have come in very handy.

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That made one indigo pair and one non-indigo–lastly, I wanted to try one non-denim option, as Gustin now offers a huge variety of chinos and canvas pants. I went with the #141 Japan Khaki Herringbone Chinos, $129, in the 35″ Slim cut. I spent my 20s in chinos, and they were as baggy as the chinos you wore 20+ years ago.

These give me the less-balloony cut of a jean in a superfancy Japanese herringbone twill, and they’re really soft and immediately comfortable. You’ll likely check out Gustin for their denim, but the beauty of their system is that once you know you’re preferred size and cut it’s easy to apply it to a variety of other options.

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I said I backed four pieces, and the last of those was Gustin’s Indigo Selvedge Denim Apron, $39. The wave of designer aprons crashed over us all a few years ago, and for an item that not just could get all dirty but absolutely should get all dirty, most are priced absurdly. This is in the sweet spot, and the denim? Says Gustin…

We’re doing something special with this batch of aprons. We’ll be using a mix of indigo selvedge denims that we’ve run over the past years – anything from the Greenback from Cone Denim White Oak plant in Greensboro, NC to the Natural Indigod from Japan. The specific fabric will be a surprise, but you can bet it’ll be something great.

I can embrace the mystery, and I’ll be using mine to grill and clean and generally do anything where I’d prefer to not get schmutz all over the front of me. If you don’t have a nice apron, get one–it’s the sleeper necessity you’ll find indispensable once it’s in your house.

The outdated cliché is that women buy clothes, whereas men replace clothes…we wait until we’ve worn something out, and then pray it’s still being made so we can get a new one and start all over again. (As of now, Gustin only offers men’s styles.) And when trying to wear in jeans to Fade of the Day perfection, that often makes sense. But if you’re the type who wants to buck convention and round out your wardrobe to include some eccentric takes on old favorites at crazy reasonable prices (all from the privacy of your own home), I say give Gustin a go.