Dozens of denim brands have come and gone since the most recent upswing of high-end jeans brands began in the late-2000s. Many jumped on the blue bandwagon, cashing in on the wave only to wipe out shortly after. But of the brands that were there to make the waves in the beginning, a handful have remained.
This year, 3sixteen celebrates their 15th anniversary and we chatted with Andrew Chen and Johan Lam about the brand all the way from the beginning. From their days slinging graphic tees to making their first pair of jeans to today, we talk about it all as well as why they’ve managed to stick around for so long.
In the Beginning
You might not think of 3sixteen as a streetwear brand, but turn the clocks back to their beginnings and you’d find nothing but graphic tees, hoodies, and embroidered hats. Andrew and Johan met at a wedding and connected because of their mutual admiration for San Diego streetwear/action sports brand, A#. This bond would lead to Johan joining the 3sixteen team, helping out in between his classes at USC.
With Johan still in college and Andrew still working his day job, 3sixteen was a side hustle for everyone. Johan reflects on this saying that it actually allowed for the company to grow slowly and organically until it became sustainable enough to be their main focus.
For their 15 year anniversary, which includes enough collaborations to warrant its own separate collection, they even brought back one of their original designs. The ‘Cousins’ tee originally appeared as a short sleeve version, but 3sixteen reprised it as a long sleeve for the special occasion.
Pivoting Away from Streetwear
A couple of years into this and 3sixteen still hadn’t made jeans. They hadn’t really planned to make the high-end denim for which they’re known today, but it was through various industry connections that Andrew and Johan began to learn more and more about how to make a garment properly. That growing knowledge would culminate in their jeans and along with it, their pivot away from streetwear.
Johan says, “When we started making a new collection, we naturally moved away from that streetwear market. The clothing we wanted to make was subdued, with fewer graphics, and at a higher pricepoint.” In that first collection was their Stadium Jacket, a modern take on the baseball jacket and a style that’s carried over through the current season. Since then, the brand hasn’t shifted too much from their initial pivot but it has certainly gotten better as the team has learned more.
When they were designing their first pair of jeans, Johan and Andrew turned to one of their retailers for help. Turf, a streetwear store in the Bay Area, stocked 3sixteen and the owner had just started a new store focused on high-end denim. Kiya Babzani, gave them input and feedback on what would eventually become 3sixteen’s SL jeans. They sold through completely in its first season, in 2008. As Andrew describes it, “It was all warp speed after that.”
The relationship would eventually lead to a spot on the shelves of Kiya’s new store, Self Edge, lending the brand legitimacy and exposure to a wider audience in the bubbling denimhead community. There weren’t as many American high-end denim brands at the time and their partnership really helped to bolster the brand. It also jumpstarted their next chapter.
Sales were booming and 3sixteen was toying with the idea of opening up their own retail store in New York. That never happened, but what did transpire was opening Self Edge’s New York location together with Kiya and Demitra Babzani. SENY would open in the fall of 2009, only a season after they first started stocking 3sixteen. Warp speed, indeed.
Even with the incredible tempo at which 3sixteen was performing, the brand still maintained a slow and methodical approach to their growth. Their graphic tees took a backseat as the denim was outselling everything else and they eventually conceded to shifting their attention and funds to jeans. What non-denim products they were making at the time shifted to neutral so that they could keep up with the demands.
A few seasons of success allowed the brand to grow back outward, expanding into a full collection that shows jeans aren’t the only thing they can do well. Their Crosscut Flannels, BDU jackets, and heavy fleece knitwear have all become staples, anchoring the brand and allowing them room to play. “We like to introduce new pieces in every season that will stretch the customer a little bit,” Andrew notes. Whether it’s a reversible leopard print/tiger stripe bucket hat or a vintage garage-style jacket, 3sixteen stretches their design chops beyond the usual denim and flannel fare, but in a way that makes sense and isn’t overly trend-driven.
What’s it take to start a brand? What does it take to stay in business? For 3sixteen, in short, bootstrapping, timing and denying. The team has only 10 employees. Johan jokes, “I think we’ve averaged 1 new hire per year.” Fifteen years on and the company operates like a startup. While each team member has their own particular focus, everyone wears a lot of hats. Packing boxes and shipping out orders are still in everyone’s job descriptions, so to speak.
Though 3sixteen hadn’t planned on making denim from the beginning, the culmination of the connections they had built and the timing of their product was something you can’t really put a formula to. When their first jean came out in 2008, they were fairly early on in the space. Designing their own denim fabric as an American-made denim brand gave them a leg up on the competition, especially when the barrier to entry is so high.
Reflecting on their timeline, Andrew recalls,
We were making a chair with Herman Miller, an American icon. Adam Call (Herman Miller’s Vice President) invited us to their offices and one thing that we heard from [him] that I’ll never forget that he said to us was, “We got here by saying ‘no’ a lot.”
Streetwear’s fast-paced drop culture is so pervasive today and for 3sixteen, saying ‘no’ means not chasing every trend or accepting every collaboration. While it may feel good to see everything sell out because of a trend, they recognize that as unsustainable if they intend to be around long-term.
There’s no plan to sell the company, no exit strategy. They’re in it for the long haul. For them, not selling out to investors gives them the freedom to run the business better, in a way that makes sense for the brand. As a result, they’ve gotten to the point where their growth is sustainable and healthy, and where everyone on the team is taken care of well.
The next steps for the brand might not be anything innovative. Johan and Andrew are both fathers, and while that’s changed how the business operates from a logistics standpoint, it also has changed their outlook.
I interviewed Johan over the phone for this piece. He had just left the 3sixteen headquarters after a packed day, and he was driving in Los Angeles traffic on his way home for dinner. He got into the driveway, entered his home, and I could hear his kids laughing and playing in the background. Johan says, “It wasn’t until recently that we didn’t really think to see what was beyond the next season.” In another 15 years, 3sixteen might still be here. And, the next generation of their family might also be a part of it.