If you spent a day with Blake Ulves of Modern Cotton, you’d learn (as I did) that his line of basics is anything but. We spent a few hours driving around Vernon, a town that holds the distinction of being the smallest incorporated town in California, but is only five miles south of downtown L.A. “Vernon Means Business,” the town’s website proudly states, and as we drove from Blake’s dye-house, to his cutter, to his marker and grader, and finally to one of his knitters, without ever spending more than ten minutes in the car, I was ready to believe it.
“The crazy thing about the LA manufacturing scene,” Blake began, as we left the dye-house at the start of our adventure, “there’s not really a list of sewing contractors or cutters or fabric suppliers. There’s Google, but a lot of these companies have been around for so long that that kind of technology isn’t really something they’ve been involved in. So a lot of it—and a lot of me finding my factories—has been just driving around town and looking into doors that are open and being like, ‘oh, that’s a cutter or that’s a sewer.'”
Blake was born into this industry and cut his teeth on the hard work demanded by large private label companies. But after almost seven years of learning and growing in the crazy whirlwind of the fast fashion world, he started to dream of more ambitious projects. “I’ve always been chasing after it, making it work for people. ‘These are my parameters, this is my budget. This is what I need to achieve. Make it happen.’ I’ve always been doing that. So when I don’t have that kind of barrier, it’s allowed me to create Modern Cotton. I don’t need to compromise on fabric quality or the sewing construction.”
Blake’s time in the belly of the fashion beast gave him the skills they don’t teach you in fashion school. How to identify the good players from the bad, how to ensure his materials and workers are the best available and now, in his own work, he doesn’t have to cut corners to make deadlines or satisfy someone else. “I really want to provide people with a no-compromise tee that’s gonna last a while.” So even though Blake’s passion project only launched a couple of months back in January, he’s been diving deep into the often confusing warren of Los Angeles’ manufacturing world to find the very best and learn the most he can.
But as Blake is fond of saying, “it has to be good from the ground up.” This means it starts with the cotton. And the cotton, of course, is Supima. There are plenty of cotton strains out there claiming to be the longest-stapled and the softest in the world, but there’s simply no way to know that suppliers are telling the truth. “Anyone can call any cotton anything they want, but you need to have a license to call it Supima cotton. I could take any cotton and call it Egyptian cotton, it could be from Egypt, but it might not be long staple. Or I could call it Pima cotton from Peru, but it might not be consistent. There are suppliers overseas that will blend high-quality with low-quality.”
With Supima cotton, however; there are no doubts. The strict licensing rules and regulation mean that you know precisely what you’re getting. Blake elaborated, “you can take one of our t-shirts and put it under a microscope and they have a thing called Oritain, it’s a company that fingerprints the [Supima cotton] fibers and they can detect the trace minerals in it to see what harvest season and farm it came from.” But Blake isn’t satisfied with the finest cotton in the world, he’s pushed his cotton tees even further towards non-shrinking, extra-soft perfection with the help of a 50/50 blend that feels like goddamn butter on your skin.
Fresh from the knitter, we stopped by an Italian restaurant, popular with the so-called Garmentos (garment workers) and suddenly fiber school was in session. Blake, for the first time, showed me his trademark blend: 50% cotton and 50% micro-modal. “The good thing about blending fibers is you’re taking the good and the bad from each one and combining them only helps you. Cotton is very comfortable, but it’s not great with moisture management and it’s not very good with, say, heat management or not very anti-microbial. But it’s very comfortable, it’s a very comfortable fiber. Modal is very anti-microbial, it’s a lot silkier, it has a better drape to it, it’s less rigid in its structure.”
Upon touching the actual tees, everything Blake had told me throughout the day suddenly made sense. The thrice-washed tees have almost no shrink left in the weave and are almost obscenely soft and still made from 100% natural fibers because Micro-Modal, like a rayon, is still a cellulose-based fiber, even if it’s a chemically regenerated one. And as Blake rattled off future pieces he intended to make with this same ultra-soft blend: sweatshirts, underwear, maybe even selvedge denim someday, I was astounded by the revelation that 100% cotton isn’t, in fact, the very best.
The self-taught designer is fully committed to developing the best and most intriguing blends, to make the very best “basics.” Bamboo/linen for summer, cashmere/merino for winter, if he can blend them, he will. And with knitters, cutters, and dyers that know the ropes like his do, there’s no way these unique pieces won’t be every bit as luxurious as the cotton/modal shirts I got to handle.
“I guess, the takeaway is, that I really care about what I’m doing. I really just want to make something that they will love. And that I’m investing in them and in their ideas. I want to hear from people.” Because Blake has all kinds of good ideas, but being the guy he is, he wants a customer base that has ideas too, that wants the very best—and Blake and Modern Cotton will make it happen for them.
It’s all well and good to talk about the tees, but the only way you’ll understand what we’re talking about is to feel them firsthand. You can either request a free swatch of this first amazing blend or you can just pick up one of the crew necks. The short sleeves can be had for $45 and the long sleeves run for $55.
To learn more, visit Modern Cotton.