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Over a Decade in Denim – Andrew Chen and Johan Lam of 3sixteen

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

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3Sixteen SS21.

3Sixteen SS21.

3Sixteen SS21.

While some brands and stores are no longer with us, those that are have demonstrated an immeasurable impact on this thing we call menswear. Without the influence of those many homegrown artisans, brands, and shopkeepers of the last decade, I’d speculate that we would be in a very different place right now. One which lacks the depth, maturity, and vibrance that we are lucky to experience. And for me, there are few brands that personify those accolades so well as 3sixteen.

Unbeknownst to some, 3sixteen actually originated back in 2003, with its modern beginnings and entry into the world of raw denim five years later with the release of the SL-100x in 2008. Having seen a gap in the market, brand partners Andrew Chen and Johan Lam emphasized the beauty of the evolution of their jeans—the antithesis of a fast-fashion approach, where a product looks its best when it’s new. 3sixteen’s denim was (and still is) designed to develop character over time so that “our customers are rewarded with something well-aged, never ‘old'”. As 3sixteen forayed into shirting, outerwear, footwear, and accessories over the following years, this same mantra carried on.

We caught up with Andrew and Johan at the beginning of the year to reflect on their last decade in menswear, how the brand survived 2020, why it was the right time to open a new storefront in NYC, and their upcoming SS21 collection. Read on to find out more and get a glimpse into spring/summer with 3sixteen.

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3Sixteen NYC Flagship Store at 190 Elizabeth Street

Heddels (Will Varnam): Let’s keep things simple to start out with, how are you guys? How’s things?

Andrew Chen: Thanks for asking, Will! At this very moment, I’m doing alright. I’m thankful that my family and I are still healthy, and that my parents and in-laws were fortunate enough to get round one of their COVID-19 vaccines. My work-life balance has still been difficult to juggle at times, but we’re fortunate to have a strong team around us that help to carry the load.

Johan Lam: I’m doing well, also. I kinda like staying at home every day with my wife and kids and the steady routine that life has become over the past year. Of course, I’d love to travel or have a nice meal somewhere, but I’m also trying to be content with the situation that is laid before me. I’m healthy, my family is healthy, we have a roof over our heads, food in the fridge, and decent wifi so really, what is there to complain about?

H: How has 3sixteen fared during the pandemic?

AC: We still have a business, so that is definitely something to be thankful for. Sales are strong and the company is healthy, and despite pumping a ton of money into a new retail store in the middle of a pandemic, we’re stable. I think 2020 taught us all that we need to support the things that we want to see stick around. 3sixteen definitely felt customers stepping up in a tangible way last year—their purchases, emails, and DMs really showed us that they wanted us to make it to 2021 and beyond, and for that, I am very grateful.

H: Although the last twelve months have been turbulent, it hasn’t stopped 3sixteen from making moves. You’ve re-designed your logo, opened a storefront in NYC, partnered with numerous brands and creatives, as well as releasing seasonal collections.

AC: That definitely sounds pretty crazy when you put it like that. For starters, though, so much of that work had begun months before they were unveiled, so although it might seem like a bunch of things were accomplished all at once, the groundwork had been laid for quite some time. The second thing that comes to mind is the fact that we didn’t do it alone.

We worked with Studio Mast for our logo redesign for almost a year, and they worked hand in hand with us to build a new identity that gave us space to grow and develop. Sometimes when we wouldn’t have the energy to keep moving forward they picked up the pace and motivated us to continue. You could say the same thing for Anton Anger at Studio Meadow, who designed our NY flagship store.

Without his constant energy and forward momentum, this project could have stalled out at so many junctures. He designed and spec’d our storefront out top to bottom in a matter of weeks, knowing that we would have to hit the ground running once we got our keys. That all changed, of course, once we hit work stoppages in March of last year, but the design work was done under very tight timelines prior to the pandemic. So for me, a big part of our secret is working with talented people.

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New decade, new branding. Studio Mast for 3Sixteen.

H: 3sixteen has come a long way in the last decade or so. Looking back, what are your first thoughts on the story so far?

JL: As I look back on the history of the brand, the word that comes to mind is “steady.” For almost two decades now, which sounds really crazy to say, we’ve tried hard to make the best clothing that we could make and provide the best customer service that we could provide. We’ve tried to be as transparent and as honest of a brand as we could, both to our retailers and to our customers. That has lead to a slow, plodding, steady growth which has brought us to where we are today. I think Andrew and I both prefer this methodical climb upwards versus a meteoric rise and the inevitable crash that comes with it.

AC: This past year really forced us to adapt in new ways. I’m sure every brand in our sphere can share valuable lessons they learned in 2020; for me, I think that it really opened our eyes to what we were capable in the face of challenges we never could have imagined. We all quarantined and worked from home for months and were somehow able to keep the brand afloat. We explored new skillsets and found ways to be productive from outside the office. And when we were able to return, albeit in a limited capacity, I feel like we’ve been able to be more efficient with our time now that we see how valuable it is.

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3Sixteen t-shirts, made in the USA.

H: Do you feel that the brand’s roots are still firmly cemented in domestically produced denim, or has time changed this?

JL: I think a big part of our brand will always be really solid jeans and t-shirts that are made in the US, but our customers are finding that we can do so much more than that. This year has been hard on everyone and it’s brought some unique challenges to our factory in San Francisco. In order to lighten their load, we’ve started to explore manufacturing possibilities in other parts of the world.

This has totally expanded the color palette that we are now painting with. We now have the ability to make knitwear, leather goods, footwear, and much more complex garments than we were able to before. We’re really excited about the collections that we are now able to build with these newfound manufacturing partners.

H: You opened a new store in NYC on Elizabeth Street last summer, in addition to your LA flagship store in the Arts District. This was a bold move in the middle of a pandemic and at a time when physical retail is suffering – What led you to do this and what’s been the reception so far?

AC: The idea to open up a retail store in NYC definitely came about before the pandemic but talk about retail being dead was already circulating well before we signed our lease. We obviously felt differently. The product that we sell, in our opinion, isn’t designed to solve a problem or check a box, per se.

Clothing should be practical and meet a need, of course, but the clothes we are interested in making should move you or excite you to some extent. And while we’ve invested significantly in our web presence over the past few years, there really is nothing like being able to see, touch and try on clothing in person while chatting with someone who is knowledgeable and engaged. We wanted to create a space in downtown New York where we could provide this kind of environment to customers both old and new, and I hope that we’ve succeeded.

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Raggedy Threads for 3Sixteen Smiley Caps.

H: 3sixteen has forged a number of meaningful partnerships and collaborations over the years, but more recently that’s included 18 East, Cody Hudson, Crescent Down Works, and Raggedy Threads. How do you go about approaching these relationships and developing relevant products which fit with the 3sixteen brand?

JL: We’ve never been the type of brand to do a collaboration just to do one. For us, it needs to come organically from real relationships and the project itself needs to offer a unique perspective. We try to make things that would otherwise be very difficult if the two entities didn’t partner together. We have a new furniture collaboration that we’re really excited about, as well as a new footwear collaboration that we’re just in the early development stages of. These are always super exciting projects for us because the parameters of what we’re able to produce are so drastically different.

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PKK Ceramics for 3Sixteen.

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Inspiration for 3Sixteen SS21.

H: In relation to the clothing, your SS21 collection is releasing right now. It’s a collection full of textures, sartorial flair and colorful prints. What was your approach to designing SS21? Any personal favorites?

AC: Like most other collections that will be rolling out in the coming weeks and months, our SS21 collection was designed almost entirely in quarantine. Looking back at the fabrics we developed and sourced, it’s clear that we were thinking a lot about functionality and tangible comfort during a difficult time. Hand feel and textile performance were definitely top of mind.

About four years ago, when in Chicago working on a feature with Nick Horween for our Singularities editorial site, I took an afternoon to visit the Art Institute. I remember coming across a room filled with beautiful monochromatic paintings that reminded me of Agnes Martin’s work, but somehow even more minimalist in nature. They all had base layers of paint with different textures carved into them forming the pattern.

Some looked like they were done with a pencil or a blunt object, and others had repeated geometric brushstroke patterns. I looked at the artist credits within that room and was amazed to find that they were all Korean—turns out that they were all part of a minimalist art movement in the 1970s called “Dansaekwha.” As we began looking at textiles for the season, we were drawn to textural patterns that were woven into the fabric and I realized that they reminded me of those paintings. We built off that idea to try and illustrate the concept of “texture as pattern” in SS21.

It’s always hard to pick favorites, but I am really excited for the hand-loomed fabrics with natural indigo dye—we feature two for the season and they’re both great but the indigo crosshatch on the short sleeve vacation shirt is really special. The yarns used to make the indigo grid pattern are dyed inconsistently in indigo to create an effect where the lines fade in and out.

H: Fabric seems to be playing an increasingly important part in the 3sixteen offering and you’ve selected some beautiful ones for SS21 from all over the world. Tell us how important this is for the brand?

AC: It’s very important. Spending extended time at home and working remotely caused us to delve deeper into the use of Tencel, a really amazing fiber that doesn’t seem to enjoy much usage currently in our niche of fashion. It’s a wood byproduct and is naturally grown and renewable. When blended together with cotton or linen, it produces a fabric that is super comfortable against the skin, temperature regulating, and moisture-wicking.

We’re excited to roll it out on some shirts and pants this season—the drape and comfort they offer are really special. A fabric like this might seem strange coming from a brand that specializes in raw denim, but the interesting thing is that Tencel does change over time as it’s worn and washed too – the colors fade and grey out beautifully and the hand feel changes too. Internally, we are all wearing and appreciating so many different kinds of textiles that are not denim-specific but hold similar characteristics to the more familiar fabrics we all know and love. Like Nick Horween told us in an interview once, “the good stuff gets better the more you use it and the bad stuff gets worse.” It applies to leather, it applies to denim, and it applies to linens, Tencels, canvases, herringbones, all of that.

Another example of fabric exploration that we’re excited to explore is the world of hand-loomed textiles. Our lead designer, Wesley, noted this recently as we were chatting, so many of the textured and inconsistent fabric weaves from Japan that we love so much are basically coming from mills hacking their machines to try and mimic the beautiful characteristics that are inherent in hand-loomed fabric. Low tension weaves, increased loom chatter, slubby yarns—these are all traits that are naturally in play for hand-loomed textiles, which is a real area of expertise for India.

We are featuring two hand-loomed fabrics from India, both with natural indigo dye, and much more in the seasons ahead. Exploring the beauty of textiles and the way that they age has always been important to our brand, and the kind of access we are now receiving by exploring new countries of manufacture has really unlocked some doors for us design-wise. We’re really excited to share them with our customers in the seasons ahead.

H: What does the future hold for 3sixteen? What’s the trajectory for the brand in the coming months, and years?

JL: We are really looking forward to everyone getting vaccinated and being able to go out into the world again. Even as we continue to grow our online store, so much of our business happens in person, both with our retail partners and our clients in our retail stores.

In terms of trajectory, we hope that we can continue on this steady path of growth that we’ve been on for 17 going on 18 years. We’re not trying to blow up and we’ve never really had aspirations to do so. We’re trying to continue to make really good clothing, clothing that we’re excited about and want to wear ourselves, that our stockists love and can sell really well and that our clients can live in for a long time to come.


All imagery courtesy of 3sixteen / Photographer – Ray Spears / Model – Rylan Henderson.