The Jean Genies

Jun 09, 2010 at 12am
When I left my hometown of Toledo, Ohio, in 2002, there seemed to be more empty warehouses than occupied ones. Glass and fiberglass manufacturers and automobile parts suppliers were increasingly leaving the cities outside Detroit and taking their production to Asia.

I headed West to work in the information industry in San Francisco, and it hasn’t taken long to realize that a major portion of what I consume here – Acme Bread, Speakeasy beer, Ritual Roasters coffee, Tartine – is also made here.

Whenever I ride my bike to Four Barrel Coffee and pass the rehabbed Levi’s factory that now houses the San Francisco Friends School, I find myself wondering 

about this former jeans warehouse. Where have all the seamstresses gone? Is this another case of Toledo in SF where an industry has packed up and moved overseas? Or could a seamstress be working in a building nearby?

Considering their prominence in the wardrobes of local start-up execs, I wondered if jeans were even still made here. One hundred thirty-seven years after Levi Strauss first began Levi Strauss 

began selling “waist overalls” on Battery Street to gold miners and the U.S. government, it turns out there are a few local jeans brands that still prefer to create within these seven-by-seven miles. Years of wearing jeans of all varieties (distressed and embellished being the most regrettable) couldn’t have prepared me for the intricacies involved in the jeans business, which, in fact, is alive in SF.

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When I started asking around to figure out why local jeans designers create in San Francisco, despite high minimum wage and real estate costs, the duo at Tellason Denim was repeatedly mentioned as the guys to talk to. Clothing industry alums and Tellason co-founders Pete Searson and Tony Patella design exactly one type of jean: men’s slim straight from unwashed denim. Their own tall frames would likely make any pair of jeans look good, but they say spending three months working with a pattern maker helped create a fit they promise works for nine out of 10 guys in SF. And they are unabashedly loyal to making jeans in SF: “It would feel like cheating on a wife or girlfriend if we went elsewhere to produce,” said Pete. “It costs a few extra bucks, but we know it’s the right thing to do.”

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Tony took me to the SOMA factory where their jeans are made. It looked like an oversized café, with sewing machines substituting for espresso machines. I would never have guessed that modern manufacturing facilities could exist on the same block as the places you’d wear nice denim to, places like Mezzanine and Chez Papa, or were located near a Westfield mall. My image of factories as remote, desolate, and even haunting places was thrown off by this visit to a buzzing warehouse packed between other buildings.

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Upon entering the well-organized, four-story factory that houses thousands of feet of fabric in large rolls, the factory manager recognized my jacket as one that had been made at her 80-person shop. Bummed that it wasn’t one-of-a-kind after all, I was still surprised by how well she knew the garments her team had touched. The smell inside reminded me of my dad’s weekend wear – stiff blue jeans.

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Jeans, it turns out, require tender loving care. Creating one pair takes up to 26 separate panels compared to four for a shirt, and making quality jeans requires extremely technical sewing experience and equipment. The manager wasn’t able to tell me exactly how many machines there were, but she showed me around dozens of them, including those specifically for the sewing of snaps, waistbands, keyholes, rivets, flies, hems, and belt loops, all components I’d never given more than a moment’s thought. The sewing machines – indistinguishable to my untrained eye – are operated by middle-aged women who have worked at the factory for an average of 10 years and whose skills aren’t easy to replace.

The factory prides itself on being able to deliver complicated work more quickly than having it made overseas. It’s paid off with clients who range from some of the largest American companies selling denim to small, independent designers, one of whom demonstrates a love for his hometown the likes of which I never saw in the Midwest.

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Clothes lover and proprietor Howard Gee opened his first AB Fits store 20 years ago just two blocks from his childhood home in Chinatown. From the moment I stepped into his understated North Beach shop, I could tell his focus on customer service was uncommon. His team of self-described “denim dorks” is methodical about fitting people in the right jeans. “It’s great to hear, ‘Shit! You’re right!’ from someone who didn’t know how good their backside could look,” Howard said proudly. “We like to think we’re responsible for a lot of first dates and even husbands and wives in SF.”

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Of course I had to try a pair on.

With a wiener dog and a mutt from the SF pound roaming around us, Howard and two colleagues critiqued the fit, rivets, and belt loops of the pants they put me in, offering to make adjustments as needed on a ’50s-era chain-stitch hemming machine. And if selling dozens of lines of jeans and bringing on six new brands a year weren’t enough, AB Fits will be selling their own private label men's and unisex jeans this summer after they’re made at the same SOMA factory I toured.

After asking about merchandise that’s made in SF, Howard’s team urged me into a pair of Tellasons and said that jeans designed for men actually create a boyfriend look that is worth $198 dollars of “cute.” Jeans for gals are considered harder to design and sell, I learned, because pattern adjustments need to be made in tiny 32nds of an inch increments to reflect female curves. Just as Levi’s Lady Style weren’t developed until men’s blue jeans had been on the market for 60 years, the inferior quality and shorter lifespan of ladies’ jeans is sadly familiar to many of my SF girlfriends.

Out of this frustration – and with the encouragement of Howard’s teams – I walked out of AB Fits with the Tellasons and spent the night dancing at the music mashup Bootie in gent’s jeans that were stiffer than any I’ve worn. While a long inseam and comfortable pockets may ultimately win them a place in my closet, the baggier fit has taken quite a bit of belt-scavenging and getting accustomed to. The Tellason team told me not to wash them but to wear them in so they take the shape of my legs. And I’m going to take Howard up on his offer to come back for a bit of hand tailoring. While I wonder if passersby think they look a little awkward, I still feel like the cool girl who bought her own pair of guy’s jeans, even if it cost a pretty penny to do so.

And truthfully, I’m happy to pay up after what I found out about the business. Tellason and AB Fits distinguish themselves by standing by their belief in the importance of keeping their businesses local, even if it costs a bit more. In an industry that was dominated by four brands in the 1970s, 10 in the ’80s, and thousands today (and when it’s possible to get a pair of jeans at the SOMA Costco made by a brand that also sells sausage), a focus on quality and determination to manufacture in the city stands out. As Tellason’s Tony said, “The world doesn’t need another denim brand. It needs another good one.”


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In the market for some locally made denim? Jeans from independent San Francisco manufacturers can be found at Revolver, AB Fits, Self Edge, and Villains Vault.

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