Paleo Denim’s Humble Beginnings.
Jul 27, 2013

On the back of the last crowd-funded brand interview, we came across another brand, this time from Kickstarter that is approaching the “Successfully Funded” mark. Richard Cole of Paleo Denim is another one man brand just like Lennaert Nijgh of BDD. One man brands never fail to impress me. I’m well aware of the amount of work and the variety of skill one needs to possess to bring an idea to the production stage.

After various correspondences with Richard Cole, I felt an interview with him would bring us some light into how one could do so much. The following is a conversation with Richard Cole from Paleo Denim.

 

SK = Saintkeat
RC = Richard Cole

 

SK: Richard you hail from the Texas, USA, sounds like you’ve been around denim your whole life. Were you once a Cowboy and how did you get into the denim business 6 years ago?

RC: I grew up in Cleveland and had originally been studying media production in school. I realized I had no handskills and would be pretty useless if the power ever went out so I had my mother teach me how to sew. I was also filled with indignation about the crap quality of most consumer products so I wanted to make the most durable thing I could use on a daily basis. I still wear the first pair of jeans as work pants. So I kind of backed my way into the denim as a maker first before getting hooked on the good indigo. Once you’ve had a taste of the rich history and beauty of the good stuff there’s no turning back.

 

SK: It says on your Kickstarter page that the name Paleo Denim comes from your father who was a Paleontologist. It sounds like the two of you are very close. Is he involved in Paleo Denim now as well? Also did he find any ancient textiles whilst hunting down fossils?

RC: My parents are still back in Cleveland and don’t have much involvement with the brand other than endless support and encouragement. Along the way I’m sure they’ve had some reservations about where the whole project was going and how many industrial sewing machines a young man should keep in the house.

Dad doesn’t find any ancient textiles while fossil hunting but I’d say he almost creates them. The canvas bags and backpacks he uses aren’t particularly interesting to start with but the tools and rock quarries are so hard on them that they pick up a storied appearance very quickly. Some young folks apparently tried to grab Instagram photos of his backpack last year, much to his midwestern fatherly bemusement.

My mother is the textile nerd in the family and she has roped me and my sister into the game as well. An antique piece of fabric is a perfectly acceptable gift around the holidays for our family.

 

SK: Crowd-funding sites have started a whole new way of doing business on the internet. What made you decide to take the Kickstarter route?

RC: I’ve been working as a carpenter for a few years now. It pays the bills but doesn’t exactly put me in a position to be kitting out a sewing studio with a slew of new machines. KickStarter is a good solution on several levels. First and foremost it allows you to capitalize a business without an immediate debt burden. If the project gets fully funded I’m legally obligated to my backers and not a bank whose practices I may not agree with. There’s no equity or ownership transfer to worry about either.

The all-or-nothing aspect of KickStarter also works for what I’m trying to do. To fulfill the backer rewards I’ll need to add a new set of sewing machines to my studio. Full funding means I can get all the machines I need, all-or-nothing protects me only from being on the hook for jeans I couldn’t produce for want of new machines if the goal wasn’t reached.

It’s hard to get attention as a KickStarter these days because there are so many. There have been some denim specific ones recently that are just bullshit too – existing companies looking to score easy wholesale orders. This project is more in line with the original spirit of crowd funding. A new studio will be set up, new products developed and refined. Fundamentally there will be learning and professional growth as this project gets under way.

 

SK: I’ve also noticed that you’ve done away with the typical back pocket stitch and instead did something subtle but quite unique. Is there a story to that?

RC: The topstitching on the rear panels was inspired by the some of my favorite fossils – fern impressions from St. Clair, Pennsylvania. The fossils are very delicate traces of aluminum oxide and are easily damaged to the touch. The lockstitch topstitching on a single layer of denim is vulnerable in much the same way, it won’t survive intact on well worn jeans. Traces of it will be left, a track of less worn indigo will be left where the stitching has fallen away. It’s very similar to the St. Clair shale in this way.

 

SK: You gave a very brief introduction on home grown mill SAFE denim. Could you give us further insight into this mill which most probably have not heard of before. What breed of cotton do they use, the fabrics they produce, how big the mill is, would be some questions we might have.

RC: SAFE is grown by the American Cotton Growers association North of Austin in Lubbock, Texas. The farmers who contribute are coop members and a majority of the cotton milled at ACG comes from within ten miles of the mill. From my understanding the cotton is Upland – Gossypium Hirsutum. Texas has been dealing with drought conditions for years so the growers here are emphatic about reducing the water involved in growing. Water and pesticide use in this cotton is down 50% since the 1970′s, which is good to know.

The mill output is 37 million yards/year of wide projectile loom denim so the mill is very large. Most of their products end up in workwear of fashion brands, if we’re able to show them demand for higher weight and more interesting fabrics hopefully they’ll become another player to break the Cone/Japan/Italy strangle hold. Its also just nice to offer an item grown and sewn in Texas to support industry locally.

 

SK: One of the main reasons we reached out to you, was to find out what it took to start your very own brand. It isn’t often we get the all-access, behind-the-scenes, look at a brand’s humble beginnings. Could you tell us in as much detail as time permits, how you went about starting Paleo Denim? We’d like to know everything from the skills you had to learn, to the machines you had to acquire, to the branding and marketing.

RC: I think it’s fair to say the brand started out when I realized I had to buy an industrial sewing machine instead of breaking home sewing machines. At the time the Ande Whall was the only one-man-brand that I knew of, I bought a pair of Cougar #001s from Ande and was just blown away at the difference between his level of craft and my still sloppy work. Buying one straight stitch sewing machine seemed like a feat at the time and it changes much of your understanding, but it’s not like a secret to success. Visiting industrial machine suppliers and chasing machines down on Craigslist has been one of the most fun aspects. It’s probably related to the decline of manufacturing in America but you end up meeting great people and seeing great hidden places. You also meet odd people in odd places. It’s usually a blast.

 

There’s no end to the skill base you need to develop as a one man operation. Pattern-making and fabric handling at the machine are the most important elements for getting a good garment. Working with patterns is drastically underrated for how difficult, technical and important it is, it will never be as photogenic working a Union Special so it is forgotten. Fabric handling is something new makers tend to overlook as well. I very often get questions from beginners about this machine or that, how you hold and manipulate the denim is probably more important. I worked in a factory for a short period of time so I’ve been lucky to be able to work on those skills in a very concerted way.

 

Sourcing is another animal – even getting suppliers to answer phone calls is difficult and then there are minimum orders and on and on. It’s hard to work with local sewing/fabric shops too because the quality and prices are very poor. Growing your own network of suppliers who will work with low minimums is difficult, the internet hasn’t caught up and many suppliers are too near retirement to be bothered modernizing their systems. I started with crap JoAnn fabrics denim and have slowly found suppliers for the good stuff. In 2-3 years I’d like to have fabric milled just for Paleo Denim but that’s a ways off.

Branding and marketing I’m still figuring out. For graphics I’m lucky enough to work with Arts & Recreation (www.arts-rec.com) here in Austin and everything they touch turns to gold. Hashing out a “brand story” is an incredible pain and something I see aspiring makers struggle with all the time because it feels so disingenuous compared to whatever craft you’re working on. Luckily I’ve been very honest with the origins of the brand and philosophy and the response has been great. The paleontology inspirations opens up entire worlds of source materials we really haven’t begun to tap into.

Marketing is the beast I’ve had to learn about since starting the KickStarter. I spent so much time hashing out prototypes and refining technique in the studio that I almost completely ignored networking and spreading the word. I didn’t feel worthy of spreading the word – I hate talking about making because I feel like I should actually be in the workshop putting in the long hours. The silver lining is that all the studio time has paid off abundantly – the product is good, the response to the product is good and everyone is connecting with the under dog story of being a one-man brand with commitment. It is possible to be genuine with the marketing, it takes some meditating on the subject.

There are too many facets to cover in one article so let me make the most important point. When you start out (I still consider myself starting out, although “starting again” is probably more accurate) like I have, you have no money, the machines are all less than ideal and the space is incredibly cramped it’s easy to get discouraged. Discipline and professionalism are free – they’re you’re most important resources even if you do have money and machines. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned from boot strapping this brand in fits and starts. If dedication to learning, craft and colleagues are your cornerstones you almost can’t go wrong. To wit- here’s a photo of my current studio. Every pair of jeans and every leather piece you’ve seen from me has come from a studio this size and this crowded. That’s why I’m confident in the KickStarter – if I can produce what I have with three machines in 100 sq foot then making jeans in with ten machines in a larger studio will be an absolute joy.

 

SK: Apart from Denim, you have some very intriguing leather products. The travel-bound wallet is a beauty! Isn’t it a massive undertaking for 1 man to handle both denim craft and leather craft?

RC: I started in on the leather work during one of the many periods I had to be separated from my industrial sewing machines. Leatherwork is democratic in that way, you only need 5 hand tools and a cutting matt to create beautiful work. The discipline between leather work and denim is almost interchangeable, you need practice and good design to even reach a baseline competence. I would go so far as to say working with leather has improved my denim work because there’s no hiding the flaws with leather, you cant take out a run of stitches like you can on a pair of jeans.

 

Doing both is a large undertaking, once the denim is up and running I may discontinue the leather work except for special runs.

 

Check out all the various cuts and offerings at Richard Cole’s site: Paleo Denim

If you’d like to help this brand make it, back him here: Paleo Denim Kickstarter

- Saintkeat

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