By Dawn Hinshaw The State (Columbia, S.C.)
Ashley James was working in retail, dressing mannequins for a living, when reading a self-help book titled "30 Days to a No-Regrets Life" convinced her to create her own line of clothing.
Now, the South Carolina woman is breaking into the niche market of made-in-America denim, using only fabric, thread and buttons produced in the Southeast.
For the past six months, James has been working out of a menswear shop along Columbia's Main Street, taking feedback from friends and customers of Circa 1332 to expand and finesse her 3-year-old denim brand.
Her Ruell and Ray jeans -- named for a grandfather and great-grandfather, one of them a Georgia cotton farmer -- were introduced recently into a New York showroom. That gives buyers across the country and the world an opportunity to see and promote her denim jeans and jackets.
"She's on the way to making it," said Billy Moore, a Tennessee man who makes belts and jewelry and became friends with James after the two of them were written up by a fashion blogger for Garden & Gun magazine. "It takes years. She's made amazing strides in just three years."
James, 30 and a native of Seneca, started out making a pattern of paper on her living room floor, buying a bolt of denim on eBay and advertising for a seamstress able to work with heavy fabric. (She doesn't sew.)
Her business is self-funded, including a $30,000 family loan. One of her biggest challenges was finding a factory willing to make small batches and able to produce the details she demands.
In a visit to the store last week, James was wearing a simple black T-shirt, her favorite pair of jeans -- a Parisian brand -- and sneakers.
She's an unassuming woman with a direct gaze and a tattoo, "By Grace," inked on the underside of one wrist.
James circled the store, grabbing pants off racks, then moved to a computer to reveal her latest "look book," essentially an online ad campaign. The photographs have fashion magazine quality. The model is one of the brothers in the band Needtobreathe. "We went to high school together," she said.
While most clothing brands are based in L.A. or New York, James is committed to the Southeast. She seeks out deadstock, a premium leftover fabric that isn't being made any longer, as part of a business plan to be not only "local" but environmentally sensitive.
Her thread comes from North Carolina and her buttons from Georgia. In a typical touch, each pair of her deadstock jeans has a simple leather patch -- scraps from Moore's belts -- sewn on back and hand-stamped "R&R."
Her jeans retail for $180 to $280. She has a new hand-stitched trouser that goes for $700.
DR Granger met James in February, when she came into Circa 1332 to show him her brand. The shop is an arm of Columbia's Granger Owings menswear, right across the street. The same day they had an appointment, a vendor mentioned the Ruell and Ray brand to him.
"He said, 'I don't know much about it, but I've heard good things,'" Granger recalled.
"So she came in to Circa," he said. "She's kind of soft-spoken; she's not an in-your-face salesman. She's like, 'This is what I do. It's not for everybody. If you like it, you like it.'"
And he did.
"It's easy for me to buy her stuff because I see how passionate she is about her product, and I see it go from a sketch in a notebook to production to hanging in my store," Granger said.
"She'll come out with a limited run of denim with a cool pattern woven inside of it, and there's only enough to make 50 pairs of jeans -- and then it's done."
Her motive from the start was to design women's jeans, but the market was bigger for men's, so that has been her focus. But she's working on her line for fall 2015, which she said will feature denim for women.
James' story involves a series of chance meetings with people who recognized her style, drive and potential.
In 2010, she was in Atlanta, trying to figure out what she really wanted to do. She had a background in visual merchandising, creating window displays.
"I was at Patagonia -- which is a cool company -- and I said, 'This can't be my life, working 11 to 7 or 10 to 6,'" she said.
"You've got one shot, basically, so what are you going to do with that one shot? So I started digging deep."
Silly as it sounds, she said, she was spurred on by reading "One Month to Live: 30 Days to a No-Regrets Life." At the same time, her fiancee, Nikki Rochester, was applying to medical schools and encouraging James to take a risk.
The couple moved to Blacksburg, Va., before Rochester was assigned to Columbia for her last year of medical school.
"She's not afraid to step out and try something," said Rochester, who has known James since they were kids. "She dove right in and she really has not come up for air since."
It was Moore who offered to take James to New York to introduce her to the buyers he knew there. "One of my first customers became her first customer," a store called Badowers, in Des Moines, Iowa, one of the top men's stores in the country, he said.
Now, James sells to stores across the country, in Canada and in the Netherlands.
For the past year and a half, Moore and James have traveled together -- to New York, Richmond, Va., Minneapolis and Nashville -- calling on stores or going to independent markets for American-made brands.
"A lot of people have taken ownership with her, and it's just because of her personality. She's someone you immediately like and you want to hang out with," Moore said."If you don't have a store that's willing to work with you, and they're not personally invested in you as well as your brand, they can jump ship before it catches."
He and Rochester said James' faith helps her through the uncertainty of being out on her own in a competitive industry. "She may call me and say, 'Hey, I'm really nervous, I've got to go to the factory. Will you pray for me that everything will work out?'" Moore said.
Rochester said faith is how James "centers herself" in a creative field requiring that she anticipate what customers will want to buy in six months or a year.
Lee Monts, a Columbia artist, has a pair of Ruell and Ray pants he bought in the spring. He just brought home a chore coat, too, one of 24 that James had made in the fabric he selected.
"I had her sign the inside of the jacket and number it for me," he said. "It's kind of neat being able to know the designer, especially here in Columbia."
Monts said he's attracted to James' work because it's timeless, durable and unique.
"And it's made in America."