Opinion By Robin Abcarian Los Angeles Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) On Jan. 1, denim became the first official California state fabric. This article takes a look at a couple who have a special love for jeans. With that passion, they've built a terrific business about everything denim.
Los Angeles Times
Throw out everything you think you know about caring for bluejeans, and listen for a moment to Marie and Jim Shaffer, who named their company Jeans Genius for a reason.
The Shaffers are experts on denim: how it fits, how it looks, how it feels, how it sells. They consider themselves "jeaners." In their world, there is no higher compliment.
"When you buy jeans at the store, you are buying a 'raw jean,' " said Marie, who runs their Santa Monica denim store, Hail Mary. "You wear it, then when it's dirty and you feel like you have to wash it, you must not. You crumple it up and you put it in a plastic bag in the freezer overnight, which takes out all the bacteria and stink, and you continue to wear it. It gets your wrinkles, your knee marks, your butt, your whiskers." (Whiskers are the distinctive horizontal lap creases that happen when you sit.)
"After seven months," said Jim, who also designs sportswear for a major Los Angeles manufacturer, "you take the jean, turn it inside out and cold water wash it. You never put it in the dryer."
This is how he has treated his favorite pair of jeans, made by Rising Sun, a Los Angeles company that turns out exquisite, tailored denim at about $325 a pair. "They fit me. How I bend, how I move. How I carry my wallet. Now they are my jeans."
I turned to the Shaffers because on Jan. 1, denim became the first official California state fabric. Jeans occupy a hallowed place in California culture, and few people know more about denim than these two.
"Back when, jeans were the working man's clothing," Jim said. "Levi's were for gold miners. This was not a fashion piece. When you put Levi's on a woman, they are the most god-awful thing you have ever seen. They don't fit; they don't look right. Europeans were into making a piece look right. They made jeans into a fashion piece."
The Shaffers (and most denim experts) say the first designer jean was not an American product at all. It was a label called Mac Keen, from the south of France. The company motto was "Tight is right." Later, Italian Fiorucci jeans invaded America.
In the mid-1970s, socialite Gloria Vanderbilt was persuaded to slap her name on jeans, which more or less cemented designer denim as an American fashion category. Brooke Shields and her Calvins, between which nothing came, were not even a thing until 1980.
But even before the designer jean craze, which has waxed and waned but never left us, jeans were a yardstick of hip.
"When I was a kid, Levi's were $7 and JCPenney jeans cost $5, and my mom only bought us JCPenney's because that two bucks broke the bank," Jim Shaffer said. "We'd cry our eyes out that we wanted a pair of Levi's because they faded, and my mom would wash the JCPenneys to death and they'd still be dark blue. We were so not cool."
Oh, how that's changed. Marie styles rock stars and actors. Jim surfs every morning at the Venice Pier, arriving in a 1949 Woody wagon painted Ferrari red, board sticking out the back window. It doesn't get much cooler than that.
Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine of Marin County introduced the state fabric measure, AB 501 (as in Levi 501s). With little opposition, it sailed to the governor's desk. Though his bill does not name any company, Levine said he was inspired by Levi Strauss and its commitment to sustainable business practices.
Levine had another motivation as well. "The Levi Strauss story is one of immigration," he said.
Strauss was a Bavarian entrepreneur drawn to California by the Gold Rush. He founded a wholesale dry goods business and teamed up with Joseph Davis, a Latvian immigrant in Reno, to create a sturdier garment for gold miners. In 1873, the venerable San Francisco company received a patent -- not for denim, which was invented in France -- but for its riveted jeans.
"This patent made the work pants of the California pioneers stronger," Levine said, "but it became something that took over global culture. From the time of the Gold Rush to cowboys to the working class, beatniks, hippies and people in the Soviet Union who used to trade tourists for their Levi's, jeans are an extension of the soft power of the United States in global diplomacy."
As Jim Shaffer put it, "There is a lifestyle in the United States, no matter who you are talking about -- Europeans, Asians -- they may hate our guts, but they look at our lifestyle and go, 'I want to be like them.' "
For a lot of the world, the "American lifestyle" means jeans.
After working for Los Angeles retailer Fred Segal as a denim buyer and store manager for many years, Marie Shaffer started her own independent denim showroom. She sold Lucky Brand, Big Star, Girbaud and Silver Jeans to stores like Barneys, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, Saks and Nieman Marcus.
For a while, the Shaffers produced clothing under the Hard Tail label, then, in 2002, decided to create their own brand, Blue Tattoo.
Jim, who had owned a car- and motorcycle-painting business, became a fashion designer by studying how jeans were made. "Anyone can cut and sew a jean," he said, "but there is an entire art to setting a back pocket so that it contours around a woman's backside, making everything look round and nice and not flat or funky."
Blue Tattoo flourished for a decade or so. Bruce Willis wore Blue Tattoo in the movie "Die Hard 4." Paris Hilton was photographed in the jeans and the line's trademark tattoo-patterned tank top, a precursor to the familiar designs of Von Dutch and Ed Hardy. Blue Tattoo made special, extra-long inseam jeans for NBA players like Rick Fox and Kevin Garnett. It's impossible to overstate the importance to a fashion designer -- or a department store buyer -- of a celebrity's embrace.
This was the dawn of the stretch jean, which produced another revolution. In 2008, the Shaffers worked with Japanese denim manufacturer Kurabo, and Dow Chemical, which had developed an elastomer that allowed for two-way elasticity, or bi-stretch denim. They did an event at Nordstrom in Topanga Canyon, and sold more than 300 pairs of $160 jeans in one day.
And then, in an ill-fated move, the Shaffers joined forces with another L.A. fashion company. The deal ended amid litigation and heartbreak.
Two and a half years ago, the couple decided to take one more stab at denim and opened their Santa Monica jeans boutique on Main Street near the beach.
Marie, ever the stylist, took a hands-on approach: "I tell my customers, 'I'm not letting you have that jean. You need a different fit.' This is my livelihood. I don't want them going around wearing something that doesn't make them look good, saying they got it from me. Never. Sorry."
After struggling in a difficult retail environment, though, they've decided to close shop at the end of the month.
"I had Jermaine Jackson and some of Aerosmith in the shop the other day," Marie said. "They were texting Steven Tyler about what he needed to get."
That's validation, jeaners style.