Jeff Shafer: Bluer than Indigo
|July 23, 2011||Filled under Agave Denim, Cone Denim, EDITORIAL, MENS STYLE TOPICS, Supima Cotton||
It’s not just an expose on some company that makes jeans. It’s a story every entrepreneur should read because all great success stories have a lesson that will remind you your life is not in need of toilet paper. Stuff goes wrong, everything will completely fall apart and it’s right then- when your world seems to be in cardiac arrest; that success happens! I had the chance to sit down with Jeff Shafer, Designer/ CEO and founder of Agave Denim to talk some denim & blues.
Q: How did you build a successful international denim company? A:This was not the plan!
Jeff took me for a tour through Agave’s headquarters located in Ridgefield, Washington. This is the place where he is proud to call home and takes an active role in his community personally and through his business. I was a bit nervous to conduct my first in-person interview until I walked through the door and stopped dead in my tracks. The most beautiful surfboard I have ever seen was propped on the staircase; made of pure Agave wood shaped by none other than Gary Linden. The ice was broken and I was chattin’ it up.
Jeff’s career as a designer started in 1992 as the founder turned designer for a workwear line BC Ethic. “At BC Ethic I was the CEO that was generally found in the design room because I enjoyed the creative process. When our head designer left, Lauren, my wife, who was also designer and patternmaker for us told me that I was going to be taking over as head designer of the collection and she would teach me how. The 1st collection we created was okay but the 2nd brought in 400K of business at our first trade show.” Jeff spent over 10 years with BC Ethic until he stepped down. The day he left Lauren asked him a simple question “what are you going to wear now?” When you work in the apparel industry you find yourself a walking billboard for the brand you represent; nonchalantly, it devours your entire closet. So the story begins, Jeff bagged up every piece of clothing he owned and gave it a new home. Proud and excited he hit the streets to spend the day shopping for items he felt would exude his own personal style while fitting his new lifestyle. Expecting to need all the empty hangers that lie in his closet; he came home without making a single purchase. When it down to it he was unable to find a pair of jeans that fit right or a single shirt that he liked enough to buy. Empty handed, Jeff stood in the kitchen, looked at his wife, and said “I am going to start a menswear company.” Supportively or maybe with a hint of sarcasm she asked who was going to design it… “I am” and with that, a vision was born to create the world best jeans.
He began developing Agave Denim immediately. All it took was one pattern maker’s epic fail to properly grade and mark the pattern according to denim industry standards to begin a chain of events that would lead him down the path of his success. Trying to save lead time with the initial orders the jeans shipped directly from manufacturing to retail stores. Three days later after the big celebration the phones lit up with 360 degree contradictions of love, hate, and more WTF’s then he knew what to do with! A size 31 had a skinny ankle while a waist size of 38 had a leg opening that would fit an elephants. An entire life savings of jacked up jeans began showing up on the doorstep being returned from retailers all over the country. The showroom in New Mart shut down and he was forced to let his employees go…it was over before it had really begun.
Jeff is a very passionate guy… he lights up to the word indigo in an instant. I enjoyed every stitch of time shooting the shit, chatting about denim and learning how he managed to pull this vision into a successful international denim company. This kind of passion allows a person to gracefully bow, exit the stage, and go back to the drawing board… or in this case into the living room and proceed to take over the garage. Jeff used every penny (which was merely pennies) he and Lauren had left to dive into the boxes of random returned jeans to figure out how to make it work. Jeff was confident that if he could just fix the size scale he would be able offer perfect fitting jeans that would have the potential to dominate its intended market. It was 2003 when he wheeled the new Agave Denim collection to the Magic show in Las Vegas to try again with a new fall Men’s collection. Jeff and his wife have worked together for a little bit over 20 years and married for 18 as of this year. Congrats! This is a man with high integrity, devotion and the passion to drive his visions. Get to know Jeff through his blog Bluer than Indigo I like the “fish story” If you need it spelled out, here ya go: http://blog.agavedenim.com
“The product can never be better than the materials you use to create it”– Jeff Shafer
Q: What makes the Agave denim collection stand out from other brands?
A: I am a fiber driven designer. Most designers focus on a pocket or silhouette wash or celebrity I believe that the best products start with the best materials. Agave Denim is a fiber leader as evidenced by our partnerships with Supima. T400 Polyurethane, hemp, lines, our cotton. We also have always known that shuttle loom selvage made with plant indigo is the purest form of denim.
Now, the collection with its “surf cowboy”, California luxury, adventure lifestyle roots driven by Shafer’s own experiences in the 70’s and 80’s is sold in over 500 specialty boutiques in the US, Canada, England and Ireland with retail prices starting at $165.00 to $255.00, the latter for exclusive White Oak selvage jeans. Agave Denim is a company that is true to its roots and has the integrity to back your values. Exclusively produced in Los Angeles, this double ring spun denim is hand finished and made in the USA. Jeff searches out the best of the best including the choice of companies to do business with. Worried about imported denim and the rivers of indigo that flow through China: Jeff takes the environmental impact into consideration and has a long time relationship with 2 family owned denim manufacturers in Japan where his Japanese denim is custom woven; Kuroki and Kurabo and an Italian family owned denim mill, Gentex. “I’ve seen their children grow up” says Jeff. He supports family-owned businesses; he is one. There is beauty in starting something from your passion that you can pass on to your children. Knowing that their parents or great-grandparents created a business in the art of denim weaving is something to be supported. Agave and Agave Nectar Collections are both made in the USA using domestic and imported fabrics from only his most trusted denim mills.
Q: Why is the Made in the USA label important to you?
A: It comes down to quality control. If Agave Denim was being made overseas, as a father I am not creating a better future for my children or yours. When it comes to the product; I am in the LA factory on a regular basis ensuring that the process remains clean and the fit stays consistent.
He is a “denim freak” looking at over 500 denim swatches twice a year to narrow it down to a qualified 80 per season. Yes, Jeff is the designer for the Agave Denim Collection. Every season he comes out with the denim mix, wash assortment, and innovative fabrications. In any given season they have over 75 different denim styles available. Bet’ch ya didn’t know that.
Q: If you design the entire menswear line you can’t possibly do the complete women’s too…can you?
A: No, I tried once to wrap my head around the female denim design in 2007; my largest financial failure to date. I leave the women’s designing to Lauren. She has been designing her entire life and turned Agave Nectar into a collection that can make a woman feel better just by wearing it.
DENIM DETAILS: FALL/WINTER 2011 MEN’S: The PRAGMATIST Vintage Stretch Cord (Style # 31-742) is a must have for the upcoming season. The Pragmatist is an easy fit, classic straight leg jean. I am advocating denim alternatives this fall for men everywhere. Mixed twills and cords with cashmere sweaters and leather jackets complement each other perfectly and will fill some holes in everyone’s wardrobe. Mid-tones in grey and brown are the most versatile colors that can be incorporated into any closet to freshen up your look whether you lean toward cord or Agave’s Herringbone Tweed Denim, also cut in the Pragmatist (Style # 31-839) is a menswear must. The Gringo fits nearly every guy! SHOP NOW. As casual Fridays creeping in to the rest of the week including the Holiday season coming up these pants offer a scapegoat to having to wear slacks when it is not required. If you are addicted to denim as much as I am, check out The Purist (Style # 20-620) Cone White Oak 1968 Limited Edition Denim if you need a new treasure.
Q: What’s next in the world of Denim?
A: Color. If you aren’t doing color you will not be doing business… Right now the market is open to anything as long as it is executed and fits properly.
Q: What is the craziest thing you’ve heard lately?
A: Two months ago I ran into a guy that said he had 200 vintage selvage machines working 24 hours a day to import the fabric to China.
Being an Agave Denim advocator as I feel that they save hundreds of marriages a year; I was excited in 2007 to try on the original Agave Nectar samples prior to market. To my own dismay, I didn’t feel that the fit was quite there yet and they still had some fine tuning to be done before it could compete in the cut-throat women’s denim industry. We buy our jeans a size small making every curve, seam, wrinkle and measurement; significant. There is no grey area when it comes to the female design, perfect execution is mandatory. Somehow, I missed the re-launch in 2009 and just tried on some of Lauren’s new Agave Nectar while doing this interview and I fell in-love instantly. The fit is there. The design and features are beautifully executed and now I am a proud advocator of both the men’s and women’s collections making me… I guess an Agave groupie. What Nectar has that makes it stand out from the sea of denim available in the market; it’s the fit. They have a curved and split waist band. This is imperative for any woman to obtain a proper fitting jean that she can sit in comfortably without wearing the “high-waisted” or even worse the so-called “mom” jean while also avoiding the dreaded muffin top epidemic. Because the waistband is curved and wraps around the natural shape of a woman’s body we don’t have to pull the waistband as tight to get them buttoned in the right size. A split waist band creates more steps in the manufacturing process while also increasing the cost of production. However, it is the single most important feature that Agave Nectar offers its clients that over 95% on premium denim collections disregard. This alone, is enough of a reason to try them on today ladies!
DENIM DETAILS: FALL/WINTER 2011 WOMEN’S Agave Nectar: The FUSTA: Stretch Cord Riding Pant (Style # N28-743-BR). The Fusta is a Newcomb’s Ranch stretch cord mid-rise skinny jegging fit pant that has 4 buttons on the ankle. It is available this season in 2 colors. The black can be punched up with heels easily but I am loving the look in chocolate brown. The DELGADA: Two Tone Stretch Cord (Style # 9N2-741-R). The Delgada is a low rise Cantina stretch skinny jegging fit pant that is available in the deepest red you can imagine. Pumps, Boots or Ballet’s this color will rearrange your wardrobe as the leaves change colors. This fall you will see every shade in-between your classic black and brown as fashion is playing in the grey area and smudging up the palette with olives and taupe’s. Close your eyes and just click to buy shades of red and your friends will follow suit.
Q: Agave is more than jeans tell me a little bit about your knitwear collection.
A: To construct Agave knitwear, Supima yarn is sent to Design Knit Inc., a Los Angeles-based knitting mill in its third generation of family ownership. There the yarn is transformed into a soft, high-quality knit fabric and then sent out to be dyed and sewn. “Terranova Farms in California known as the “cashmere of cottons” because of its softness, strength and ability to maintain a brilliant color. Pima is often considered superior because it has an extra long staple or fiber length. According to the Supima organization, pima is 45 percent stronger than other types of cotton. Farmers in Madera, Merced, Fresno, Kings and Kern counties grow about 90 percent of the nation’s supply of pima cotton, while the remainder comes from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. In order to carry the Supima trademark, a product must be made of 100 percent U.S. pima cotton.” –TF. The cotton we use is grown in the San Joaquin Valley and generally gets sent to a company in Georgia that spins the cotton into yarn. From there, it can either go back to Los Angeles, where it gets knitted or it can be sent to Japan, where it gets woven into denim.
Q: For all the denim Geeks that were unable to attend the Denim Forum in LA last month what was your big “take away” and a few highlights?
A: The humbleness and the acknowledgement that it has been a struggle for everyone. Renzo’s son opened the forum with a state of the art MBA presentation- IMPRESSIVE- Then Adriano Goldschmied walks up to the podium and says “well first of all, as good as that presentation was: I wiped your ass not too long ago”. Adriano and Renzo started Diesel with $2,000 of jobber fabric that they couldn’t get rid of and turned it into a global lifestyle brand. We all know that Francois invented stone washing but, who knew that he has dedicated the rest of his life to removing it from the planet. And last but not least, finding out that the Guess brand was named from a McDonald’s billboard “guess what’s in our new big mac”.
Q: What advice would you have for a fellow denim geek that was interested in launching a denim collection?
A: DON’T DO IT! Work for somebody else first. Learn from your own failures and other people’s success… painful and expensive but if you can: work at a company to learn what they are doing right.
Every piece of the Agave collection is warehoused and shipped from the Ridgefield location. Jeff takes a very active role in his business to maintain efficiency and quality. I was introduced to the team that makes this fine tuned indigo engine run and everyone seems like a happy family. I have to admit that there are not very many companies that Apparel guru’s and Fashion junkies can build a life and live their passion outside the Cities of Industry. From one entrepreneur to another the story of Agave Denim is inspiring to those who are up to their neck in vision, over their head in passion or looking to buy products from people that made their love a business. Jeff and Lauren take great pride in creating a family business that operates internationally yet feels just like home. As I walked out of the offices there is a pair of jeans framed behind glass… they are one of the original mis-cut Agave jeans that he ended up selling for $13.00 that cost him $40.00 to make. “I ended up paying $90.00 to buy them back on e-bay.”
Thank you Jeff for welcoming me into your world and taking the time to share your epic fail that in turn, created an epic company!
So, all you entrepreneurs out there,
Keep your passions moving you forward. Wipe off your shoe -shit happens- focus on orchestrating your vision into your reality. If starting a business was a cake walk; everyone would do it. If no one gave up when things got hard; well, everyone would make it. If you are at the point where all you see is a truck load of manure being delivered- remind yourself that this is the time when most people stop and where you drive it home!
All my luck & love,
The Butt Therapist
Written by: Casey Golden aKa The Butt Therapist 7/22/2011