Over the past 15 years, the American denim business has experienced a modern-day gold rush, with a rollercoaster rise-and-fall comparable to that of the 19th century. A documentary released this summer, titled Blue Gold: American Jeans, explores the industry’s history from the late 1800s to the present and captures much of the last decade’s madness. Following the lead of European brands like Diesel and G-Star, hundreds of prospectors in the early- to mid-2000s established fast-growing jeans companies—many catering to the luxury market—only to see them founder and close during the Great Recession.
One of the earliest and most successful high-end denim pioneers was California native Scott Morrison, who launched the lauded jeans brands Paper Denim & Cloth and Earnest Sewn in 1999 and 2004, respectively. (Morrison is featured prominently in Blue Gold.) Now at the helm of his third jeans venture, 3×1, Morrison has spent the last three years cornering a rarified market: The company specializes in selvedge denim, with prices for a pair ranging from $265 (for ready-to-wear) to $1,200 (for bespoke). For added value and quality control, 3×1 produces all of its jeans out of a 3,200-square-foot design studio inside its New York City flagship. Surface met with Morrison at the shop to discuss how he continues to thrive in the cutthroat denim business and what sets his burgeoning brand apart.
Before you got into the jeans business, you were a golfer who played on the team at the University of Washington.
I’m a product of Palm Springs, California—basically a retirement community, at least when I was growing up. There weren’t a lot of kids, and we had access to a country club. I was introduced to golf early on and really took a liking to it. At the University of Washington, I actually played against Phil Mickelson my freshman year, and the Pac-10 championship my senior year was against Tiger Woods.
You grew up skateboarding, too. Is that where denim came into the picture?
Denim was just hard to escape. I was born in 1972. I was a product of the ’70s and early ’80s. I grew up wearing jeans, Vans sneakers, and T-shirts. I remember my mom buying me old Levi’s at Miller’s Outpost and me sitting in a bathtub with them on to shrink them.
What was your path to the clothing and apparel trade?
I told my golf coach in college that I was interested in starting a golf-clothing line when I graduated—mainly because I hated golf clothes. I started writing business plans for golf-apparel companies. I was also paired with a mentor, Chuck Fancher, who helped me find an internship in the clothing business. I finished school in ’95 and tried for about nine months to play professional golf, which obviously didn’t go so well. It was a great experience, but I figured out that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I think I knew that going in, but I thought: Better to try than look back and wonder.
I went on to work as a sales guy for Derek Andrew, a brand run by my first real boss in the clothing industry, Derek Andrew Federman. He was selling really expensive, beautiful men’s clothing—heather cotton-cashmere sweatpants and stuff like that—to Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, a variety of men’s stores all around the country. After six or seven months, I kept hearing stories about a lot of the women stealing their husbands’ clothes because they were so soft, so comfortable, so luxurious. I pitched the idea to Derek to start a women’s division, and he said, “Great, write me a business plan.” I wrote him one and started a division called Red Line based on my concept. We did somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 million in revenue the first year. It was a huge success.
So when did you break into the denim business?
I became friends with a girl who worked at Theory. Her father was a partner in Mudd Jeans. She knew that at some point I wanted to do something outside of women’s clothing. I had long given up wanting to be involved in the golf-clothing business. She said that Mudd Jeans had launched this new, better category of denim called Jack Jeans, and they were looking for someone to run it. I was definitely young and cocky enough to think that I could do that without much experience. I certainly didn’t know what I needed to. I talked my way into the job, and I moved from Seattle to New York.
What was it like creating a premium denim label at that time?
I felt there was a massive disconnect between what we were trying to offer the customer and what Jack Jeans was doing, which was blatantly repackaging the Mudd Jeans product and selling it to a more elevated customer. When I say “elevated,” I’m talking about going from a $29 jean that Mudd sold to J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, and Macy’s to a $55 jean sold to Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. It wasn’t luxury; this was ’97, and there was no premium denim. This was before the advent of $100 or $150 jeans. I was really department store–focused, and it was a tough sell. It was a product that didn’t look like anything I’d want to wear. Not that I was the most knowledgeable about this then, but nothing seemed to match up. After six or seven months of banging my head against the wall and questioning things constantly, I finally was like, “Fuck it, this just doesn’t work.” Then Dick Gilbert, the owner of Mudd, gave me probably the best opportunity in the world, which was to say: “Okay, show me what will.” He told me to go out and talk to the mills and factories, fly around, find the product that I thought was necessary to make it right. So I did. That was probably my best denim lesson. What really opened a lot of doors was having the Mudd Jeans business behind me—it was a quarter-billion-dollar company. My enthusiasm and excitement probably opened a few more. No one was really trying to go after the Diesel or Replay customer at the time. Lucky Brand was one of the few American jeans companies trying to do something a little bit more elevated, at about $75 a pair.
So Diesel and Replay were at the top of the market then?
Diesel was $99, Replay was $99. Energie and Miss Sixty were just under $100. Right before I started Paper Denim & Cloth in 1999, Earl Jean came out. Earl Jean was $99 and focused on the women’s market. Earl Jean, Frankie B., Paper Denim—these were the first three in the premium denim space. I was the first one to go over $100. I did a $150 jean.
How did you come to start Paper Denim & Cloth?
After a year and a half at Jack Jeans, I decided I was going to work for Diesel or another denim brand. Dick asked, “What’s it going to take to get you to stay?” I said, “I’ve got an idea I’ve been working on for a couple of months. It’s called Paper Denim & Cloth.” I’ll never forget it: He looked at me and said, “This is the worst name I’ve ever heard.” I was a little heartbroken at the time, but I was like, “No, I think it’s going to be great. I think it’s ambiguous, it’s cool.” He said, “Okay, fine, why don’t you make a sample collection?” I think it cost $16,000. I borrowed a Mudd Jeans patternmaker. I was carrying three jeans around in a Freitag bag, going to buyers at Barneys, Bergdorf, and anyone else who would take an appointment with me. I was probably just a cute guy that a lot of buyers took pity on. [Laughs] There really wasn’t a context for this kind of product.
What was the response like?
We did $1.8 million our first year and quickly ramped up to $40 million in a very short time. We had a really lean team. It was crazy. We still had fax machines back then, and there would be orders coming in all morning. I’d never seen anything like it. I don’t know if we will ever again. This was when premium denim brands emerged. There were probably 350 different brands that came into the market over the next two to three years. By 2003, there were around 700 new brands in the denim world. Clearly, most of those are out of business now, but it was such an exciting, fever-pitch moment for the industry.
In 2004, you created Earnest Sewn.
Yeah, after five years, I had a falling out with Dick, primarily about his deciding to sell at Macy’s without my approval. He did it in a pretty shitty way, unfortunately, and I was just like, “This doesn’t work.” At Earnest Sewn, we did almost $15 million in revenue the first year. Paper Denim went out of business within 18 to 24 months of my departure. It was a horrible decision on Dick’s side to sell at Macy’s and a horrible decision on my side to leave. We probably could have done more with that brand if we both just agreed to figure out a way to make it work.
What was your approach to Earnest Sewn?
Earnest Sewn was a story I couldn’t tell at Paper Denim. It was about trying to make a more timeless kind of construction. By that time, I’d probably been to Japan seven, eight times. A lot of what I was seeing there—elements like wabi-sabi and natural, organic, more handmade things—I thought was really important. I also thought it was a great way to tell the American heritage story. At the time, this rough-hewn design aesthetic was starting to emerge. It was basically taxidermy and reclaimed wood—and a bunch of stuff that now makes me sick. Back then, it felt like it was the next thing.
We centered Earnest Sewn around this aesthetic. We were one of the first to bring third-party brands into a retail environment. We asked, “Who’s the oldest manufacturer of great shoes in America?” Red Wing. “Who does the oldest pocket knifes?” Case & Sons. “Who does the greatest duffle bags?” Filson. We sold these products alongside ours, and built this world that really looked back on the history of America and what has stood the test of time.
What made you leave Earnest Sewn?
Right around 2008 people were starting to freak out a little bit. The economy wasn’t particularly great. We had just done a round of fundraising to open up additional retail stores and really try to grow the business. With this cash infusion we did some things that I didn’t particularly love. When you bring in outside investors—and all of a sudden you’re not the majority owner anymore—you’re along for the ride to some degree. I really believed that we were going to be able to roll out three or four more stores and make a bigger, stronger play. Unfortunately, none of that happened. I had my equity and there was no reason for me to stick around if I didn’t think it was going to work.
What happened next?
The day I left, a friend of mine who used to run Diesel called up. He was a brand consultant and told me Evisu was looking for someone. He knew that I have a bit of a love affair with Japan and Japanese denim, and Evisu was the first jean that I had bought for $300. He asked if I wanted to work with them. At first I said, “That’s probably not the best idea.” Evisu at that point was completely off the radar.
I ended up doing it, and we brought in some of the team that was left over at Earnest Sewn. Evisu was so fragmented, which was probably the best thing I learned from the experience. Asia wanted one type of product, something really branding-focused and all about logo. In the U.S., people didn’t want any logos or back-pocket stitching; you needed to be about authenticity and about going back to the roots of denim. Europe was a little bit in the middle. The Italians really liked it a certain way, the Scandinavians another way, and the British another way. How to become something for everyone was a massive challenge. After 18 months, we wrote a business plan that phased out the U.S. We just said, “Focus on Asia.”
One of the things that has always stuck with me is an age-old question, one that almost every magazine editor asked me from 1999 to 2004: What is premium denim?
Was founding 3×1 your way of answering this question?
3×1 is about A) creating a concept shop that no one has ever seen before, and B) taking the idea of what traditional retail and manufacturing is and just saying, “Fuck it, we’re going to put the factory in the middle of the store.” I wanted to show buyers exactly what raw denim looks like, and I wanted to have the largest selection of selvedge denim in the world—better than Levi’s, better than Double RL, better than any brand ever. That was the catalyst for it: showing how it’s made, doing it in a way that allows customization, bespoke tailoring, something not typically done with blue jeans. It was kind of a radical idea for us to say we’re going to make a $1,200 jean. [Laughs]