3sixteen: The Art of Denim
Written by: Geo Hagan Photography by: Ben Ferrari

Listen up style enthusiasts, the topic of discussion today is as American as Friday Night Football. We’re speaking of denim, more specifically, raw denim – a treasured commodity that holds a special place in the realm of menswear. In many ways, raw denim surpasses the categorization of being simply a garment – it hasn’t been subjected to any exotic washes or treatments, and the wearer himself is responsible for stamping his own imprint and personality on the jeans.

The profile below is with Andrew Chen, the co-founder of 3sixteen, one of the best raw denim brands around. He’s a true connoisseur and passionate craftsman. Enjoy. 

“The best looking jeans are the ones the owner wore in and aged himself”

Did you have a strong background in Fashion before starting 3sixteen 10 years ago?

I did not. I started 3sixteen in late 2003 as a way to exercise creativity while being stuck at my day job in IT consulting. I double majored in Economics and Public Policy in college. My partner Johan and I had no idea on how to put a garment together, nor did we have any fashion-related internships under our belts – everything we know today came from on-the-job training.

You started off producing full collections of men’s clothing but then pared down to just denim – why?

We launched our first full collection in the fall of 2008 and introduced many trademark pieces – like our duffel coat and stadium jacket – that were very well received. After about four seasons, though, we started to realize that as a small two-man operation with limited funds, we were really stretching ourselves too thin trying to develop new collections every 6 months when it was clear that our jean sales were outpacing anything else we were making. It was a tough decision to leave the collection behind but from a business perspective it was one of the best decisions we ever made.

Why the focus on raw denim – and what makes it different from other stylized, faux distressed/factory washed denim you find everywhere these days?

There are plenty of reasons – longevity, authenticity, environmental – but if we really want to keep it succinct, we haven’t ever seen a wash that looks as good as jean that was faded by its wearer from a raw state. Some come close, but the best looking jeans (to us) are the ones that the owner wore in and aged himself.

Is there a particular fit of jeans – straight leg/relaxed/skinny that you tend to prefer for yourself?

I’m a bigger guy so while I like a slimmer leg, I can’t personally fit into our slim tapered (ST) cut. I’m usually wearing our straight leg (SL) cut, which is a modern slim straight jean with a slight taper from the knee down – but over the past 3 months I’ve switched over to the 3sixteen+ 30BSP cut, a jean that we designed together with Kiya Babzani of Self Edge. It’s a fairly unique fit in that it’s got a high rise and room in the top block while providing a good amount of taper from the knee down. So for bigger guys or people who bike or work out and have larger quads, this fit is pretty much perfect.

When you hear denim purists speaking about different details and washes, it can be quite intimidating – do you think there is such a thing as a “denim snob”?

Of course. There are snobs in all subcultures, and it makes getting into a particular niche interest more intimidating than it should be. To a certain extent, though, I feel like a little bit of that has to be expected. It’s what makes finding out about something that most of your friends aren’t yet into more rewarding. That being said, we do our best to make the process of buying jeans as unintimidating as possible. We get tons of emails from people who are looking to get into their first pair of raw selvedge jeans and don’t know where to start. We love that, and we love figuring out what kind of lifestyle each person lives and what fabric/cut will work best for him.  Yes, there are denim snobs and there always will be – but we pride ourselves on trying not to come off that way. After all, they’re just jeans.

You make your 3sixteen jeans using denim fabrics in Japan – are there mills in the USA that can produce the quality of denim you need?

Short answer, no. We work with Kuroki Mills in Okayama, Japan, to develop all our fabrics so that they exhibit the hand feel and wear characteristics that we are looking for. We’ve found there to be so much flexibility with Japanese mills; their capabilities far outpace any US-based mill.

In your years of operation, you’ve probably developed some really loyal customers of 3sixteen jeans – what is the one compliment you hear the most from these customers about your jeans?

We definitely realize that some customers buy our jeans and give them little to moderate wear, and that they are just one pair in a large stable of jeans. That’s totally fine. But when customers come to us to buy the only pair of jeans that they’re going to wear for the next several years, that exhibits a level of trust in our brand that we don’t take for granted. And when they come back in a few years and send us some photos of a well-worn pair that served them well, there’s no higher compliment to us.

Can you briefly tell us about the affiliation between 3sixteen and Self Edge?

My business partner, Johan, has been personal friends with Kiya Babzani – Self Edge’s founder – before we started working together. He used to co-own a streetwear shop in San Mateo, CA that stocked our graphic tees many years ago. He opened up Self Edge in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2006 with his wife, Demitra, around the same time we were seeking to add denim to our collection. Kiya came alongside us and offered some valuable advice and guidance as we developed our jeans. He elected to bring them into the shop in the spring of 2009 and the jeans performed really well, and a few months later we all partnered up to open Self Edge NY together – as I live in NYC, I run day-to-day operations there. In 2010, we again partnered up to open up the Los Angeles chapter of Self Edge and Johan runs that store. While both businesses – 3sixteen and Self Edge – are entirely separate, we function together closely. There’s no way we would be where we are today without Kiya and Demitra’s guidance and support.

The name 3sixteen is derived from a biblical verse. In your years in operation, is there one seriously dire situation that stands out where your relied on your faith to pull your through?

Our faith is important to us and guides our day to day decisions: from the way we treat the people we work with, to the way we run the brand and the way we spend our resources. There have been several points in our brand’s existence where we faced situations that might force us to close up shop – a sobering thought when you’ve put as much time, effort and money into it as we have. To remember that what we do is temporary has been a comforting and empowering thought in those times, and that we are simply called to make the best use of the business for the short time we have it.  To us there’s much more to 3sixteen than making jeans. We get a chance to build amazing relationships with people whom we love, respect and can learn so much from. We can use it to impact the neighborhood around us by supporting organizations that are doing actual life-changing work.

It’s important for us to remember that there’s no way we can take full credit for building this brand – too many people have helped us along the way, too many doors that God has opened for us. So when we look at it that way, we realize that we can hold the brand with open hands, and whether it continues on for another 6 months or another 10 years, our responsibility is to simply work hard and make the best use of our opportunity. It’s a very freeing perspective.

When it’s time for you to get dressed up in formal wear, what are your favorite brands?

I very rarely get dressed up, pretty much only for weddings and funerals. I haven’t bought a new suit in 6 years, I still have four Brooks Brothers suits that are my go to’s. My wife gave me a gift certificate to Brooklyn Tailors to get a bespoke suit made – that was two Christmases ago. I’ll get around to it.

Musically, what are the bands/artists you love to listen for your inspiration for your brand?

I listen to a lot of ‘60s era jazz, specifically from the hard bop era. Art Blakey is one of my favorites – his ability to inspire and direct the greatest musicians of his era as bandleader of the Jazz Messengers is something that fascinates me.

Any interesting collaborations, projects and collections coming up for you this year we should look out for?

We started working with Viberg Boots, a family-owned bootmaker in Victoria, BC last year to create some collaborative styles for our 10 year anniversary. They were extremely well received and we’re going to have more things coming out this year. We also had the honor of working with Converse to make some indigo-dyed Chuck Taylors for the same occasion and that was a great experience as well; we’re hoping to get something in the works for 2014. Beyond that, we’re just excited to continue reintroducing small collection pieces to the line this year. We’re now going to be releasing a very small selection of seasonal shirting each spring and fall.  New SS14 shirts ship in March – stay tuned.

For more information, visit: www.3sixteen.com

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