Interview from the Cincinnati Citybeat by Garin Pirnia
...From their workshop on Sycamore Street in downtown Cincinnati, the Suttons run Noble Denim, a small batch denim company. Abby runs the day-to-day business and Chris is the creative director and oversees production at a Tennessee factory. All of the material they use — copper rivets from Kentucky and organic cotton — are sourced from places like cotton mills in North Carolina and Japan.
“The Japanese, hands down, have the best fabrics in the world,” Sutton says.
Because the materials are so costly to acquire and everything is hand sewn, it drives up the cost of the jeans (they retail for at least $250 per pair).
That may seem like a lot to shell out for a pair of glorified Levi’s, but Sutton’s jeans, like the best-selling regular-fit style The Truman, might be the best made pair of jeans you’ll ever own.
Besides jeans, they make “simple staples” or “one of each thing that’s really well done,” like sweatshirts ($125), a backpack ($230; a collaboration with Drifter Bags in Cleveland) and cotton T-shirts ($50-$60). The clothes can be purchased on Noble’s website and locally at Article Menswear in Over-the-Rhine. A recurring complaint Sutton receives hovers around the cost of the clothes.
“We’re kind of building Land Rovers, not Kia Sorentos,” he says. “I feel fine because we don’t mark our stuff up high just to be cool. We’re using really good material and paying our sewers a living wage, as opposed to minimum wage, and that just costs a lot of money. So I smile and say, ‘Yeah, it’s expensive, I know. That’s what we do.’ ”
The story of a guy who quit his day job to make jeans for a living mirrors the plot of the short-lived HBO series How to Make It in America, a show about the American dream, which Noble is keeping alive. Even though Noble’s main operations are based in Cincinnati, the factory where the jeans are actually manufactured resides in a 300-person town, Milledgeville, Tenn., with four factory employees. As Sutton weaves the all too familiar tale, 15 years ago the factory employed 160 sewers until most of the manufacturing work got outsourced to China and the Philippines. Cincinnati, unfortunately, doesn’t have the infrastructure to support garment making. Even though the factory is six hours away, it’s the most local manufacturing plant in the region, with New York City being the next closest.
“Originally, I thought it would be fun to get a bunch of hipsters and teach them how to make clothes and we’d just all have our handlebar mustaches and be sewing all day,” Sutton jokes. “The truth is, our generation likes the idea but most aren’t willing to put in the time to become a manufacturer.”
For Noble, the Tennessee factory is a means to “get jobs back to hard-working Americans who know how to make clothes.” As long as Noble grows, so will the factory.
“We’re one of the few denim companies that has a factory that only makes our clothes — so they don’t make anybody else’s,” Sutton says.
In August, ArtWorks put on their first annual Shark Tank-esque competition called Big Pitch, where eight local creative entrepreneurs had five minutes to pitch their businesses and possibly win a grand prize of $15,000. Up against companies like Madisono’s Gelato and The Canopy Crew, Noble Denim won it all. Sutton says he’ll use the funds to purchase raw materials to make jeans to distribute in Japan and Europe. He’ll also hire two more sewers, which will enable Noble to make more jeans — currently, they make about 20 pairs a week; it takes two to three hours per pair —which inevitably decreases the cost of the clothes.
After conquering a line of spring menswear, Noble will move on to making women’s jeans and basics.
“I found a lot of brands, they want to make women’s stuff too quick,” Sutton says. “I don’t think the fits are harder to do [than men’s], I think [brands] take less time in developing them and then end up coming out with a couple of women’s products that aren’t very good.”
He once made Abby a pair of jeans, but they ended up “looking like guy jeans for women, which I don’t think any woman really wants.”
It’s been a crazy couple of years for Noble, mind-blowing, in fact. As the company blooms, Sutton wants the quality to remain just as high, but he also wants Noble’s vision to be firmly planted in the American dream.
“The goal is to continually hire back more people in this factory in Tennessee and see that the little tiny factory that once was really booming get back to its glory days,” he says. “And if we can do all those things together, that’s what I envision as being a really worthwhile company.”
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