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In Conversation with Scott Morrison of 3×1

From left: Rolls of denim at 3×1; 3×1 founder Scott Morrison. Images by Ian Allen.

In the past 20 years, the terms bespoke, custom and limited edition have been misused to the point of pointlessness—not dissimilar to how the ubiquitousness of the phrase “premium denim,” applied to everything from embellished to destroyed models, has rendered it insignificant. It stands to reason then that the industry’s next forefront would be simplicity—jeans that take the consumer back to the garment’s origins: the roll of denim from which they are cut, the individuals who design them and the factory where they are produced.

3×1 does exactly that, inviting customers to experience their jeans from the roll up. The latest venture from Scott Morrison, the man behind Paper Denim & Cloth (1999) and Earnest Sewn (2004), 3×1 is not only a denim line, it is a factory and retail space producing truly bespoke, custom and limited-edition jeans. Limited-edition styles are manufactured in runs of 8, 12, 16 or 24 and hemmed to order. Custom and bespoke styles include a consultation with Scott and pattern and fit expert Yan Liang. Moreover, all jeans are produced on site in the middle of the 3×1 store at 15 Mercer Street in New York City, presenting their construction in a gallery-like manner that, contextualized by the store’s SoHo neighborhood, could easily be mistaken for an art happening. In the time I spent at 3×1, chatting with Scott and his team, two things became apparent. One: Scott possesses a passion for jeans that arrives at obsession. Two: Everything about 3×1 denim is actually “premium,” from its origins to its social and environmental implications to its quality.

Erin Dixon: As a founder of Paper Denim & Cloth and Earnest Sewn, you’ve had a very illustrious career on a very grand scale. What made you want to create 3×1 and how is it different from your previous brands?

Scott Morrison: What we wanted to do was something quite smaller than anything we’ve done before. We wanted to make everything here and, basically, put the factory in the middle of the store and have total transparency into the whole process—to show the whole world what it’s like to actually see a pair of jeans made. We do three different types of products and everything is limited edition. For the basic kind of “off-the-rack” stuff, we make anywhere between 8,12, 16 or 24 pieces of any one particular style. When it’s done, we don’t make it again.

Everything comes with a sew-on button, which we clip off, and everything comes with extra-long hems and extra-long inseams. So you pick the fit, pick out your buttons and your rivets. Then, we hem everything on spot to your measurements. That’s the biggest over-the-counter stuff. The next step up [custom jeans] is to pick the jean style you like and match it with any denim you want. In men’s, we do about 65 different selvage denims from around the world and we have about 105 total denim [choices).

The next one up are [the bespoke] jeans, which we are limiting to 100 per year because of the time required. You come in before the store’s open so you have it all to yourself. We take you through the whole process and you design your own jeans. This is the cutting and sewing room, so you can see what’s happening. We also have a finishing room, which is basically the buttons and repair work. Then in the back of the space is the women’s area.

We’re really all about construction, obviously, with the factory being right here. So one of the things we try to do—much more so than I’ve been able to do at any other company I’ve had—is really make beautifully constructed garments, like a two-piece contour constructed waistband. You’d probably see it on a Balenciaga pant, not on a jean. It’s really, really time consuming to do; it has to be done by hand. [It has] stitchless belt loops, all tucked in—stuff that no factory, especially a denim factory, would ever want to try and do.

Erin: As far as the customization goes, will the entire staff be trained on the process or are there a limited number of specialists?

Scott: No, the whole staff can do it. What’s been interesting for us is to have a lot of people coming in because they hear the word “custom” and they’re like, ‘What is this? We want to see this.’ Ironically, I think more people are buying stuff that’s already made because they end up liking something, trying it on and they say, “Oh, I really like it the way it is already.” Of course it’s a little bit cheaper, too, than the custom-mades, but we are seeing a ton of custom-mades. We’re seeing less bespoke business, but it’s been great.

Erin: What about jeans keeps you passionate? What keeps you motivated on your third venture?

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Scott: This is a total passion project. I didn’t want to do another jean line so, literally, it was like: What was the first thing that I really loved and fell in love with in denim? Quite frankly, it was probably my first experience with a factory, walking into a factory and making whatever you wanted. So we’ve put a factory in the middle of our store, which I don’t think anyone has ever done that before. We really wanted to start off small, do it in a very specialized way. I wanted to make a denim product that you couldn’t get at any other place. So the fabrics are fabrics that I’ve never been able to really use because they’re so expensive. So it’s kind of like I’m falling in love again with something great.

Erin: Can you tell me a bit more about these denim fabrics that you love?

Scott: So, a lot of the mills that we normally get fabric from, especially the Japanese mills, I’ve run those fabrics for years and years and years and this is kind of a curated collection of my favorites. But there are also some mills that are so expensive, like Collect in Japan. Collect is an artisanal weaver, they only make a few hundred meters of something and it’s around $20 to $25 for a meter for fabric. Typical men’s jeans use three meters of fabric, so it’s extremely, extremely expensive. If you run a wholesale business like an Earnest Sewn or Paper Denim, it would be a $600, $700 jean, easily. So this is almost cheaper, in theory, and we are able to use fabrics that you can’t typically use in a big, commercial business.

Erin: What particularly do you love about these fabrics?

Scott: I think it’s the uniqueness. We have these linen cotton blends. Some of these lend themselves more towards really vintage, authentic-looking garments. Some of them are really novelty shades, like heather grey or seafoam, that never look vintage per se, but that’s what’s kind of cool about it. There’s a lot of novelty in some of these denims, even though they just look regular to some people. We have green casts and red casts—there are color differences, there are shade differences and over time everything kind of wears differently. You’ll see some that are really, really streaky, some that are more processed. We want to be able to educate the customers if they want to listen or learn.

Erin: Would you say Japanese denim is your favorite? Do you have a favorite—or do you have different favorites for different things?

Scott: I definitely I have favorites for different things. If you want real red-cast, traditional Americana Levi’s-y kind of stuff, Japan is very, very good—as is Cone Mills (in the United States). If you’re looking for something that’s really, really artisanal and special, I think Japan is probably the best, but also we have one mill from Italy that does really incredible novelty stuff—linen cotton blends or cashmere cotton blends, beautiful colors that you wouldn’t normally find coming out of a denim weaver. What we’ve tried to do is to really offer a great variety of things so that people can come in and pick and choose what they love and also maybe discover something they’ve never seen before.

Erin: Have you ever created a custom fabric?

Scott: I’ve worked with mills to create fabrics from day one. A lot of the fabrics at Earnest Sewn and also Paper Denim were pretty much exclusives. Typically what you do is talk about ounce weights or if there’s a shade that you really like, and they run what they call warp yarns and weft yarns. So you can design your own fabrics and then it’s about picking shades.

Erin: And how do you find your factory workers for 3×1? Have you worked with them for a while?

Scott: Yeah, actually most of them, about six of them have worked for me in the past. Yan has been my patternmaker for the last seven years. Jenny Chen, who’s our bespoke sewer, she’s been with us since Earnest Sewn days as well. She’s in charge of all the developments and all the sample sewing. It’s all local. Some have been involved in the jeans business and some we’ve had to teach. We’ve had a pretty high attrition rate as well. It’s not an easy garment that we make. One of the things that’s really interesting is we sew basically the entire jean from start to finish with one sewer, which is very different from a typical jean factory, where it’s all assembly line. We sew at an extremely high stitch count per inch. Everything is done single needle, so you can see we actually sewed this garment pretty much from start to finish twice. The stitch count typical of denim is somewhere in the middle of seven to nine stitches per inch and we’re running 11 to 15. So it’s a much slower, much more complicated jean to make. There is much more detailing, which not everyone really loves and appreciates as much as I. We chalk everything—every single piece is chalked. It’s basically perfection. We do 100% inspection on all the jeans; every single jean is inspected from start to bottom, from start to finish. I look at every single pair.

Erin: Was bringing the factory and the transparency in-house more about quality or was it about sustainability and being local?

Scott: All those things. I wasn’t really trying to be local or sustainable. It was just one of those things where we really wanted to do it well and we wanted people to understand that this is an expensive product in every way, shape and form. We wanted people to see what they’re getting. There’s something to be said about not having a feel and a form of a big assembly line, which most factories are really geared around. The beauty in this is that customers get to see it done right in front of them, and they understand that this is a small factory, if not a sample room. We make 20 to 25 jeans a day. It’s really, really straight forward. We do everything on site—any alteration, any hemming. We do it all here.

Erin: In that vein, in comparison with the huge companies you have owned in the past, is this more or less work?

Scott: [This is] way, way more work. We think of new ideas every day and develop concepts every two days. In one sense it’s easier because, in theory, you can come up with something and literally come upstairs and put something into work. It doesn’t always work quite that easily, but for the most part that’s how it happens.

What’s typical in a wholesale business is you come up with an idea, you make a few hundred [items] and you sell them. It takes a lot of time to develop something, which is both good and bad. This has a lot more complexity in the sense that we’re running a factory and retail store and a design studio and eventually a wholesale business. It is neat for people to come in and have a voice and pick and choose the way that they want it done. Quite frankly, I’ve been pretty impressed. We had a guy come in and the choices he made were actually great choices and he made this really, really cool jean. It was one of those things where I was like, ‘Wow, this great. I think we’ll want to do something like this for the main collection.”

Erin: You actually just answered my next question: Do you get inspiration from other people and/or how does that design process work?

Scott: It depends. [Our set up] gives you a tremendous amount of flexibility as a designer to be able to say, “Hey, we can almost do anything.” We can’t do anything, anything, but we can definitely do a lot more than you could do at any place I’ve ever worked. So that, in itself, is exciting.

Over the last six or seven years, women have been consumed by basic five-pocket jeans. Guys still typically fixate on a traditional five-pocket, which seems to make more sense for us. But for girls, right now you have much more fashion sense—people looking for something that they don’t have. What we really try to do is rethink the way we do basic jeans, so a basic jean is really not a basic jean; it’s definitely not going to be the same as anything that you’ve got in your closet right now. We have some good starting points and we’re slowly evolving in the brand. We’re just starting to see what we can do, and we’re just starting to get the team really comfortable.

Erin: What are men looking for right now?

Scott: I’m a dumb guy, most guys are dumb. They don’t want fashion— we’re much more straightforward. The guy who comes in here is looking for something that he can wear all the time, something that he thinks he looks great in at night or whatever he’s going to do. Skinny jean, slim jean, we’re not doing anything that’s too trendy. Our guy customer is varying in age from 60 to 20, but they still all want a basic, straightforward, good fitting pair of jeans.

Erin: And what is the philosophy behind the subliminal, sort of gallery-esque feel of the shop’s décor?

Scott: What I really wanted to do was fuse a bit of the SoHo gallery feel into the workspace. The two big thoughts were the factory in the middle of the store, so people can see it, which lent itself to this space really, really well, and we also wanted to showcase the process—the elements of the process: the denim wall or the way we present the products on the wall. We wanted the space to feel like a gallery—we wanted it to be a little bit different. Obviously, the retail experience itself is a little bit different; it’s a little unique. It’s not like you can just walk in here and help yourself, like in most stores. There’s a lot that needs to be told about the process. I do want people to come in, even if it’s just to see the whole thing—to just look at it and go, “Wow, this is great,” or “This is interesting. I’ve never seen this before.”

Erin: What do you think is the largest gap in consumers’ knowledge of how a jean is made—what’s the part that they don’t get?

Scott: Most people think you actually press a button and out comes this perfectly washed jean, but I certainly don’t have any real concept of how something’s done unless I’ve actually seen it happen. So I think people probably don’t associate all the steps. There are 31 steps to make a jean; it’s not super complicated, but it’s fairly complicated for what seems simple like a pair of jeans.

Erin: That is a rare opportunity in fashion, to be able to work with people to create something unique.

Scott: Some people really enjoy learning about the process and asking questions. Some people will come in and love to hear a bit about the jeans, a bit about our process. You also have the choice if you want to watch your pair being made—and if you have four or five hours to kill. It is neat to be involved in all those different decision-making processes and at the end of the day what you walk out with is actually something for you—it’s really yours.

All images courtesy of 3×1

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