It's a mind-altering experience when chatting with a visionary person. There is this specific intensity that exudes from them that slaps you thoroughly out of a daze and sweeps you into their gravitational pull whether you want it to or not. Before you know it, you're nodding your head vehemently, taking notes furiously and waiting for the book to come out so you can be the first to buy it.
That's the best way I can describe what happened to me during my recent chat with Jeff Shafer. You've probably never heard of him, but there's a good chance you've heard of his brands. BC Ethic, Agave Denim and most recently Bluer Denim, though vastly different, are all representative of his unique approach to doing business. An approach that's based on the principles of the American dream, a personal philosophy of social change and the desire to produce quality apparel.
Although I describe him as a visionary, and everyone else would describe him as a businessman, Shafer styles himself as a Textile Denim Designer who's job it is to use finishing and washing "to bring out what's already there. [In other words] bring out washes that are natural, organic and compliment the fabric." That's true passion and when speaking to him you get a sense of how intensely he feels about producing quality denim.
This kind of passion is something that has been severely lacking of late in the denim industry. It seems we've become so absorbed with fit, that quality is often overlooked. This is most evident with the latest influx of denim brands. Many of them are just launching pads for full apparel lines. The lack of appreciation for the heritage of the fabric leads to overall quality issues, many of which I've discussed in the past (see QOTD? When Does a Jean Stop Being a Jean?).
That appreciation is a requirement in order to produce what Shafer describes as "True Premium". According to Shafer, "True Premium is produced by a company who cares about the product they make and the quality". As a kid working at a children's brand owned by his uncle, Shafer was indoctrinated into the apparel industry at an early age. Therefore, it would probably be more shocking if he wasn't passionate about such things. When talking about what inspired him to create each of his brands, there is a unique and personal story behind the launch of each one. BC Ethic (short for Blue Collar Ethic) was launched in 1992 after a brief stint as a private label designer for department stores. When asked why he switched careers he stated simply "Private Label wasn't creative enough". That is an understatement when you consider that in its first year, BC Ethic, with its classic American garb and workwear, pulled in $25 million its first year at retail.
Agave Denim, which was launched a decade later, came about after Shafer sold his shares of BC Ethic. After 10 years of wearing nothing but his own brand he decided to go shopping. It was an eye-opening experience for him. "I could find nothing to buy. I didn't like the rises and the thighs were too skinny. I did like the Japanese denim and the sophisticated washes, but the prices were expensive". After coming home empty-handed to find his wife had gotten rid of all of his clothes, he decided to launch a brand based on his experience and, ahem, lack of clothing. The name Agave came later after coming across some agave plants on a hike through the Santa Monica Mountains. With a business model that evokes the American dream, Shafer currently manages to make up to 98% of Agave apparel in the US using the best Japanese, Italian and US denim. He also favors the best specialty stores in the country and purposely limits quantities to department stores in a move that favors small businesses.
Shafer is still the CEO of Agave and after running a successful brand for so long, I wanted to know what compelled him to create Bluer Denim –a line whose business model is so unlike any of his previous brands. As a matter of fact, Bluer Denim has a business model that is trendsetting among retailers.
Launched on Kickstarter, Bluer is a direct to consumer brand that creates a more fulfilling online shopping experience by eliminating one of those little annoyances that we shrug off as a hazard of doing business. That annoyance is sizing. We've all been there. Vanity sizing is so prevalent nowadays it's hard to really know what's really going to fit when shopping online (super skinny models don't help either). Many of us have ways to get around this. My personal method is to order multiple items and then send the ones I don't want back. Thanks to excellent return policies much of the fear has been taken out of this factor, but not the bite. Bluer does both by allowing the customer to order multiple sizes of a pair of jeans, try them at home and send back the ones that don't fit. And you only get charged for the one pair. It's one of those, why has no one else thought of that ideas. When asked what inspired this small (soon to be huge) revolution in e-commerce, Shafer stated that he launched Bluer Denim as an experiment. With the cost of brick and mortar stores going up, and a desire to help bring manufacturing back to the United States, he wanted to be at the forefront of a new way of doing business.
Shafer is committed to sustainability in the form of repurposing and recycling. Each brand he's founded gives back to the community in some way. The latest, Bluer, gifts the consumer a $5 credit plus shipping, for sending in a pair of gently used jeans. Those jeans are then repurposed and given to the homeless. Denim is a very durable fabric that can last a person's lifetime, and in my opinion, can be one of the most useful clothing items that one can give, but I digress. It doesn't end with his own brands, Shafer, in true visionary form, dream to create an industry where every retailer has a recycling box so that a product, in this case old clothing, can be used to the very end of it's lifecycle.
Are you feeling that gravitational pull yet? Told you.