Menswear / Clothing
FNL Denim have cut and sewn their curiosity into a buzz worthy brand. Self taught and disciplined, business partners Frank and Levi have set their sights on crowdfunding their handmade jean’s public debut.
Introduce yourselves and your individual roles within FNL Denim:
Frank Hopkins, born and raised in Wichita, KS. I’m the jean architect, I do the pattern making, the measuring, I focus primarily on perfecting the cut and sew process. I know a lot about the machines and how they work, which has really helped us out because some of our machines are over 50 years old.
Levi Fitzmier, I was also born and raised in Wichita, KS. I do more social media, marketing, keeping up with current trends, and designing. I have always had a knack for designing and have a good eye when it comes to knowing what will or won’t look good.
When and how did the idea for FNL start? How long have you both been working on this together?
Frank: The idea for FNL was somewhat of an accident, it kind of fell into our laps. I was doing a lot of modeling shoots in LA and needed to update my wardrobe. I went to a high end denim store at the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and bought a $275 pair of jeans. Being from Kansas we had never even seen a pair of jeans for that much so we figured they were the best. After a week of wearing them the inseam ripped from my crotch to my calf, they were ruined. We were honestly blown away that I had spent that much money on a pair of jeans and they didn’t even last a month. Being young and curious we wandered how hard could it be to make a pair of jeans? We did some research and figured we could learn to sew at one of the art institutes. After taking a tour at the Art Institute of California, talking to professors, and learning how much it cost to go there—we figured 150k in debt and learning how to make dresses wasn’t going to get us anywhere. Luckily we networked our way into meeting some students there who took our ideas from paper to pattern. We took our patterns to the fashion district in downtown LA, bought some denim and took them to a factory. We soon learned our designs were going to cost well over $200 a piece to make. From there we knew we had to rethink our strategy, we wanted to make one of a kind designs to create more of an exclusive brand. After two years of grinding and hustling we ran out of money and knew we had to move home if we were going to continue.
"We figured 150k in debt and learning how to make dresses wasn’t going to get us anywhere."
Did it take much convincing to tell yourselves you could do this on your own?
Levi: Once we got home and realized there was no more palm trees and fashion districts it hit us pretty hard and we took off a couple months. One day Frank and I were at the gym and just said lets try to do this on our own and learn how to sew. My grandma Fitzmier had an old machine she let us borrow and my other Grandma Nancy knew how to sew. She took us to Hancock Fabrics and bought us all the necessary supplies to start sewing and gave us some pointers. With that old machine we made our first pair of jeans in my parents basement, that pair took us 27 hours to finish.
You’ve both learned a craft without a formal education or an apprenticeship. How has the internet shaped your self-taught trade?
Frank: To be honest there is no way we could have done this without the internet. Google, Youtube, and finding designers on social media was our schooling and apprenticeship. We Googled everything from the best denim, to sewing forums, you name it we Googled it. If we didn’t know a certain technique or how a machine worked we found the answer on Youtube. When all else failed we reached out to designers that specialized in making jeans on Instagram. One in particular, Ben Viapana from Thailand, specializes in custom jeans and makes everything from the pattern to the jean in house. We emailed back and forth anytime we ran into something that stumped us. It was almost like an unofficial online apprenticeship, we couldn’t be more thankful for his help. Even with all those outlets sewing is still an art and it takes time to perfect. We've learned so much just from our own mistakes. We've completed 150 pairs of good jeans but who knows how many jeans we failed on, probably a lot more than that.
"We Googled everything from the best denim, to sewing forums, you name it we Googled it."
What advantages did moving back home to Kansas give FNL?
Levi: We were born and raised here so our entire support system is here in Wichita. Without our families we wouldn’t be where we are today, they have done so much for us and even bought jeans from us even when we sucked. Another great thing about Kansas is the super low overhead, in LA we were paying $2200 for rent. Here you can get a great spot for a lot less and have a lot more square footage.
What about Wichita inspires you?
Levi: Wichita is a great place to live, especially with all the new things coming about downtown. Wichita is catching on to the bigger city trends, like Final Friday, food trucks, and supporting local businesses. There are so many cool shops downtown, Delano district, East and West, but there is never enough foot traffic through these local businesses. People here shop at the mall way too much or order their items online, even when these neat places right down the road may carry the same thing or something more unique. There is so much room for growth, we want to help bring that spirit of supporting local businesses back to Wichita.
Where will your products primarily be for sale? Do you plan on having your jeans available in locally owned Wichita shops?
FNL’s will primarily be for sale online, because we are doing a more made to order process rather than having a ton of inventory with all sorts of sizes. Instead of having our jeans in other shops our 12-18 month goal is to open our own storefront to sell out of. We want people to come in and be able to see their jeans being made, the entire process from start to finish. We will have one part of the storefront be our sales floor and the back will be open so customers can see the machines and everything that goes into making just one pair of FNL’s.
"People here shop at the mall way too much or order their items online, even when these neat places right down the road may carry the same thing or something more unique."
You’ve already made over 150 pairs of jeans, and been selling them word of mouth, can you explain the importance of experimenting and focusing on your craft before selling to the public?
Levi: Sewing is an extremely hard thing to learn, let alone learning everything on your own. Starting out Frank and I were only making jeans for ourselves, after each jean we would get a little bit better. We probably made 20 pairs for each of us. Then we got a little more comfortable and started selling to our families. We sold a lot of jeans to them, some of them fit, some of them didn’t, but that was all necessary for us to learn how to fit people, what measurements to take, and how the measurements worked when actually sewing them up. After a couple failed attempts on our family we went back to the drawing board and kept trying to get the patterns perfect. We sewed up 150 pairs and worked on every stitch, every seam allowance, the entire overall fit. There is nothing worse than completing a pair of jeans for someone and finding they don't fit, that was the worst feeling in the world for us. The important thing was making sure every pair of jeans fit the way we wanted them to fit. Now years later we are finally ready to take our jeans to the public—this didn’t come without a lot of trial and error.
You specialize in selvedge denim, tell us more about selvedge denim and what sets it apart from most off the shelf jeans.
Frank: Selvedge denim in a literal sense means self edge, the denim has an edge that won’t unravel. It’s made on the old school shuttle looms that are only around 32” wide compared to the new shuttle looms that make non selvedge denim which are 58”-64”. So what does that mean? It means the quality goes down but they get more jeans out of their denim, twice as many to be exact. When companies do that though they lose their quality, at becomes more about money and less about producing a well made product. When we first learned about selvedge denim we read people wore their jeans everyday for a year straight without washing them. We were so intrigued by this and found that you’re actually not supposed to wash your jeans—just soak them and hang dry. It makes them last a lot longer and gives them your own natural wear in fades.
What drew you to Kickstarter for the official launch of FNL?
Frank: Kickstarter is a great platform for us because it reaches out to everyone all over the world. They have a lot of common product campaigns but they also specialize in the niche market too—selvedge denim is still somewhat in that niche category. Backers on Kickstarter love to support American made or handmade products. It's good for us is because not only are we raising money but it gets our product on people from everywhere—it tells our story.