Ian Leach's voice goes out, on average, about once a week. It starts out friendly and conversational, then takes on the lift and lilt of a tent revival spiel, soaring in pitch and fervor — until it crashes back to earth in a hoarse monotone. But the Buddy Holly-ish enthusiast with the smart haircut and vintage frames isn't pushing Jesus. His gospel is denim.
The wiry, gregarious 24-year-old is a firm believer in the mysteries and magic of top-shelf blue jeans — so much so that when customers walk into the 12South artisan denim boutique Imogene + Willie, the person who greets them immediately is Leach. With an outstretched hand, he asks how the weather's treating you. What he's really doing, though, is sizing you up — or rather, politely scanning you for the two pieces of information even your Southern charm can't hide: your waist size and inseam.
If you're wearing denim, he's already established the cut, the style and the wash of the fabric. If you're wearing premium denim, he can probably identify the brand too.
But the jeans that Imogene + Willie sell are in a whole other league. Stiff as cardboard and just as rough, nightfall-hued and intriguingly plain, they proffer a kind of mythic status: raw, highly fetishized, 9-to-12-ounce selvedge denim, based on a postwar design and made on vintage shuttle looms in either Japan or in North Carolina — the latter the only denim mill still in operation in the States. Meant to be often worn but seldom washed, the raw denim becomes a second skin, every scuff and scrape a badge of constant wear. In the denim world, the only thing cooler would be if you were wearing the exact jeans Marilyn Monroe wore in 1954's River of No Return, or Marlon Brando's Levi's from The Wild One.
If you didn't hear about Imogene + Willie from an in-the-know friend, you'd probably never find it. Advertising is virtually nonexistent. You can't buy them online. The location — at the corner of 12th and Sweetbriar, next to Portland Brew — has no signage on the outside and appears, at a glance, to be abandoned. And if you didn't know about raw denim, it might sound just as weird. The malls and boutiques, after all, are stuffed with jeans distressed for your convenience. Imogene + Willie does offer a small selection of hand-washed jeans, but it's raw denim they're best known for.
Though they have been in business barely a year, national and international magazines have already clamored to the cutting table. Details drooled over the shop's rigid signature jean, promising that fitting into the stiff fabric is "worth every grunt." The New York Times Magazine proclaimed the store has "changed the way Music City shops for blue jeans," intimating that the shop's out-of-town business skyrocketed with a single fairy-godmother wave on the website GOOP from Gwyneth Paltrow, who purchased a pair while in town filming her upcoming country-music drama Country Strong. Garden & Gun listed the boutique's owners, Matt and Carrie Eddmenson, among its 21 designers and style artists to watch, while Southern Living simply christened the store the "fashion talk of the town."
As a result, a whopping 80 percent of the shop's business comes from folks from well outside the city limits, including celebrities as diverse as Paltrow, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and History Channel personality Mike Wolfe (who's worn them on his show American Pickers). As for the remaining 20 percent, either they were tipped to the place by early adopters on Nashville's gestating fashion scene, or maybe they just heard Kings of Leon or Nicole Kidman stopped in.
"We don't even have a sign outside," says Carrie Eddmenson. "It wasn't to trick anyone, we just didn't want to push it on people. Finally in the past month or so, it's been interesting to see how Nashvillians are reacting to the reaction of people outside."
If local shoppers have been slow to catch on, perhaps that's because Imogene + Willie is pushing a concept still new to the city. It's slow fashion, made at a snail's pace and with an artist's care. As with CSAs, DIY baby food and home breweries, Imogene + Willie's lifestyle jeans are right in step with a national trend toward a return to artisanal craftsmanship, in defiance of a consumer culture that rewards and perpetuates the cheap and disposable.
In a matter of weeks, though, a deal Imogene + Willie has struck will test the couple's allegiance to staying small. The upscale preppy-chic brand J. Crew is selling a limited run of two washes of the store's signature jean, the Willie — done right here by hand in the backyard — along with some of the duo's handmade sweatshirts, T-shirts, and a tote and mail bag made in collaboration with an East Nashville leather maker, Emil Erwin.
Though the Eddmensons will be able to control the number, it's impossible to know what the exposure will do to demand. Or to the smaller-is-better philosophy behind the store and its faith in raw denim — a fabric that takes much of its hardscrabble romantic appeal from its original wearers, working-class laborers who could ill afford it now.
Before Ian Leach can pitch you on a pair, he'll need to know a few things about you. How do you traditionally like your jeans to fit? Are you planning on washing them often? Do you want them to fit casually comfortable, or more tailored? Do you like them long or short? Will you cuff them? How skinny do you want them? Are you looking for Japanese denim specifically? Will you wear these jeans with a belt? With a boot? In short, what, exactly, do you want out of your jeans?
And with those come implied questions, of a much more existential nature. How do you feel about spending the equivalent of a car payment on jeans, when you can purchase them at any superstore for the cost of two movie tickets? For $200 to $300, those jeans had better be stitched with 24-karat gold thread. Wait a minute — exactly how did we even come to pay $300 for a pair of jeans?
To answer this question, one must consult history. Jeans began as modestly as the Western miners who sparked their creation. They have no single creator — Yves Saint Laurent famously said he wished it'd been him — but were born out of necessity.
We don't know whether Levi Strauss, who showed up around San Francisco gold-mine country in the 1850s, really sewed a pair of trousers by campfire one night after watching miners work in rags. But we do know that Strauss won the day in 1873 when he patented the riveted trouser, the concept from which all modern jeans take their cues. Further back, denim's roots have been traced to both a textile in Nimes favored by sailors called serge de Nimes, circa the 16th century, and a workingman's fabric in Genoa, perhaps born from bleu de Genes.
Either way, these once so-called "waist overalls" indisputably began with laborers, whose trades required back-ruining labor, hot sun and heavy metals. In A Cultural History of an American Icon, author James Sullivan meticulously traces denim's users from miners to movie stars, noting that blue jeans are imbued with a full two centuries of American myths and ideals.
"First they built the country's infrastructure," Sullivan writes. "Then they populated it with a collective identity."
That collective identity is surely expansive. Good old-fashioned blue jeans have covered tobacco farmers in the 1930s, college students in the '40s, teenagers in the '50s, hippies in the '60s, disco queens in the '70s, urban sophisticates in the '80s and grunge and hip-hop purveyors in the '90s before the premium denim boom of the Aughts. Their price jumped from $1.50 a pair for overalls in 1895 to a $1,000 for a fancily distressed pair in the past decade.
Today, the average price of a pair of blue jeans rests around $20 or $30. In a nearly $10 billion industry, Levi's 501s are said to be the best-selling garment of all time.
The premium denim bubble may have burst in the past decade, but not before the craze reached an all-time high. In part, that's because of auctioneer mentality in Los Angeles, where, at the turn of millennium, jean prices surged with every new distressing technique — bleaching, whiskering, sanding, shredding. Toss in a celebrity spotted wearing the brand? Boom.
But the expensive hand-administered techniques violated a denim true believer's creed. Even though the fancy distressing ostensibly made each pair "individual," it didn't bear the mark of the owner's wear and tear. No matter: The recession made the point moot. Suddenly $500 jeans became $200 jeans, where premium prices have hovered ever since.
None of this history is lost on Matt and Carrie Eddmenson. But if they had their druthers, the clock would be turned back to one particular generation, to one particular design, to one particular year — the year Levi's got it right.
That year is 1947. That jean is the one denim connoisseurs consider the classic Levi. It is the year postwar rationing ended, thus reintroducing Levi's signature copper rivets, matching orange arcuate pocket stitching and original buttons to the 501XX. if you can find a leftover pair from the wartime-ration era, it'll easily cover a month's rent.
J. Crew, which recently sold out of a line reproducing vintage Levi's from 1947, calls it the "definitive five-pocket jean," adding that it's the jean with "the most iconic cut and features." Of note is that it also signaled the return of the riveted watch pocket. To the modern eye, it looks refreshingly unpretentious.
It's also the inspiration for countless pairs of jeans — including the Willie, the Eddmensons' signature jean, named after Carrie's maternal grandfather. (Imogene is her maternal grandmother.)
"Not only is it timeless, but it's a straight leg, so it's not baggy through the thigh, and it fits wonderfully down the leg," explains Matt Eddmenson, an artist who spent over a year working out the design for the Willie. "And year after year, Levi's changed that jean to what the current fashion was. The 1933 jean was so baggy it was practically sliding off. But in 1947 came this miracle jean. And then the 1955 messed it up again."
Miracle, quintessential jean though it is, the Eddmensons weren't interested in merely copying the classic old style; they were moved to modernize and improve it. They started with the crotch.
"It has long a 12-inch front rise, which is crazy-looking," says Matt, referring to the distance between the crotch and the button in the 1947 jean. With his plain white fitted T-shirt, navy neck bandanna and broken-in Willie's (two years and counting) as complement to his unkempt beard, Matt has an all-American hipster-y scruffiness that looks like he could bust out a Walt Whitman quote off the top.
"Literally, the fly goes under and into your crotch," he says. "And the back of the jean has this diaper look. So what we did is shortened the rise and made the butt look good."
"You look at your butt a lot," Carrie teases.
"I do — I look at my butt all the time," Matt admits.
The butt and the rise were also key concerns in creating the Imogene, Willie's better half. In searching for inspiration, the duo discovered there was another year that Levi's got right for women's jeans, though they decline to say which. (Also rare is their commitment to a dual-gendered approach to denim; most brands target only one sex.)
"Most people think the lower the sexier," says Carrie, who on most days is dressed simply in jeans — today, a decade's-worn pair of faded Levi's she inherited from her brother — a tank top and minimal jewelry. "What we believe in — to a hyper degree — is the higher the sexier. The more length you're getting in the rise, the longer your legs look."
It's a look that isn't the least bit commercial, given the public's continued demand for low-rise jeans and their tendency to highlight what's been called "the other cleavage."
"This is a mid-rise," she says, matter-of-fact. "There's no butt crack. It has a hip in it. If you go to the mall and try on jeans, you leave frustrated. Most of us have hips."
They also took one look at one seemingly immutable law of premium jeans, and ignored it.
"A lot of premium brands have little back pockets," Carrie says. "It makes your butt look bigger." ("Like two space ships," Matt interjects.) "But it's all we know, because we've been trained to think: low rise equals sexy, little pocket equals expensive and premium."
So they went to a bigger pocket, and moved it out — Carrie holds up her hands, flat in front of her, then rotates her palms outward, to mime their rotation of the back pockets on a pair of jeans.
"If it's straight, it hits right here where the bottom of your butt crack is," she explains, turning around to point to where her derriere meets her legs. "So we shifted it out so it creates a heart-shaped booty. We call it the Summer of Love, because it reminds us of pictures from the '70s, when women had their shirts tucked in and looked like ladies."
The couple comes by their obsession honestly. Carrie's family owned Sights Denim in Henderson, Ky., which began as a uniform washing service under her paternal grandfather. It expanded into a brand-building team that found itself creating washes and designs for top labels like Earl Jeans, Ralph Lauren, Ernest Sewn, Paper Denim and more.
"At some point, every member of our family worked at Sights Denim," says Matt. He'd known Carrie since she was 10 and wearing jeans to school that she'd altered herself — in one case, by covering them with ribbons. He joined the company as an artist. A decades-long friendship turned amorous, and the couple married in 2005. A few years ago, the family decided to shut the business down and go their separate ways.
Then Carrie's brother, Bart Sights, took a position as VP of global development for Levi's. He'd dreamed up the idea of naming a jean after their grandmother Imogene. When Carrie told him she'd thought of starting her own line with Matt, he gave them his blessing — and the name. They still do work for some of Sights' old clients on the design and development side. Ralph Lauren is their biggest customer — they build patterns and sample garments for him, and make (and sell onsite) small limited-edition productions for his RRL label.
After the family business closed, they brought its development and design arm to Nashville, along with highly esteemed pattern maker Nestor Maranan and his wife Gloria, their stitcher, who'd worked for their family business for 26 years.
"The idea was always to be shopkeepers," says Carrie. "So we imagined in the beginning, our dream, our picture, was a dry goods store. We knew we weren't going to sell grains and coffee, but we wanted to translate that mindset to apparel."
Between the cost and the seeming exclusivity, it would be easy to peg Imogene + Willie sight unseen as the kind of pretentious boutique that rules on the coasts — the kind whose hipper-than-thou help leave a visitor feeling like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman getting the stink-eye on Rodeo Drive.
But in this 12South storefront, a former transmission shop and gas station that still has grit under its fingernails, Nashville may have the ideal for which it longs: a product that is the envy of the New York and Los Angeles cognoscenti, without the cultural condescension. For their part, East and West Coast visitors seem stunned to encounter a world-class fashionista destination where the staff isn't just sniffing for platinum cards.
Divided into part retail floor and part workshop, the shop is a virtual shrine to a bygone era. Every visible inch seems crowded with bits of Americana, flags, rusty signs and old photographs. A pair of size-34 Levi's from 1955 — the year Rebel Without a Cause came out — spans a cutaway between the foyer and shop. A tobacco farmer's 1930s overalls, stitched more times than a scarecrow, slump humbly beside an old flag.
Neatly folded jeans are stacked and fanned like magazines on display tables, while rumpled pairs, seemingly strewn at random from a laundry pile onto silver hooks, line a wall next to the dressing room. Here, Leach grabs a pincushion and measuring tape and bends to one knee to pin a hem, while customers stand on a nearly destroyed rug in front of the shop's only mirror, eyeing the fit. Yes — in a service that has all but gone the way of typewriter repair, Imogene + Willie offers on-the-spot alterations.
"The guy or girl stands right there," says Matt, pointing to the mirror. "And it's inspired by a jean from the '40s, but it's designed to fit the guy standing right there."
Many of those guys are young, bohemian men enthralled with the idea of breaking in denim, and washing their jeans "like real people" — a slogan Leach devised to describe how to wash the rigid denim so it preserves the natural wear. Indigo, which binds only to the surface of the thread, chips away with friction to form the natural wear pattern so sought-after by denim connoisseurs. Washing with detergent simply makes the indigo chip off uniformly, so it fades all over.
"It just means back in the day, when guys used to wash their jeans just whenever they could," Matt says. "You'd read about a cowboy — a real cowboy — that got his jeans to look like that. Maybe he went into a creek, and that might have just been enough for him to say, they're clean now. I even read about Jim Morrison, and how his parents wouldn't let him wear his dirty jeans to high school, so he kept them under the porch, pulled those out on the way to school and changed. It's really more so an expression of not being scared to do it.
"And if you aren't scared: one, wash them in a creek or an ocean if that's your geographical option. Two, or the way I do it, is throw them in a bath so I don't agitate all of this wear. And there's another way – just throw them in the laundry. Think of it as an art project — for those of us who remember art projects."
So obsessive are denim aficionados about how often their jeans are washed that Imogene + Willie recommends making a mark on an inside pocket of each pair with a Sharpie — a notch for every time that pair is washed.
The shop's right half continues past the foyer, where a well-worn mustard-leather couch sits guarded by a 9-year-old yellow Lab named Lale. There hums the boutique's atelier (what designers call a work room), littered with vintage industrial sewing machines, spools of thread, rolls of denim and jars stuffed with buttons and rivets, while sleek rows of manila patterns sway overhead like the fans of a palm tree.
Here the jeans are sewn and altered. Dotted throughout are framed snapshots of Imogene and Willie in the flesh, the picture of postwar optimism.
"Willie served in the Army, and was so workwear-oriented, and Imogene was a fashionista," Matt explains.
"But she worked in factories, so she was a worker," Carrie interjects.
"Right, but in pictures I've seen, she looked like a flapper girl, all styled out," he returns.
"She would work on an assembly line during the day, but at night she'd have on a full-length mink coat," Carrie says. "She didn't have a lot of things, but she had nice things, and that's the premise of what we wanted this to be."
They also wanted it to be small. "We might have three stores," The Eddmensons, Leach and other employees on the 10-person staff are known to say, "but we won't have 100."
Their goal, Carrie says, is a lot like the model of The Gap, which started in 1969 in San Francisco selling Levi's and records. "That's sort of where we still are," she says. "We want to carefully curate other people's brands and then sell our brand — we just want to have things we really believe in here while we're doing that."
Currently, their jeans are available in two places: the Nashville location and a retailer in Austin, Texas, called Stag. Compared to where they began, that seems like world domination. Two years ago, the couple decided to launch their jeans brand. Only there was one problem: They didn't have any money.
"A friend of ours said, 'See if you can sell one pair of jeans,' " Carrie says. So they did something fairly laughable in the business world. They launched a business with an email and no capital.
"We sent it out at 5 a.m. on Jan. 28," Carrie says. "We sent it out to anyone we had an email contact for and said, 'This is our dream. Here's the story. We're going to sell 250 units of limited-edition pairs to start the company and build the capital.'"
They braced themselves. Three weeks later, they'd sold all 250 pairs. It was enough to get an accountant and an attorney and establish the LLC. Now, they have investors and shareholders.
It wasn't long before Ian Leach came calling. He'd heard about the store from a plumber who happened to have worked on the building. The plumber said a cool jeans store was opening in this old gas station. Leach, who describes himself as "obsessed with jeans," said he knew immediately that he wanted to work there. He tracked down the store's blog online, and emailed Matt expressing interest in a position. Then he waited. And waited. Days passed.
"I didn't hear anything back," he says. "I figured they were insanely busy getting started, so I just came here."
He let himself in. The place was a total disaster, he says, and there were Matt and Carrie in their sweat pants, buried in patterns and boxes. "Over the next couple of months, while the store was in process, they said, 'We have no idea how successful this is going to be,' " he recalls. " 'We have no idea how much work there's going to be on this side of the store,' " motioning to the retail half where customers need tending. " 'We just don't know if we're ever going to be able to hire you — we're just not in a position to hire you until we know more about our business, because it's just so experimental.'
"I was really diligent," he says. "I kept coming back. I started selling stuff to people when I wasn't even working here. I would come to the suppers and start selling stuff to people."
On a stiflingly humid Saturday night in August, Imogene + Willie is having one of their popular Supper and Song nights. This time, though, it's to celebrate the store's first year in business. Anyone is welcome, and most people hanging around consider themselves good friends of the Eddmensons. The music surges, Teresa Mason's Mas Tacos truck has a line around it, and the kegs, champagne and lemonade are free-flowing. Customers spill in and out of the store to browse and beat the heat.
Just a few hours earlier, the crowd was different. Benches were pulled from outside and squeezed in so investors and shareholders could meet. Many looked the picture of freshly vacationed baby boomers, all crisp khakis and graying hair and salon haircuts, sipping plastic cups of spiked lemonade. Their husbands and wives rifled through the merchandise, while Matt and Carrie flitted about tending to everyone.
There's much to discuss these days — starting with the Hazel, a second fit for women that the couple designed for the ladies less interested in breaking in raw denim. Inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow's search for the perfect jean, and the knowledge that most women customers keep multiple jeans in rotation, it features a slightly lower rise, a slimmer leg, and some stretch in the fabric.
And there's the matter of the Japanese. On the store's coffee table lie several glossy copies of Free & Easy, a Japanese trade magazine that Carrie calls the Vogue of their business. Imogene + Willie is featured on the cover. It is only the first day of publication, and already Japanese denim lovers are emailing to learn more about the Eddmensons' selvedge denim. (They even dedicated a separate phone line in the store, just to cater to that customer, Matt says.)
The Japanese obsession with (and imitation of) American culture is famous, whether the fetish object is vintage motorcycles or vintage guitars. Rumor has it that after the war, the Japanese bought up the shuttle looms used to make American denim. The shuttle loom has a narrower width, thereby leaving a closed edge on the fabric known as selvedge or self-edge. It's highly prized, not just because it leaves a clean line that doesn't unravel, but also for its rarity: Wider modern projectile looms can't reproduce the technique. As a result, in a final irony, denim connoisseurs tend to credit the Japanese with better fabric. (Selvedge is used only for Imogene + Willie's men's jeans. The shape of women's jeans, accommodating hips, doesn't work with the selvedge technique.)
"Shamefully, we Americans should aspire to be into what we do as Americans as much as the Japanese are into what we do as Americans," says Matt. "The boots we sell for $500 in our store go for $1,000 in Japan. Money's not an issue to them right now. The yen is so strong."
Matt and Carrie have many reasons to celebrate their new business. But tonight, they and their staff face their toughest customers: the Nashville jeans consumer. There is C.J. Hicks, a 12South resident since 1982, who happened in one afternoon while walking her Australian shepherd, Dutch. A lifelong devotee of Levi's, she realized the jeans she'd been wearing "just weren't doing it anymore." She met Carrie, whom she liked right away. For her, the easy part was the jeans: They fit great. Hicks could tell they were quality, and the self-admitted "woman with curves" was an easy sell on the accommodating hip.
"I just want my ass to look good," she says. It was the price she wasn't so sure about. In the end, she got the jeans: "I saved up."
Carrie says that's not uncommon — to meet people, fit them in a pair of jeans, and then not see them again for six months until they waltz back in, cash in hand. Of course, women, who drive the jeans industry almost single-handedly, are notoriously easy to put in a good pair of jeans at nearly any cost. It's luring men, notoriously easy to put in a cheap-ass pair of jeans, that takes real skill.
At tonight's get-together, there's a trifecta of late-20s/early-30s men, each representing a slice of the male consumer. All three work in the music industry, so none has to wear suits to work. There's Brian Thiele, a radio promotions guy who admits to shopping for jeans at Posh. He's a big fan of Nudie jeans, which also promote rigid denim. (At $170, they're a bit more affordable, but they don't come with the heritage appeal of selvedge.) Thiele is the rare guy who thinks about — or admits to thinking about — jeans.
"I'm short, but I have a narrow waist," he says. "It's hard to find really good jeans that fit me. ... So I'd rather have a few good pairs of jeans that cost a little more money, and then just wear plain white T-shirts with them."
Next, there's Ted Beidler, in artist management. He's intrigued by good jeans, but can't see himself shelling out the big bucks. Then there's his buddy Kenny Rodgers, stubbornly committed to a jean of yesteryear with a flared leg — he likes exactly the width and where it hits his shoe, and is more inclined to search for good jeans at thrift stores.
"I think most dudes think they don't care, but they do care," Rodgers admits.
Inside, they don't stand a chance with Leach. As soon as he meets them, he can tell what Thiele is wearing. "He's wearing a skinny jean with a dropped yoke — that means it has low pockets," he says, like the Mentalist of denim. "Those are not selvedge. Even if they were, they wouldn't show it because the leg has too much of a taper to it." But first, the men want to know what exactly selvedge is.
"OK, all jeans on the face of this earth — Levi's started in 1852, or 1853 — were made on shuttle looms," he begins. "They weave a pretty narrow piece of fabric. ..." By the time he's finished, the men could probably complete an essay on the history of the copper rivet and the insidious threat of the low rise.
Thiele in particular learns a lot. Although he thought he had broken in rigid denim, he technically hadn't, because the jeans he was wearing had a stretch. While he remained hesitant about the price, he admits the whole concept is exciting to him.
"I'd love to have a good pair of jeans that actually fits me," he says. "Who am I kidding? — I'll probably buy them."
By that point, Carrie and Matt Eddmenson were off somewhere celebrating with friends. But if they could see their protégé in action, no doubt they'd be proud, whether he made the sale or not. They like the educational aspect of their enterprise as much as the intimacy.
"We don't want you to have five pair of our jeans in your closet," Carrie says. "We just want you to have one."