The 3sixteen Interview

Q&A with Andrew Chen

It just so happens that Andrew Chen, one of the founders of 3sixteen, got started right here in Chicago. After graduating from University of Chicago with a degree in economics and public policy, he fell into a well-paying job in IT Consulting. But, as luck would have it for all fans of 3sixteen denim, a career in IT didn’t quite do it for Andrew. Almost ten years later, 3sixteen has gone from side project to full collection to dedicated denim brand. Today, they’re still a two-man operation, run by Andrew and his business partner, Johan Lam.

how did you get started in menswear?

“I realized that my IT job didn’t excite me. So, I started 3sixteen with a friend as a side project—something to keep me creative and engaged. Something to work on the weekends… and it grew. We started off making graphic t-shirts, and eventually grew into jackets and sweatshirts, all stuff that you didn’t need a fashion background to make. If you could make graphics on your computer, you could technically produce clothes. Could you create custom fit and custom textiles? No, but it was our start. What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s still hard to build a brand, no matter what you’re making. We were really thankful that we had a point of view and that people resonated with the graphics that we were producing.”

how did 3sixteen go from side project to full collection to denim brand?

“I brought on Johan Lam, my current partner, on as a full-time partner in 2006, and I quit my day job in 2007 to focus on 3sixteen. We tried to grow the collection as a whole, but the denim really took off. We really hit the nail on the head with a product that came in at the right price point and offered a compelling solution to raw jeans—not too expensive, well-built, and had unique detailing. We were a small, two-person operation (and still are), so when we were looking at what was going on at the company and how our different product categories were growing, it was a no-brainer to dial back and focus on jeans as our primary offering, starting in 2011.”

“Even though from a business perspective it was a no-brainer, it was tough as designers because we enjoyed making a full collection. It does solve a lot of problems as far as seasonal leftovers: we never wanted to put our clothes on sale. When we switched over to jeans, there were no seasons. Our product would never go bad. We realized that we designed these jeans where the fits, the details, the fabrics weren’t changing, and if people liked it, they wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not they’d find that pair of jeans again.”

12 months, 3 washes
via It’s Worn

9 months, 2 washes
via 3sixteen

18 months everyday wear
via Personal Effects

tell us about your custom denim.

“We worked directly with Kuroki Mill in Okayama, one of the most storied and well-respected mills in Japan. The types of things that we want to do with our denim, we can only do in Japan. The country as a whole has such a deep history in textile development, it’s only natural that they’re so ahead of the curve. We had the opportunity to work with them to develop our own custom fabric, and I think that’s what separates us from pretty much all the other American denim brands on the market right now. We’re not just jean manufacturers, we’re textile designers, which is something that we really pride ourselves on. We think it’s important to offer something nobody else can make.”

what’s different about your custom denim?

“It has a lot less processing than you’ll find in other jeans. It is sanforized, which means you don’t have to worry about shrinkage, but it hasn’t been singed, so it has a lot of natural hairiness to it. It really takes on the characteristics of the wearer more. We designed it to be really comfortable from the get-go—it’s extremely soft on the inside. It almost feels like it’s brushed. We did that because we realized that a lot of people who were trying on raw jeans for the first time don’t want something that’s crunchy and uncomfortable.”

“The results aren’t any different, our jeans fade beautifully. We document how our customers are wearing our jeans on our blog (see a few selections, right). There’s a very beautiful three-dimensional fade.”

any tips as far as caring for denim?

“The biggest thing that I like to tell customers, that doesn’t seem to be preached often enough, is that jeans should be washed. A lot of people hold off on washing [raw denim] for a very long time so that they can see dramatic results. And that’s fine, if you want to go 6-9 months without washing them, but at a certain point they really need to be washed, especially if they smell. Putting them in the freezer or spraying them with Febreeze is not going to get rid of the smell. They need to be thrown into a washer machine on cold or washed by hand in your bathtub. Getting the dirt out will really preserve the life of your jeans.”

besides your custom denim, what other details set you apart?

“We work with Tanner Goods out in Portland—they’re great people. When we developed our first jeans, I was a personal customer of theirs and I loved the way their natural, tanned leather aged. I thought how cool it would be to have a patch that would darken and soften over time, just as the denim fades. I reached out to them, and they’ve been making patches with us ever since.”

Leather patch by Tanner Goods

“Any other detail are just marks of craftsmanship. We have little selvage accents in the coin pockets, for example. Do those do anything? No, but they tell the customer that we paid attention when we were putting the jeans together. On the outside there’s nothing really to tell you that it’s a 3sixteen jean, besides little stitch runoffs on the back pockets and then the patch itself, which you can put your belt under or over (if you’re not really a brand guy). We like the fact that you can really tell the mettle of the jean a year or two down the line when it’s really trucking along and it’s all in one piece and it looks better than the day you bought it. They look better the more you use it.”

how did you decide to keep manufacturing in the U.S.?

“Though our jeans have been made in the U.S. since day one, we used to manufacture some of our clothing overseas. In 2010, our factories dropped us because we weren’t hitting our minimums… We were on our way to Capsule and we had no samples and no production for Spring 2009, so we were really forced to start seeking help in our own backyards. At that point, half of our collection was manufactured in L.A., half in New York. We got samples together and we were able to support companies and factories that were close to our homes. Without them, we would have had nothing to bring to the show and no way to ship a collection.”

The double needle machine their factory uses to sew on hand-set back pockets, via 3sixteen

“Our jeans are made in San Francisco. We like being able to visit our factories without having to travel halfway around the world. We like being able to see our products while they’re being produced and have face-to-face interactions with the people making our clothes. A lot of our training was on the job, and we made mistakes and we learned how to partner with the right factories. And we’ve had some bad ones, too; just because people make things in the U.S. doesn’t mean it’s a superior product. We’ve had tough situations with American manufacturers and we’ve had great interactions with overseas ones. It just so happens that the manufacturer we’re working with now is the best one we’ve ever worked with and they’re local—and that’s important to us.”

tell us more about your pick-axe logo.

“That definitely wasn’t a heritage thing. We’ve used that since 2006, and what we liked about is that it’s a working man’s tool. We’re not a dry goods company. Our jeans are what they are, they’re minimal, they’re classic, and you wear them how you want to wear them. We’re not shooting lookbooks in the forest with people chopping trees down, but we like those pick-axes because we respect brands that move forward through hard work and innovation. We’ve had to get by on that alone, because we’re not a big company and we’re self-funded. We don’t buy out huge, full-page ads in magazines. Everything that we’ve done with this company we’ve had to do ourselves and through the help of very talented friends.”

“It’s a good reminder for us that no matter what happens, good things come from integrity and hard work. It held true when we were making t-shirts and jackets and it still holds true today making denim.”

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