Billiam Jeans: Restoring a Lost Art
We love the city of Greenville, SC. Since our first visit, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we fell in love. We found ourselves in a mountain oasis of sorts. We had no idea that we would find such a wonderful place, filled such warm people pursing spectacular things. As if it wasn't enough that we found amazing breweries and a local cafe serving and selling everything local, we also were attracted to how Greenville allows everyone to enjoy the great outdoors and is the most dog-friendly city we've ever stepped foot in. Through are own explorations, we found a man who is helping to bring back a piece of the American past, one pair of jeans at a time. We were so fortunate to sit down with Bill Mitchell, the owner and operator of Billiam Jeans, and pick his brain about why what he's doing is so important -- not just for himself, but for Greenville, South Carolina and America. Starting out eight years ago with only a used sewing machine at his side and video tutorials to guide him, Bill redefines the meaning of self-taught. His journey to building Billiam Jeans from the bottom up is a narrative that will inspire anyone to pursue a creative calling.
The first question may seem easy, but it may not have such an easy answer. Simply, Why? When you decided to do something all on your own, why was it making jeans?
For me, the “Why” of Billiam Jeans has been a blend of a lot of things. Eight years ago looked a lot different as I was a junior in college watching youtube videos learning how to sew jeans in my apartment to what it has become at present. Back then I wanted to do something that mattered and give people a product they could be proud to spend their money on and would give them the feeling they were having an impact even beyond the product. After years and years of work, we still feel the same desire to make an impact in the world, but now want to do more to teach our trade to others and encourage people to find their purpose in life.
What a great way to serve, thank you. Switching gears to the details of the product, where do you source the denim you’ve decided to use?
The denim comes from Cone Mills in North Carolina, which is one of only three denim mills left in North America. Manufacturing right now is really tough in this country but the fact that we’re in South Carolina is great. It makes access to the materials so much easier. Cone has been in business for the past 125 years and is the oldest denim mill in the country. They have these looms called Draper Looms which create a material called Selvedge denim which has a woven edge to the outside of the fabric. At a certain point and time this was all you could get and due to globalization and the advancement of technology, these materials are now made in other countries at lower price points and causing pressure to our domestic mills. Unfortunately at the time of this interview we found out Cone will be closing its doors in December 2017 and we will be forced to look to the final two American mills for our future sourcing.
What an amazing story of American manufacturing still holding its own. So start to finish how long does it take to make one pair of jeans?
The amount of time it takes to make a single pair of jeans has been getting faster and faster with each year. It used to take me days to make a single pair and now after all these years we can now make a pair in under an hour. With all things, it is about getting the process down and figuring out the best way to make a pair of blue jeans has been almost a fun game to play.
It’s amazing to us that no one taught you, you’re self taught. What do you say to other people that are on the same journey? Maybe they’re passionate about something and they have the same mentality as you do, wanting to do it themselves and do it their way.
The most important thing to me in life is passion. I want to be inspired by what I am doing and feel a sense of purpose in my days. Maybe it was being 21 and stubborn that caused me to make pair after pair until I was able to feel proud of my final product but the way I see it is like scratching an itch that keeps on itching. I wanted to find that itch that always stayed and for the past 8 years that has remained true. Its the journey that has twists and turns to me that is exciting and thats how I have viewed my career and company so far. For our entire company thus far we haven’t done many “traditional” things other companies have done to grow and simply just did what we felt was right at different times. This is how I would encourage others to run their lives. Find the path that feels right to you despite what others may say and continue on until it takes a turn. If its right to continue, keep going. If not, move on to the next thing.
You’ve gained quite a following and are doing more business and offering more products. How many employees has Billiam grown to in order to keep up with demand?
So we do a summer internship, and we take on five interns for the summer. Those are kids range from fashion majors to motivated people with general schools. We have just now gotten to a place in business where it has made sense for us to take on full and part time employees and we have pulled from the past two summers to make that happen. I enjoy working with a team and right now that team is manageable and small. The four of us do everything from creativity all the way through meeting with the customer when their jeans are complete. The dream will be to always have some form of manufacturing and creativity in one location and one day hire smaller factories to help us with production when we are able to really scale the business.
This is a great lead into our next question. It's an investment to purchase a $250 pair of jeans. So what can you tell someone who is considering their next denim purchase but unsure of the price point?
There really are a million ways to answer this. Most people can’t spend $250 on every pair of jeans they own but we’d love for you to consider us for your “nice” pair. Have your cheap $20 jeans, something fast fashion. Those companies are making a product and, sure, you can buy it. But then there are those that say "I want an experience with my purchase," so they come through us and they get to do the whole custom thing. So the experience, and having it locally made, that’s part of it for some people too. Getting to buy American denim, and American manufacturing that’s another thing. The fact that we give to a cause that’s another thing. But I think the biggest piece is that you have a relationship with us. If you need something you can call and we’re there for you. And I don’t know anyone else who’s willing to do that. We will far and beyond lose money on a customer to have friendship with them.
You mentioned “fast fashion” When you dig into the world of fast fashion, it’s scary. A lot of “fast fashion” companies have been tied to sweat shops and human trafficking. You mentioned you give to a cause, tell us more about that?
So when I first started I was this really zealous 21 year old guy, and that’s how I started. I saw like a TOMs shoes and I said what a cool idea. They’re selling an idea and pairing it with a product and the product represents this idea. So you see this person walking around in TOMs shoes and you think, that person cares. Or you feel like you care wearing these shoes. Then I saw this super heady crowd, like we use all old sewing machines and make the oldest pair of jean and it was all detail. So I saw crappy product/cool story, great product/no story and I thought lets pair both of these. I wanted to have a great product with a great story and also a great cause, so if you invest in our product you can be proud of the product. Human trafficking was something that I had heard about it was a very hot topic eight years ago and it still is. So we jumped on board with that. We met people in the non-profit world and there is an organization called Wellsprings in Atlanta. They train other non-profits how to rehabilitate girls who are victims of trafficking. I love that they’re hands on and that they deal with recovery as opposed to awareness. I think it’s important to do the right thing and to give people an example of the right way to do things.
We love your jeans, they’re extremely fashionable and the style seems to be what everyone is looking for these days. Yet beyond jeans what’s next for Billiam?
I began making jeans because it was a garment I needed and always had a hard time finding. It wasn’t until 6 months down the road that I learned there was a really large denim subculture on the internet and that exact group of people wanted to know what I was up to. Those days were so exciting and I started to look and feel a lot like a “denim head.” We have been doing the whole boots and jeans thing for years and it has been fulfilling, but we have been wanting to move into whats next for the past year. Denim jackets, hand made t-shirts, new cuts, all of these products we are working on and excited about, but after the basics we want to move quite heavily into womenswear. After a recent trip to NYC I have felt very motived to design just as much for women as I have for men and we should see a shift in the next year in that direction.
Bill's passion for what he's doing couldn't be more evident. The detail that Bill and the team put into every pair of their jeans is unmatched. The entire team at Billiam Jeans sets an example, through excellence. Bill's story just goes to show that it doesn't matter what your niche is, if you are truly dedicated and determined to put forth the hard work required, success is absolutely obtainable.
Thank you Bill and the entire team at Billiam for such an amazing experience. During our trip to Greenville, I had the opportunity to work with Bill on the custom jeans featured in these photos. I went with a slim-fit, zero stretch selvage denim sourced from N.C. You can purchase from Billiam's online site or work with them individually to have a pair of your own custom jeans made. And as the team puts it, it's the most fun you can have with your pants on!