How a self-taught 15-year-old started his own demin brand in the crowded maker space.
In anticipation of the PSFK CONFERENCE 2014 on April 11th, we spoke with Will Berman, the founder and maker of Unwashed Denim. Will started making artisanal products from denim when he was 15, and rapidly built his skills into a business of handmade goods. PSFK first met Will at the STORY Pitch Night a few months ago where he presented his unique business, and his dedication to craftsmanship was impressive.
We are excited to have Will speak on the PSFK stage with retail innovator Rachel Shechtman about the new relationship between retailers and their suppliers.
What inspired you to start working with denim rather than other materials?
My interest in denim started around two years ago, at first strictly as a consumer. A friend of mine told me about this pair of jeans he had bought that he planned on wearing for months without washing. At first, this notion shocked me a little; wouldn’t these jeans start to stink? With a little more research, I began to understand the concept a bit more and immediately fell in love with raw denim and its culture. I had to have a pair. The idea of starting with a pair of really stiff, deep indigo jeans in their loomstate (without pre-washing, bleaching, or distressing), which over time with daily wear would develop a distinct “character” unique to the wearer totally intrigued me.
What was the process from making your first product in your home to starting a business?
Originally, Unwashed Denim started as an idea to apply the same awesome aging characteristics of raw denim to other commonly used goods. Why not make a bag, wallet, iPhone sleeve, hat, etc. that would tell the wearer’s story just like my jeans told mine? I also felt that there were already so many talented denim makers out there making jeans at such a high level that it would be more interesting for me to pursue new applications for raw denim.
At first, I intended to start a company. Unwashed Denim began one night when I was playing around with some pieces of scrap construction paper and a few staples, trying to create a tote bag design that I thought would look cool in denim. I eventually bought a sewing machine with some saved-up money I had and taught myself how to sew; the Unwashed Denim bedroom-workshop was born.
I remember at the very beginning, as a fifteen-year-old, sneaking into various trade shows and getting to meet some inspiring people in the industry who gave me tons of great advice early on. One of my favorite jean makers suggested I start an Instagram account to document the handcrafting process of what I was doing and attract interest in my work.
Last summer I began pitching my products to a few stores. One of my most memorable Unwashed Denim experiences was Pitch Night at STORY. I walked up to a panel of judges, including Rachel Shechtman, the owner of STORY, to pitch my products, and they picked my stuff up on the spot. From then on, STORY has been incredibly supportive and helped me grow my business. I am still making all of my products by hand out of my bedroom, though my workshop has grown.
What do you think is missing from today’s fashion industry?
I think more emphasis needs to be put on the stories, people, places, materials, and construction processes that go into the products we buy, and not just for marketing purposes alone. The terms “handmade” and “made in U.S.A.” are thrown around very loosely right now. Now that I understand more of what goes into making a quality product, I really respect small craftsmen making well-made and unique products they care deeply about.
Do you feel there’s a space, or opportunities for teen entrepreneurs like yourself?
Definitely, 100% yes. Oftentimes kids may have a great idea or something they would be interested in pursuing but do not have access to the knowledge, skills, or resources to make it happen. A large part of this problem, in my opinion, is our schools. Schools value and celebrate athletes, actors, student government leaders, and people who can memorize facts and repeat them on tests, but there is not a large enough encouragement for students to think creatively and actually do things. We need pitch nights for kids, trade shows for teenagers to present their projects and ideas, and innovation competitions to motivate teens to do something that is meaningful to them outside the classroom.
What’s one way that working in this field has changed your personal life?
Doing schoolwork on top of this business of mine has been challenging at times, and I’ve had to sacrifice other things every now and then — like hanging out with friends. But I enjoy doing it, so it is worth it to me. More generally, though, working with design and product construction has widened my appreciation for art, architecture, design, and fashion. Managing a business (and especially keeping it a one-man operation) has also made me more aware of all the elements that go into executing something from start to finish.
What’s one thing we can look forward to (without giving too much away) in your talk at PSFK CONFERENCE 2014?
Hearing Rachel and me share our perspectives on the future relationship between retail and makers.
Check out our conference page to see more of innovative industry leaders who will be speaking at our event.
We hope to see you at there! Click below to buy tickets.