Specialty and individually customized menswear is no longer a concept limited to monogrammed oxford shirts and well-tailored suits – thanks to an uptick in recent years in the world of men’s fashion, everyday, casual wear is getting a much-needed makeover, as well. The concepts at the forefront of this movement, however, are nothing new: If anything, it’s a return to basics, to a simpler time when quality was king. So yeah, maybe these are your grandfather’s jeans. And that’s OK.
The idea behind raw denim has been around for many years. Matt Belz and Tim Hughes, St. Louis natives and founders, owners and designers at Loyal Collective Denim, define it as denim that has been dyed but hasn’t been treated, softened, prewashed or preshrunk.
Alternatively, your favorite store for jeans typically has a variety of different washes or finishes, such as stonewashed, sandblasted, bleached or, as many of us might fondly (or ruefully) recall, acid-washed. Although these washes can look cool, the treated areas create huge swaths of weakness in the fabric, and unless your proportions are specifically fitted to the standard manufacturer sizes, the whiskering and fading don’t always hit your body at the intended spots.
Raw denim, meanwhile, goes straight from loom to bolt to sewing machines, maintaining its original structural integrity and uniform color until the wearer puts it on and creates a custom fit and unique fading patterns.
“It’s broken in to you – where you keep things in your pockets, how you wear them – it becomes your own finish,” Belz explains.
As you might anticipate, raw denim initially wears a little stiff. “You’ll get a more custom fit over time – the first few wears, it’s a little rough and stiff,” Hughes says. “For a lot of people who don’t know about raw denim, it’s kind of a turnoff, actually.” But after three or four wears, the jeans soften up and achieve a fit that breaks in and conforms to your body shape and size.
Best friends since childhood, Hughes and Belz grew up in St. Charles, where they met in sixth grade playing basketball under coach Johnny Cage, the namesake of their first product, The Johnny, a tailored cut available in chino twill and raw denim. Along with a group of guy friends, the pair moved to Los Angeles, where Belz was the assistant to Michael Ball, founder of designer-jeans company Rock & Republic. “We probably wouldn’t have gotten here if it weren’t for that,” Belz says.
“He was definitely able to shorten the learning curve,” Hughes agrees.
One by one, the LA group began moving back home to be closer to family, and now back in St. Louis, Hughes and Belz began exploring some of their entrepreneurial ideas, landing on raw denim about four years ago.
“We started learning how to make patterns, finding people to make samples for us,” Belz says. Although many other designers provide input on color or fabric, they don’t typically get hands-on with their products, but Belz and Hughes wanted to set their brand apart from the get-go. After a humorously disastrous attempt as the only two men on the roster of a community-college sewing class, they turned to other sources, eventually publishing an ad on Craigslist to find someone who could help them make denim patterns and sew up samples.
“A little hippie lady saved our lives,” Belz says. The lady in question, who has since recently passed away, became the namesake for Loyal Collective’s first women’s jeans and second product in its portfolio, The Sharon, which launches this fall.
After a lot of trial and error – one instance was particularly stinging, where the company’s first 436-pair run of jeans arrived from the San Francisco manufacturer with obvious defects the perfectionist pair couldn’t ignore – The Johnny landed in the fall of 2015.
This small-batch, one-product-at-a-time mentality is rare, and it’s now an earmark of the Loyal Collective brand, which sells the jeans at its online store. The decision to go into production with one item at a time allowed Hughes and Belz to focus on the individual product to ensure it was truly what they wanted it to be before moving on to the next item, The Weekender, a more-relaxed men’s cut. Styling tips and product launch info can be found at the Loyal Collective Facebook and Instagram pages (@loyalcollective).
Eventually, Belz and Hughes would love Loyal Collective to be a full-scale line – men’s and women’s accessories, outerwear, the works. But they are “completely bootstrap-funded,” as Hughes describes it, and are allowing the brand to evolve responsibly and naturally. Each phase of production for Loyal Collective is made in America – down to installing the hardware and hand-branded leather patch that affixes the company’s logo to every pair of jeans.
There is a timeless, old-school Americana embodied in Loyal Collective’s ideals. “We’re not going to chase trends to stay cool,” Belz says. “We’re going to make what we think are the classics, and keep rolling with it.”
1531 Washington Ave., #9A, 314-200-5437, loyalcollective.com