Native Denims is Ireland’s sole denim studio, crafting jeans with a couturier’s eye.
“We’ve gone back to the way that denim was meant to be made.”
Had you clambered up the Chocolate Factory’s back stairwell (or taken the lift, stamina intact) to the Native Denims studio during last month’s Open House, you would have stumbled upon a captive audience congesting the entrance. Pat, Native’s chief instigator and passionate spokesperson, was dissecting a pair of high-street jeans with acerbic gusto, encircled by breath-bated (but, occasionally, chuckling) spectators.
“Everything about this garment is absolutely awful, and I’ll explain why. First of all, it’s the cheapest denim you can get your hands on. The back pockets are cut-off grain, and are already sagging, they’ve put cheap rivets in the wrong place, the knees are beginning to bag after just 4 wears… what else can I say that’s woeful about this thing?” Listening to Pat list off his encyclopaedic knowledge of sewing mastery – from bar tacks to gimp buttonholes – with the speed of a caffeinated auctioneer, my own set of ‘skills’ (sewing the occasional button) quickly lost steam. By the time he turned his attention to analysing a pair of made-to-measure Native jeans – whose components couldn’t be further divorced from fast fashion – attendees had no shortage of proof that this man, alongside the company he set in motion almost two years ago, lives, breathes and (probably) bleeds denim.
In between these quasi-seminars – a fresh group piles into the studio every few minutes – I got to grips with Pat’s life pre-Native. “I was sewing by 11, my mother and grandmother could dress-make… Those generations just had those skills.” Later, the arrival of Dave Murmane – a “serious goer” whose business head has proved invaluable to Native Denims – will add an extra flourish to this background tale. “I was in boarding school with Pat for six years. At one end of the dormitory, Pat had a Singer sewing machine, and he used to take in or let out clothes, fix patches, make flares…” Pat clocked up 12 or so years in the garment business, crossing paths with Susan Owens – Native Denims’ “master-maker” – while both worked at a denim factory not too far from their current base. Amassing experience in running production lines, sourcing materials and cutting his teeth with high-calibre tailors, Pat eventually left the industry for pastures new, but never lost sight of his dream: to set up a top-tier denim studio.
“I’ve always been thinking about doing something like this,” he states. “I travel quite a lot, and one day I was coming through the airport in Frankfurt, flicking through magazines as I waited for my flight. I saw a copy of Drapers Magazine, which I would’ve remembered from way back, and there was an article inside about the move from fast to slow fashion; bringing small amounts of production runs back into the UK, into what they called high-end denim, small batches, high quality, high construction finishes.” Joining forces with Stephen Kavanagh, Design Factory’s co-founder/director, Pat harnessed his frequent-flier status to visit some of the world’s finest denim artisans.
“A company called Blackhorse Lane Ateliers in North London makes a very nice garment, good quality linings. Stephen and I went to visit these guys and they were very open with us, we went into their factory. When I was in New York I went to see Bowery Blue, I visited 3×1, then I went to see some makers in Toronto. The best one for me is Companion Denim in Barcelona, they really make a wonderful product.”
Small-scale denim producers may be sprouting across the globe – furnishing their enthused consumers with sustainable threads – but not so on Irish shores: Native Denims is the country’s sole premium denim manufacturer, while Owens adds that their studio marks “the first time in over 25 years that jeans are being made in Dublin, on any scale.”
This exhaustive pre-planning didn’t just extend to jeans. The studio itself has been meticulously thought through: every aspect of its appearance, starting with the glass wall extending across the space, screams transparency. “You can stand outside and see everything through that glass,” Owens affirms. “We started with a blank canvas, and we built it this way for a reason. Nothing should be hidden.” From the streamlined, tactile rolls of fabric – some 60 to 70 types of denim comprise Native’s inventory, which I’ll detail later – to the work table replete with soon-to-be-finished patterns, it looks like they’ve collected all of our disquiet towards sweatshops and provided a potent remedy. Their assemblage of sewing machines, most of which date from the ‘20s to ‘40s, testify that theory: arranged in a loop, rather than rows, they add a certain intimacy to the space, whilst side-stepping that conveyer-belt feel.
“This is never going to be a factory, and nor do we want it to be,” Owens continues. “That is not the picture we want to paint here. With fast fashion, there’s been a race to the bottom: it was all about how could make it the quickest, the cheapest. We’re the complete opposite. We’ve gone back to the way that denim was meant to be made.”
Owens may praise Pat’s savoir-faire and passionate delivery – two attributes I definitely wouldn’t argue with – but her knowledge base and background are equally fascinating. “When I think back to when I was leaving school, there were two directions, work-wise, that girls could go in – one was to train to be a secretary in an office, and the other was going straight into a sewing factory. This whole area around [the studio] was full of sewing factories. So I went straight out of school into a factory, where I ended up working for 13 years. I just wanted to learn all the time: I started on the production line and I finished off in the design room. It was an amazing education, and I’ve never been away from a sewing machine since – even when I left the factory and had my three boys, I still worked, I had a work room at home.”
Owens hadn’t touched an industrial machine in over 20 years before Pat rang her up one day, out of the blue, and suggested they discuss his denim brainwave over coffee. The pair hadn’t been in contact for the same length of time but, with both still fuelled by a love of the craft, they picked up right where they left off. “I may have skills on the side of material sourcing, knowledge of construction etc,” says Pat, “but I told Stephen that if we’re doing [Native Denims], we have to get Susan!” As she guides me through the origin story of selvedge denim, beloved by hipster boys (“this fabric came from a really small loom that one person could weave, always finished off on the side with a colourful thread – that’s a ‘self edge’, which is where the name ‘selvedge’ comes from”), and waxes lyrical on the mechanisms of her favourite machines, it’s increasingly clear that passion forms the nucleus of Native Denims’ practice.
As previously touched on, Native’s consumers can choose from 60 – 70 denims when devising their made-to-measure jeans, evoking serious kid-in-candy-store reactions. Catering to newcomers and seasoned denim savants, their materials are painstakingly sourced across the globe. “Most denim bought on the high street is wide, but our denims are narrow and much rarer,” Pat informs me. “We source our materials from Turkey, Italy, Japan, the US… we only use YKK zippers from Japan, and Gutermann thread from Germany [translation: the crème de la crème of jean accoutrements]. Japan’s an interesting one, because the Japanese took on denim when they were not a traditional manufacturer – they took the narrow loom machines over to Japan and re-configured them. Their natural way of dyeing stems back to the days of the Samurai, and it creates really class denim.” All of these denims are raw, untainted by bleach or other chemicals, resulting in jeans that not only last significantly longer than your high-street pair – with every new wear, your contours sculpt them towards your exact shape.
“You probably own a pair of jeans,” Owens says, “that are really faded in one place: the denim is so stressed at that point, and that’s why the knee starts to go, they start to fall apart, and it’s because of the rigorous bleaching and stoning that’s put onto the jeans. You should wear a pair of raw denims for as long as possible before you wash them, so that your natural crease lines can shape them. You put your phone in your pocket, or your keys, so that when you do wash the denim (at 30 degrees, with no spin), those imprints remain… you’ve completely personalised them.” Thanks to a tailor-made pattern block you can return to time and again, all those soul-crushing sessions in a sterile changing room (not just me, surely?) are sent packing.
By now, you’re probably thinking these jeans come packaged with a dizzying price tag. Rest assured: an “entry-level” pair costs little more than Diesel jeans, which, for the record, are factory-made. Native Denims charge €160 for a “standard stock jean, but you’re getting a hand-made garment that’s guaranteed to last you five years, and we’ll give you free repairs throughout that time”. These jeans are fashioned through “pattern block variants” on standard sizes, unforeseen on the high street. A UK 10, for example, isn’t one-size-fits-all at Native – they make size 10 pattern blocks that are bigger on the waist, narrower on the leg, and so forth. You’ll try on a pair best catered to your shape and they’ll make adjustments from there. The next tier is selvedge denim which, if you can somehow find it on the high-street, normally costs a dime: “considering the average pair comes in around €300, €350, we think we’re reasonable – ours sell for €250, made from selvedge sourced in Turkey, Italy, the US, while we charge €280 for selvedge sourced in Japan.”
There are plenty more worthy materials to pick from – their ecru (undyed) denim will rehabilitate your white-skinny-jean nightmares, as it did mine – but it’s the reverse moleskin that piques my interest. Once the reserve of coal miners, moleskin (a cotton fabric which, thankfully, has nothing to do with actual moles) boasts a very dense weave, washes beautifully, and is proven to last you a decade’s worth of wears. “The fluffy side used to be on the exterior,” Owens states, “but we reversed it to make our jeans even warmer.” Furthering their pledge to produce sustainably, Native will even transform your old blouses and shirts into jean-pocket linings.
So far, Native Denims have cultivated their clientele as organically as their design approach: attracting like-minded consumers through friends and family referrals and Culture Night workshops. “Word is slowly trickling out,” says Owens. “The three masterclasses we held on Culture Night were jammed, which was super. We aim to hold a masterclass once a month, to inform people about the story behind denim. I also think we need to start bringing in kids – whether from primary school or transition year – and let them come and see [how clothes are made]: you don’t just walk into a shop and pick up a pair of jeans, there’s a whole process behind each one. On Culture Night, I spoke to a couple of girls that have a hen’s coming up soon, and they asked if they could have a masterclass for the party! If a group of friends wanted to come together, maybe ten of them, they could start their night off at the studio… it would be something completely different.”
Having devoted myself to a lifetime of skirt wearing, I skip out of the Chocolate Factory a converted woman.
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady