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Chapter 15 - A Time For Change, Burning Man And Patchwork Jeans

Posted by Gerry Kelly on

Sitting at my computer desk on a damp Monday morning in mid November 2010, I realized we were in serious trouble. As much as I wanted to stay positive and keep working on our Alabama real estate project, it was over. There’s an old saying that goes “there’s no point in flogging a dead horse” and Alabama was now a dead horse. We couldn't get the loan we needed and it was way too much of a financial drain to pay for the Alabama property to keep going each month. Also, we knew that the banks had completely changed their lending guidelines and wouldn't lend on our property anytime soon. Depressed and pissed off, we had no choice but to walk away after dumping everything we had into it. One bad real estate investment and our vision for our real estate empire was over. I was also day trading futures which was a sure way to send me to an early grave. Day trading futures is not for the faint of heart or beginners without deep pockets. So to put it bluntly, we were fucked.

I remember thinking to myself, "what have I got myself into" and feeling sick to my stomach and depressed about our whole situation. We had actually made some decent money in New York and now in the blink of an eye, it was gone. I was thinking "what am I going to do now?" I wanted to continue day trading futures but you can’t trade on “scared money“ (i.e. money that you need to pay your rent and live on). But there was no way I wanted to go back to work for someone else after working for myself for five years.

So I decided to throw away the get-rich-quick ideas and do something I was passionate about. One thing I do have a passion for is festivals, fashion and fun. I love meeting fun positive people with a passion for life and cool ideas. And what does every consultant tell an entrepreneur? Do what you are passionate about and focus on your strengths. So for my 9th year, I decided to go into the desert with my friends to “The Burning Man Arts Festival” - an amazing super creative fun festival that’s held each year in the desert just two hours outside of Reno, Nevada. In preparation for that year, I had a friend of mine (Sarah Decoux our local bartender/seamstress) help me cut and sew up three pairs of cool patchwork pants to wear out to the desert. A lot of our good friends meet there every year. Friends fly in from all over the world for one amazing fun filled week. If you haven’t been, I highly recommend you get your ass out there at least once in your lifetime :)

Sarah was great. Along with my wife and I, she helped us put the multicolored patchwork together on our living room floor, then her floor and then she sewed it all up. I was very particular and had a certain sequence that I wanted the colors to go in, so you can imagine how time consuming that was. It was probably the toughest $200 she ever earned. Also, there is over 50 individual pieces in each jean, it's by no way an easy jean to sew up, not even by denim professionals.
My inspiration had come from an old pair of patchwork pants that I originally bought in a vintage store on Haight Street in San Francisco in 2001 for my first Burning Man. I wore those pants to every Festival, NYE Party and Burning Man I ever attended after that - any excuse at all and I wore them out. You could say I was emotionally attached to them. Not only did they bring back fun/happy memories from all the festivals and get together's I attended, but I also got married in them. They were/are my wife's favorite jeans on me and mine.

Every Time I wore them, I got great compliments from people who loved them and wanted to know where they could get theirs. I was always getting comments like, "cool jeans" "where did you get those pants" "when you do decide to make them, I’d love to buy a pair" and so on. That’s when I thought to myself. I love my jeans, lots of other people loved my jeans. Why not start a denim line?

I had actually thought about a clothing business before while travelling through India and seeing all the sewing factories in action. It really excited me but I was never that serious about it until now.

So why not give it a bash? Why not bring the cool fashion of Burning Man to the Streets? So after some research, I brought our homemade jeans to a sewing factory in the Mission district of San Francisco. They thought I was nuts showing up with a pair of multi-colored flares, no pockets, no waistband, telling them I wanted to start a denim company. They told me if I was serious I had to come back with a proper five pocket jean pattern. So after a bit more research I had a guy called Steven Heard make me a pattern and then I took it across the street from his studio to an older Chinese woman to sew it up for me. I also brought her over a big piece of cardboard with a drawing of a pair of jeans (front and back) with the precise sequence of the way I wanted the colored patches to be arranged. That was my sample. She assured me it would be no problem and ready in a few days. A few days turned into a few weeks and it ended up being more of a problem for her (based upon the appearance of the final product). Then, she asked me to bring in her some buttons as she was going to put the final touches on my jeans, as they say in the business, "the trim.” I remember going in to collect the jeans and asking for Lily, all the other Chinese women who worked there started whispering to each other and giving me weird looks. “Lily not here” one of them said. “Come back hour” I had this weird feeling come over me as if I had done something wrong and was calling in to apologize to a neighbor and felt real awkward. I think they thought that they would be sewing up our jeans on a regular basis and didn't like it. Denim can be pretty tricky to work with and you need special denim sewing machines or it can be a real pain.

Anyway I came back an hour later and Lily was back I gave her the new buttons I had picked up at the fabric store and then stood beside her, looking at her trying to put the buttons on with a hammer.

It was brutal. A complete botched job. The buttons ended up bent and cracked, it was twisted to watch. She then asked me for another button after destroying the first one I gave her. She mumbled something in Chinese and then said, button not right. I felt like saying, you not right, but I bit my lip.
Then, she handed me the jeans with the new button crushed on and all bent and a bill for $300. The colors were far from what I had envisioned even though I had given her everything she needed to replicate my vision. Reluctantly, I paid her $180 instead of $300, told her things were not right and left with that same sickly feeling in my stomach that I had only a few weeks before. I then drove around the corner to a store on Valencia Street called “Five & Diamond” and asked them if they would sell the jeans in their store. The girl gave me a weird look and said “no, it not for us.” I couldn't blame her - they were a joke. I felt like giving up there and then, but I had a much cleaner, fashionable vision and I wasn't about to let it go that easy.

Back to the drawing board I thought. I went home that day and started researching again. This time I found a proper denim factory called Sky Blue which was just off Sixth Street in San Francisco’s SOMA district about a 10 minute drive from my apartment. These guys are the real deal. They do a lot of the Levis samples before they’re sent for production to China, or Mexico etc, etc. I called them up six times and they gave me the brush off each time I called - “We're too busy,” “Can't help you." all sorts of different excuses.

So I decided I better just call down to them in person. I called down the following day after my sixth call and the owner asked me to come back the following week. The following week I came back and met a guy called Kieran who agreed to help me make some samples.

Lessons I learned from this chapter of my life.

1. There's no point in flogging a dead horse.
2. You need to have deep pockets when learning to day trade.
3. Burning Man is the most creative place on earth.
4. You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.

Till next time



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