My parents have the classic immigrant story. My dad worked at a small gas station, which he eventually purchased. When I was four years old, he sold it and bought a sewing contract business. It was 1974 and friends told him that contract sewing was good to get into. A lot of Korean Americans were starting to get into apparel at the time.
Did you ever think you’d grow up to make jeans?
No, I’m a dentist. My parents really stressed education. I practiced until 2000 when their business hit hard times. I took a year off, thinking I had a profession I could always fall back on. That was thirteen years ago.
You’ve said that one of the first things you did in the family business was prepare bankruptcy papers.
My parents were in a situation I never want to repeat. In 2000 they were doing chinos, and Polo accounted for 90% of their business. They had a big factory and one major client. Then Polo decided to take its production offshore. I negotiated a 12-month wind-down so we never had to file the bankruptcy papers. But if we had, there would have been nothing left after thirty years of hard work. My parents sold their house to keep the business going. It was not a fun time.
How did you reinvent the business?
My father’s strategy was to just work hard, even when people were getting out of the business because labor costs were high—it’s still our biggest cost. We moved the company into full packaging. Instead of just sewing hundreds of jeans, you do everything for the client: source the fabric, make the patterns, handle the washes, do the quality audits and essentially deliver a finished product to the client’s warehouse. This business model is very successful in China. We had to learn it from scratch and hire a lot of people. Fortunately, it worked.
Where are your best customers?
Japan and Europe, where jeans are considered Americana. They will pay a premium for jeans that are from the US. But most Americans think jeans should be cheap, which often means they can’t be produced in the USA.
EILEEN FISHER doesn’t sandblast jeans. What do you think of the current trend of distressing denim?
It’s strange that you’re beating the product up and shortening its life. You’re subtracting from the garment to add value to it. It’s backwards. I have a hard time with the logic.
One of our requirements for jeans manufacturing was avoiding chemicals like formaldehyde and chlorine bleach. Was this hard to do?
Not at all. We’d like to go further and comply with the Bluesign System Standard List (BSSL) that you gave us. We’ve sent it to our dyehouse and are trying to see how our formulations compare. Ultimately, we’d like to use the BSSL as a firm guideline.
Where’s the competition?
When we started in full packaging, our competition was in China. To this day it still is. We did a look back at the last 10 years. We’ve had 40 different customers. We still have 6 of those original customers. Of the 34 who left us, only 2 still manufacture in the US. And they aren’t with us for reasons of culture and price. We haven’t lost any customers to a competitor within the United States.
What kind of jeans do you wear?
Jeans are new for me. Growing up in California, I wore cutoffs or sweatpants. When I worked as a dentist, I wore dress pants. Now, I wear the classics. Nothing distressed or beat up. I know where the value is.