“Only do it if you can’t not do it.”
That’s Fitted Underground founder Eric Steffen’s word of advice for aspiring business owners like himself, and it carries an even deeper meaning during “The Great Resignation,” which has led record numbers of people in the U.S. to voluntarily resign from their jobs in the past year.
Steffen’s journey in bespoke denim, however, begins years before Covid-19 with a custom suit for his finance job in 2013. That suit—and the heightened degree of fit and tailoring that came with the experience of buying a custom garment—ultimately led Steffen to trade “finance for fashion” and embark on custom jeans with no prior design experience to boot.
“When I quit my job, I had no idea how to do anything with regards to sewing, pattern making or sourcing, so it was a really steep learning curve,” he said. “The first two years [were] really tough.”
After acquiring sewing machines from a shuttered factory and completing a pattern-making certification at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Steffen said he began to get a handle on the process, testing his then $50 custom jeans on “anyone who showed up.”
These days Fitted Underground is producing men’s bespoke jeans for $495 for a clientele that spans professional athletes and local Brooklynites with an appreciation for craftsmanship. Customers can have a “remote fitting” where they take their own measurements from an existing pair of jeans that fit well or send in the jeans, or they can visit Steffen’s workshop to try on a set of fit samples. From there, Steffen can tweak measurements and clients can choose their fabric, pocket shapes, thread color, hardware and other details.
“You can really build the jeans from the ground up,” he said, adding that it takes about one day to produce the jeans.
“I think the frustration isn’t so much [that customers] can’t find jeans that fit right. It’s that it takes too long to find jeans that fit,” Steffen said. “Or that once they do, the style is no longer available the next time they’re ready to place a purchase. Having their measurements saved in a profile is very helpful for them in the long run.”
A third-generation Brooklynite, Steffen incorporates subtle nods to the borough through Brooklyn Bridge-inspired arcuates and the “Brooklyn dragon” embossed on leather back patches.
While Steffen’s original plan was to source U.S. fabrics, the closure of Cone Denim’s White Oak plant in 2017 forced him to look elsewhere, including Japan and Italy. Vidalia Mills, however, is teeing up new opportunities to incorporate American denim fabrics back into the mix.
“They have a whole transparent supply chain so you can identify where the cotton is coming from—I just have a sense that it’s being produced in an environmentally friendly fashion,” he said.
In 2018, Steffen added a ready-to-wear component to his business with range of mid-rise tapered leg fits made with unique Japanese 13- to 16-ounce fabrics. A cotton/linen blend boasts a neppy surface; a 100 percent cotton fabric has a red cast indigo and moderate vertical and horizontal slub; a jean with a black warp and weft is made with Zimbabwean cotton. The collection also offers a comfort stretch option in charcoal gray. The jeans retail for $235-$245.
Up next, Steffen plans to introduce shirting and jackets to the assortment, but as with everything in his business, it’s an organic process.
“I’m always working on production, but I’m also working on development at the same time, so it always feels like you’re flying the airplane and building it at the same time,” he said.
There’s plenty of runway to be explored. When New York City shut down in 2020, Steffen took a five-month hiatus from making jeans to take care of his two-year-old son while his wife continued to work remotely. He reopened business by doing a run of face masks, which caught on well, and soon after his clients came back. “I almost feel like they were spending their stimulus checks on custom jeans,” he said.
Steffen had his “best year ever” in 2021, and 2022 is “picking up in a strong place.”
“One of the big things for me with the company has been not to skip steps, but to be very intentional and [let] the business lead me rather than me forcing the business into doing something that it isn’t yet,” he said.
The business of denim, Steffen added, requires perseverance, time and patience. “You learn a ton about yourself, so something in your heart needs to be committed, not only to the business, but also [to] the process,” he said.