If it takes an old soul to help reawaken Made in USA denim, Ryan Martin is up for the challenge.
The denim guru behind W.H. Ranch Dungarees and KC Jacks, Martin has one (cowboy boot-clad) foot in the bespoke U.S.-made jeans business and another in the U.S.-made workwear sector. With both brands, Martin is set on upholding the rugged, durable and traditional qualities that Made in USA denim has become known for and fetishized by denim heads around the world.
Manufacturing in the U.S. was part of Martin’s game plan from the onset of pursuing a career in fashion.
The vintage denim wonk, who describes his personal style as “25 percent Ralph Lauren and 75 percent Dwight Yoakam,” was classically trained in patternmaking and draping in London. But Martin said it took some time for the necessary pieces to fall into place to make his vision of domestically made denim a plausible reality.
His first attempt to launch a denim brand in 2003 failed to take shape because the raw materials that were then accessible to small-run brands like his were on par with “the junk that you could find at a Joann Fabric,” he said.
The game changer, however, was the advent of social media and marketplaces like Etsy, which gave him access to likeminded denim heads who would understand the value of a pair of $200 selvedge jeans. Denim suppliers also grew wise to the opportunities that existed by working with independent designers. Wholesalers, he said, began to scoop up end rolls by premium mills like Kuroki and Cone just to turn around and sell the yardage to individuals hungry for high-end fabrics.
“There was a really big artisan, crafter movement brewing out there, and they realized they could capture a piece of that audience if they only you know could lower their minimums,” Martin said.
This denim kismet led Martin to launch W.H. Ranch Dungarees in 2011. “I sold all of my best cowboy boots and got enough Japanese selvedge denim for 10 pairs,” he said. The jeans sold out in as many days and from then, Martin said his business “just sort of took off like a rocket ship.”
Martin continues to produce W.H. Ranch Dungarees by hand in his Kansas City, Mo., studio. Jeans sell for as much as $695, but the majority of the collection retails around $375. “I think it was just the right aesthetic at the right time with the right branding,” he said. “I was able to capture something authentic and the rest is sort of history.”
Lee, which was based in Kansas City for a century before joining its sister brand Wrangler in Greensboro, N.C., is an influential force in Martin’s designs. W.H. Ranch Dungarees has approximately 15 fits, which Martin describes as “artistic replicas” of mostly Lee jeans from the 1930s to the 1960s. His fascination with Lee remains a point of differentiation for his business.
“Not a lot of people gravitate towards Lee anymore,” he said. “Everyone’s replicating a Levi’s style.”
Martin’s design chops were put to the test when connections in the close-knit denim community led him to join KC Jacks, a brand built to counter the exodus of U.S.-made workwear.
KC Jacks specialized in 100 percent cotton jeans that can “crush 12-hour work days” and “kill it on Friday night” and retail for under $60.
The line comprises once-washed 14 oz. bull denim dungarees with triple-needle stitching and heavy metal brass hardware, but it’s the fit that Martin says makes the jeans tailor-made for the next generation of workers. Rather than “shrink to fit,” the jeans “settle” into shape, have a longer than average length to help dodge cold ankles on a windy day and include elongated pockets for essentials like cell phones.
“We went through eight prototypes to really just dial that silhouette in to make sure that you could still work in it but that it didn’t just look like you were wearing a garbage bag around your waist,” Martin said.
The brand also offers a line of basic military-grade wovens (T-shirts and a long-sleeve tees) that are made from cotton milled in the U.S. and produced by an L.A.-based military contractor—a fact that Martin said made all the difference in KC Jack’s production schedule during the pandemic as U.S. military contractors were permitted to operate during the shutdown.
“Our line was able to keep being produced during that whole time, and because we were vertically integrated, we weren’t waiting on a shipment overseas for anything,” he said.
Missing a single buying period by a month or two due to late shipments can kill a brand, he added. “If you’re a brand out there and you aren’t immediately looking to bring whatever pieces you reasonably can back into domestic manufacturing, you’re going to be in for a world of hurt sooner than later,” Martin said.
It’s this prescient mindset that Martin believes can be of service for fellow designers with domestic dreams. This summer, he plans to launch a consulting firm to help people develop lines in the U.S. “My knowledge of these manufacturers and the supply lines and the sources is a commodity that a lot of people don’t have,” Martin said.
“Nobody is going pay $5,000 or more for a Made in USA iPhone. There’s certain things that probably have their place overseas,” Martin said. But fashion isn’t one of them, he added.
For a viable comeback, Martin said U.S. apparel manufacturing needs to move away from the coasts where minimum wages and the cost of living tend to run high. “We can’t just leave it up to California to have the manufacturing, because frankly there won’t be enough capacity and then prices will continue to go up,” he said.
But Martin remains motivated by the low-hanging fruit that he said can enhance a brand.
“It could just be as simple as a Made in USA boot manufacturer [adding] Made in USA socks,” Martin said. “It can be something as small as that, but if I can help these other firms evaluate their portfolio and we can reasonably bring back a segment of U.S. manufacturing, then that’s better for everybody.”