Designers often find inspiration in exotic locales and bustling cities, but it’s debatable if any have called the Wisconsin city on the shore of Lake Michigan a muse.
Enter Milwaukee Denim Co., the one-year-old denim brand founded by Elmer Moore. For Moore, Milwaukee doesn’t only serve as design inspiration, the blue collar city is the heart and soul of the brand. The company is built on three pillars: to make beautiful products; pay people a living wage to make things they are proud of; and to represent Milwaukee.
Before Milwaukee Denim Co., the city’s most notable contribution to fashion was the monogrammed sweater fictional character Laverne DeFazio famously wore on the 1970s show Laverne & Shirley set in the city. However, Moore, an East Coast transplant who moved to Milwaukee to take a job at “Made in USA” footwear brand Allen Edmonds, saw greater potential in the city.
“I found myself living in this character-filled city that no one knew about. No one claimed it in the world,” Moore said.
Milwaukee has no direct ties to denim. There are no legacy jeans brands with Wisconsin roots, or selvedge denim mills to reminiscence over, but the Midwestern city, best-known for its breweries, does have an industrial past (steam engines, mining and agricultural machinery, mainly) and a low-key vibe that speaks to the denim industry.
The city is also home to one of the finest machines ever made, the Harley Davidson motorcycle—a product that is as iconic to the U.S. as the five-pocket jean.
“Milwaukee makes exquisite things. It’s defined by modesty and simplicity but it also has this edgy personality,” Moore said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s denim.’ It was suddenly so obvious.”
That quiet yet impactful aesthetic is carried into the Milwaukee Denim Co.’s jeans. The initial line, called the Founder Series, is comprised of two fuss-free jeans made with Cone denim—a slim straight fit for men and a mid-rise skinny straight for women.
Apart from subtle branding on the hardware and a simple leather label, the company is not out to use people’s backsides to promote the brand. Jean pockets are void of decorative stitching. It’s just not the Milwaukee way, Moore said. Rather, the denim collection prioritizes quality and fit.
The collection is designed, cut and sewn in a 1,100-square-foot production space Moore is gradually scaling. By the end of the year the company will have made a couple hundred pairs of jeans.
Part of the reason the brand has been moving slowly, Moore said, it to get its fits right. While he doesn’t have any patternmaking experience himself, Moore understood early on that it was crucial to invest the time in it and surround himself with people who can help develop the right pattern.
“It’s an engineering document,” Moore said. “You can have incredible denim, but if pattern is busted your pants will be busted.”
With jeans retailing for $250, the collection has hit its stride with men and women, age 22-50 who have strong feelings about design and fit—and who care about the story behind their purchase.
“We’re made in the USA, but it’s more important to us that we’re made in Milwaukee,” Moore said.
Cone’s White Oak mill was an easy choice for Moore’s initial collection, but he has mixed feelings about trying to preserve the brand’s “Made in USA” distinction.
“My feelings about ‘Made in USA’ changes depending on the day, but I also recognize to truly be American is to be connected by what’s going around the world,” he explained. “We’re going to have to source from other places, but whether it’s Turkey or Japan, we want to make sure the denim has a good story.”
The next evolution for the brand will include more jean cuts and accessories like denim and canvas bags. And a denim jacket is due by the end of the year. “We’re chomping at the bit to do some other garments like T-shirts,” Moore said.
The company is also entertaining the idea of creating uniforms for local businesses and collaborating with likeminded brands.
“Denim is so versatile and beautiful—there are so many things we can make,” Moore said. “I want Milwaukee Denim Co. to be the harbinger of taste for Milwaukee. I want it to mean something to people around the world that our jeans look like Milwaukee.”