The blue crew


Nobody knows exactly how the converted 1924 toy factory, lodged between cold storage facilities and an abandoned railroad spur in downtown L.A. became the global epicenter of premium denim, but somewhere along the line, the building at the corner of Industrial and Mateo streets got seriously tangled up in blue.

From the outside, this concrete fortress, punctuated with row upon column of uninspired warehouse-style windows, more closely resembles a seven-story shoe box than the pulsing, churning nerve center of five-pocket fashion.

A casual observer would have no way of knowing about the lush outdoor garden on the third floor, or about a roof packed with cabanas, barbecue grills and a pool that overlooks the city, or about the converted shipping container in the lobby that serves as a mail room.

But once inside, it's a swirling indigo whirlwind that has drawn up Adriano Goldschmied, "the godfather of denim"; Stefano Aldighieri, the former creative director for 7 for All Mankind; Rohan Marley, who has launched a denim-focused line inspired by his dad, the late reggae star Bob Marley; and Chad Hilton, founder and designer for Crate Denim, a clothing line that for two years has captured the attention of hard-core denim fiends.

Explaining how the former Ace Novelty Factory came to be the Kevin Bacon of the high-end blues is not as easy. But the story starts, as so many aspects of the denim business have over the last four decades, with a now-63-year-old bear of a man whose name and creative output have graced millions of backsides around the globe: Adriano Goldschmied.

"I took two units expecting to eventually move to some place more industrial," Goldschmied said, describing his move to L.A. in 2004. "But I love this location. I can do everything I need to do in one place. If you're based in New York, nothing really happens. You create something and e-mail it to somebody in China or India, but you never actually touch it. This is something you need very much to touch, you need to feel it week after week."

Who could have charted the fantastic voyage of the humble blue jean from the moment a Bavarian immigrant made his first pair? In the late 1800s, dry goods merchant Levi Strauss used indigo denim for the britches of gold prospectors. From there it became America's uniform.

In the 1950s, jeans became a symbol of rebellion; in the '60s, the garb of the anti-establishment. And in the '70s, denim became the palette for self-expression. In the '80s and '90s, European designers began to treat denim like an artist's canvas, and by the start of the new millennium, hundred-dollar denim was commonplace. Today, the most expensive labels are symbols of conspicuous consumption.

Today denim is an international juggernaut in fashion. In the U.S. alone, it is a nearly $16-billion business, of which $480 million come from jeans priced at $100 or more. L.A.'s slice of that high-end pie is nearly 85 percent, or about $408 million annually.

And at 1855 Industrial St., the heart beats loudest.

Goldschmied's ground-floor suites are crammed with rows of industrial sewing machines, rolls of denim and walls covered with sketches, torn-out magazine pages and scraps of fabric that make the space feel like an organic extension of his mad-scientist brain, siphoning inspiration out of the ether and giving it shape in fabric and leather.

Goldschmied decamped to the Toy Factory Lofts on a temporary basis in late 2004, just as Linear City had finished developing the building. The timing was just right. He was preparing for the summer 2005 launch of his most recent project, a denim-based, high-fashion-meets-contemporary-casual line called GoldSign. Today he has expanded from two units to five.

Considered the godfather of denim, Goldschmied is an industry legend. He began his career in 1970, when he opened a shop in the Italian resort town of Cortina D'Ampezzo, where he launched his first jeans line. Since then he has been owner or designer for 52 denim lines, including mega brands Diesel and Replay and the eponymous AG Adriano Goldschmied, which first launched in Italy but is now made locally. (He has since sold his interest in the namesake line to a former business partner.)

He was also an influential early pioneer of stone-washing and acid-washing techniques.

In the not-so-recent past, denim's stylings were so florid that they would make a glam rocker blush. Jeans were bleached, hand-sanded, whiskered, tea-stained, torn, shot at with guns, dragged behind cars, whip-stitched and crystal-studded to the point that denim itself seemed like an afterthought.

Desperate to add perceived value (and justify a higher price tag), designers and manufacturers shifted their focus to fabric. The look turned dark and raw, shifting to washes, weaves, the addition of stretch fibers and a renewed interest in selvage, a version woven on narrower old-school shuttle looms (indicated by the white "self edge" stripe along the inside seam) and prized by denim heads for its more authentic look and feel.

Hunkered down in Suite 103, Chad Hilton, the founder of Crate Denim, crafts nearly 4,000 pairs a year of dark, raw, unadorned jeans for men from denim that was woven decades ago for labels like Levi Strauss, Carhartt, Wrangler and Lee. His posse includes fellow twentysomethings Jason Fischer (who doubles as the fit model when he's not out on sales calls) and Nate White (who does everything from lugging bolts of denim to marketing).

Hilton's trademark is dead-stock denim, which he discovers in warehouses, old factories and the occasional barn on road trips through the southeastern U.S. "I was born in 1979, so our goal is to always use fabrics that are older than I am," said Hilton.

That appears to be the closest thing the designer with the sheepdog hair has to a business plan. During frequent summer vacations to Tennessee, Hilton discovered a mother-lode of moldering denim, a result of canceled orders and factory closures as denim production shifted overseas. But his timing couldn't have been better.

"I think the oldest denim we ever had was a 1940s gold selvage ... ," Hilton says in an almost reverential tone. "We only got 20 to 25 yards of it." To capitalize on the demand for selvage, Crate offers true denim heads a chance to order up a pair of custom-made jeans from a choice of pre-1967 versions.

Crate's workspace is home to all but the final production process; a button press lurks in one corner next to a Craftsman tool box, a salvaged Steelcase desk serves as the way station for patterns and uncompleted samples and rolls of denim lean in the corner awaiting the next inspiration.

Hilton feels the space is a good reflection of what Crate is as a brand. "If we got funding and had a showroom in the New Mart and went to a Vernon office and parked in a huge lot every day, it wouldn't be us. Here we feel like we're fighting our way out of a corner."

From the roof of 1855 Industrial St., there are no corners. Los Angeles spreads out before you, and just beneath the wooden deck and serene infinity pool, the city's denim brain trust is scouting the next new trend.

Goldschmied is tacking fabric samples to his inspiration board. Hilton is cutting a custom pair of pants. And Marley is in the fifth-floor offices of Tuff Gong Clothing trying to position his father as a pitchman of slim-fitting organic hemp denim jeans. "Just being in the same building as Adriano is going to inspire me because he's a denim guru, you know?"

Marley, who divides his time between Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Jamaica, where he runs an organic coffee farm, launched the line of denim, knits and wovens just a few seasons ago and is using the Industrial Street space as a launchpad for the apparel side of his father's legacy.

On the seventh floor is Marley's former business partner, Italian expat designer Aldighieri, who calls the building home. His resume includes stints with Levi Strauss, 7 for All Mankind and Hudson Jeans.

And until relocating to London two months ago to focus on European operations, True Religion Brand Jeans had its international sales office in the building as well.

"It was the whole vibe of the space," said Kelly Furano, who chose the location for True Religion. "It didn't have anything to do with the other tenants. I wanted an environment where people could some, hang out by the pool, have a cappuccino, smoke a cigarette and buy beautiful clothes and feel like they were in any city in the world."

And they keep on coming. During a party the Crate crew threw 10 days ago to celebrate the opening of its 300-square-foot, on-premises retail space, a 28-year-old Kentucky native, Anthony Frommeyer, stopped in to meet his new downstairs neighbors.

It didn't take long to realize the strapping young lad, sporting a Los Angeles Dodgers cap cocked to one side, was a fellow prospector panning for blue gold. "I've got a denim and T-shirt line called Frank Pistachio," he said. "The jeans are all bell-bottoms and bootlegs with Western-style details. I've gotten it on a few celebrities like the Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey," he said. "Lachey's from my hometown."

Los Angeles may not remain at the epicenter of the premium denim industry forever. Trends are like that. But no matter, whether production moves to Turkey, China or some far-flung outpost on the edge of the Crab Nebula, the former toy factory on Industrial Street has, in just 2 1/2 years, established itself as a landmark in the history of denim.

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