Sebastien James is building a fashion brand from the ground up. After concluding that manufacturing standards were slipping, the 39-year-old European entrepreneur decided to take matters into his own hands—well, his and Spanish artisans'. Today, the business-minded designer oversees the creation of high-end dress shirts and trousers at a constellation of family-owned factories in Catalonia. Finding tradition haberdashers skilled enough to realize his vision was no mean feat, but James, who grew up playing in his grandfather’s factory had a very specific idea of what manufacturing should look like. He knew that if he could make the sort of comfortable, stylish clothing he wanted to buy, he’d have no trouble finding customers.
We sat down with the up-and-coming designer to talk getting into the business and how to make an impact.
Did you always want to go into fashion?
I actually didn’t have much of a choice. [Laughs] I’m third generation in the business. My grandfather was a men’s tailor and I basically grew up in the factory that he had in Paris. My mom was also in the business, so I went to school for hospitality management. And here I am.
So you started young?
My real start in fashion was when I was probably about 17 years old. My mom had a store and she was so busy that she would ask me to come in after school and help out, which I did. We started selling a women’s line called Vertigo, which was actually my cousin’s line, and it ended up being an enormous business. When we started realizing how well the product was doing in our store, we kind of jumped on board with them and helped them to launch the line in the US. That’s really when I got heavily involved in the industry.
We had a store on Madison Avenue and were selling in Saks and Lehman’s. We were everywhere. I became the go-to person for the company because I was essentially managing and running the 20 to 25 retail stores across the US. My first stint in design was working closely with the designer in Paris. I knew what the customers wanted. I was on the floor selling it, and I would go back to him, and we developed products together. Vertigo did incredibly well for a long time, but unfortunately there was a lot of internal strife between the family members, so eventually they sold it. All of a sudden, the line gets taken over by US Apparel Group, and then everything gets made in China. That’s when I jumped ship.
You weren’t happy with outsourcing the manufacturing.
My family is half Spaniard, half Italian. Everything that we make is out of Barcelona. We work with beautiful little artisan factories that are at least two generations old. It’s a whole different culture and a whole different way of making things. It’s quality, not quantity, that we focus on. If you have a factory that’s been around since the '60s and have seamstresses that have been there for 40 years, you go to these factories and see that it’s the right work environment. Maybe it’s a kilometer away from the beach, they work with the windows open, everybody goes home for siesta at two o’clock. It’s a completely different culture, a different mentality.
The factories in China: They sleep, eat, and work all in the same place. My whole thing is I’m really anti-China; I’m more for these artisan factories. Unfortunately there’s so little of these little boutique companies open in the world because everything has been swallowed up by these ginormous factories that are in China.
Which brings us to your label. What did you want to achieve when you starting working in menswear?
I think men have a much more mathematical, linear approach to business, and even in the way they dress. The men’s industry has much more stable margins. No matter how fashionable something is for men, we can still wear a pair of pants and a button-down, or a polo, or a T-shirt. And that’s about it. With women’s, it just goes on. Men’s fashion is much more stable.
That perspective tracks with your clothing, which generally seems traditional and straightforward. Do you think that’s why your brand is growing so rapidly?
What I think really gives me a competitive advantage is that I sell the product. My store essentially becomes my little lab. Before I actually make something and put it on the line, I’ve tested a version of it in my store. I’ve gone and physically sold it. If you can sell the product and you know who the consumer is, you’re good. You have to have a tremendous amount of passion because it’s not an easy business, but what is? Mostly—no matter what you do in life—you gotta love it and embrace it, especially in the hard times.
So you’re a big part of the whole process?
I’ve basically done everything from being a stockboy on up—from stockboy to payroll to inventory to being on the floor selling to buying to designing.
And you take pride in that.
At the end of the day, we make a product in hopes that it’s going to sell. If you’re on the floor and you see that it sells, then you know you’re onto something. If it doesn’t, then you better analyze it and figure out what needs to be changed. We’ve gone from selling in 10 stores to 100 in only a year. We’re really focused on building a brand and relationships. We’ve turned down orders because we don’t feel like the stores are suitable or fit to carry our product. We do zero discounting and we don’t have any goods at the end of the season. Something must be going right.
Photos by Sebastian James