I met John Alburl and Nick Kemp of Jack/Knife Outfitters in their SOMA (San Francisco) workspace when a friend of mine was getting his jeans finished. Tailors for the well-known SF shop Unionmade, and former tailors for Levis, John and Nick create custom jeans from paper patterns for individual customers. While the styles I saw were in the “heritage” and “workwear” vein, they stand the idea on its head. Denim was originally an industrial garment, made purely for utility, and the very idea of unsanforized “shrink to fit” jeans was that a uniform garment could be customized post production. The trend to buy raw denim, and watch it become personalized with wear, is a natural extension. This is in stark contrast with the bespoke garment, a piece made for a specific customer, a one of a kind. Jack/Knife Outfitters makes bespoke versions of uniform garment. I got to ask John some questions.
Fok-Yan Leung: Could you tell us a bit about how and why you started Jack/Knife Outfitters?
John Alburl: Jack/Knife came about as a desire for us to be professionally involved in a space where the only focus was on quality. In an age of instantaneous education, the modern consumer has become more savvy than ever—consumers are interested in the “story”; the who, what, where, and why of a piece made are questions the market demands answers to. Companies tend to make up a gimmicky story that ultimately, over time, loses dimension, but with Jack/Knife our pieces are the story.
All the pieces that have ever received a Jack/Knife stencil were constructed for a reason. The use of heavy selvedge denim came not because the blogs thought it was cool, but because it was the only material that wouldn’t keep ripping on motorcycle rides. Bandannas also were constructed for dusty trips on the motorcycles. Bags came to carry tools, and it grew from there. Consumers are losing interest in the workwear/heritage/vintage trends, but luckily Jack/Knife does not technically lie in any of those categories. The influence from decades past for us comes not in fit or design, but more in the quality of construction and materials used.
Now we operate in a work studio in the old garment district of San Francisco. We take pride in doing everything ourselves and taking our time to aim as close as possible for perfection. These days there are very few operations left that design, draft patterns, and construct all in-house like we do at Jack/Knife.
FYL: Could you bring us through the process of how you work with a customer to get him the pair of jeans he wants? How do you get him to the right denim, the right cut, the right details?
JA: Describing the entire experience for being fitted for a pair of Jack/Knife jeans would be a bit overwhelming to take in all at once. So I’ll give the “cliff’s notes” version:
The process for being fitted for Jack/Knife custom jeans begins with the first visit—a tour of our operations, a showing of our selvedge fabric selection, the machines, etc. The goal is to knock out fabric selection, thread color, rivets/buttons, pocket shapes, etc. There are myriad details to go over and each client is given the opportunity to bring forth their individual detail requests as well. Measurements are taken, and we also discuss with the client the desired fit of the finished jean. There is much more that goes into the first fitting, and overall this stage is the most comprehensive.
After all the necessary information has been gathered from the client during the first visit, we begin drafting by hand the pattern for the jeans. The pattern-drafting phase by far is the most time-consuming step of the overall process. Once we have your pattern, we construct your jeans, which you’ll try on during your second visit. When you come to try on your jeans in the second visit, there is no waistband yet. Trying on jeans with no waistband can be a a bizarre experience, but the second visit is simply for us to see how the jeans are fitting up to that point. Based on how the jeans fit during the second visit, we either adjust as needed or move on to the next phase.
Past the second visit, all that is needed is a waistband, belt-loops, and a final hem. We attach the waistband and belt loops once we are past the second visit phase. The final visit from you will be to try the jeans on one last time to confirm that you are happy with the fit now that the waistband has been attached. We also take a final measurement for your hem. The final hem is done during this last visit, as it only takes Nick about 10 minutes or so to hem a pair of jeans. And lastly Nick dates and signs the jeans at the very end.
FYL: Could you tell us a little about the details that sets your jeans apart?
JA: Aside from being completely custom—the entire manufacturing of Jack/Knife jeans is done using hand-worked, single-needle construction. All of our patterns are individually hand-drafted by us in our studio. We use a cotton twill binding on all our raw seams, because in our minds we would be cheating if we used over-lock or cover-stitches. We hand-hammer all of our USA-made hardware to Jack/Knife jeans. The fabric we offer is all selvedge fabric from either Japan or Cone Mills out of North Carolina. We also incorporate the use of selvedge details in the waistband, belt loops, out seam, and coin pocket. Each pair of jack/Knife jeans is hand inscribed, dated, and signed. Oh, and our jeans come with a lifetime warranty.
FYL: What if I have some really specific details I like on my pair? If they are really dumb, how would you tell me?
JA: The only time I would intervene in someone’s design is if the idea lacked a functional purpose. We are all very honest at Jack/Knife, you would be able to tell if we thought an idea fell short of making sense.
FYL: On the other hand, there are guys who probably don’t really know exactly what they want. How do you guide them through the process?
JA: Through a series of dialogue we can guide just about anyone through our custom experience. We try in every way possible to make this this process simple to understand. It is during that first visit that we take the time to play host and develop a sense of understanding of the individual’s lifestyle. There are basic design details that can alter the feel or styles of jeans. An example would be that dressy jeans are different in styling than workwear style jeans.
FYL: Everyone I know loves their Jack/Knife jeans. What would you say is the secret of your success?
JA: Our unwillingness to sacrifice quality. We will always go the extra mile to make the best product possible. In these early days of Jack/Knife we have done everything possible to ignore the standard industry prompts of “selling out.” We have never outsourced. For Jack/Knife, we could never trust an outsourced entity to follow through on a project with the same passion as is practiced in our shop.
FYL: What vision do you have for Jack/Knife going forward?
JA: To continue growing. The introduction of Jack/Knife for women, a series of reproductions from the old mine finds of Mike Harris and Gang (author of Jeans of the Old West), a collaboration with Tellason, Jack/Knife limited edition pieces, and more are all happening just within the next 6months for Jack/Knife. For those coming to the Style Forum 10th Anniversary event, Jack/Knife will be unveiling a yet-to-be-seen limited edition cotton/hemp Japanese chambray shirt.
372 Ritch St.
San Francisco, CA 94107