Interview by Sara Idacavage | Illustration by Tommy Shimko
It was not so long ago that it was difficult to procure a new pair of raw jeans, and slowly break them in, earning that classic denim patina like the generations before us. Christian McCann founded Left Field back in 1998 and used old tricks to breath new life into the American clothing industry. Atlas spoke with McCann about collecting vintage pieces and the current state of the raw denim movement.
ATLAS: How do you choose your fabrics? Do you tend to make your decisions based on textile mill, texture, historical accuracy, or other factors?
MCCANN: I always look for a lot of character in the fabric: slub [yarn imperfections caused by traditional denim manufacturing techniques], nep, hairy, or thick/thin irregular shaped yarns like the old vintage kind. There was less ability to control that in the old spinning machines. Although I don't like when there is contrived looking slub patterns (ones that are computer programmed), I try to find fabrics and colors that are unique as well as [textile] mills, but run the Cone [the most commonly used textile manufacturer among American raw denim brands] basics all day long for the entry level customer. Historical accuracy is cool, but more so for repro[duction] brands; to me it's most important to have texture and deep indigo dyes.
ATLAS: With the rise of more and more denim brands, how do you feel about the growth of this section of the menswear market?
MCCANN: It's a bit of a double edge sword. I am happy more brands are manufacturing in the US, but it's causing overcrowding in the few American denim factories that are capable of doing high-end production. Also, it gets redundant when everyone is using the same JP and American fabrics, especially Cone since there isn't a lot of variations in their fabrics. I think if a new brand puts in a lot of effort into the branding and doing something unique with their jeans, then I respect that. Not so much when people don't even bother doing custom tack buttons, rivets, and burrs with no distinguishing features. It's just lazy and I feel like the motives are monetary, not passion for denim. Also, for new brands, I would recommend not being too precious or flowery in their descriptions of the Cone White Oak fabric they use or the process. It's getting really tired with the overkill in the heritage movement, especially when those before them have been doing it for years that way.
ATLAS: You must have a significant collection of vintage denim. What are some of the prized pieces that you have obtained?
MCCANN: To be honest, I don't have a huge collection of vintage denim. I started the business on a credit card and barely made it through the recession, so it's been financially tough being independent in this business. I look at a lot of really old samples and swatches at better vintage stores or shows and try to support by buying various samples, but the really old amazing pieces are crazy expensive. People like Michael Harris, who go deep into old abandoned mines throughout America and find antique denim and work wear, are the real heroes in this industry. Any designer can go drop a few thousand on an antique pair, but it’s so much cooler the way he does it.
ATLAS: Is there anything about the vintage denim pieces that you find that can’t be replicated today?
MCCANN: I think the Japanese in general have done a really good job at doing reproductions since they are so passionate about the details and the process, but a lot of the original irregularities in fabric that we have all grown to love were created by machinery that has been replaced decades ago by modern machines that are much more efficient. New technology has made it easy to control thread tension, evenness of yarns, and the dying process, so it takes away the individuality of each piece. Mills and factories in America looked at me like I was an alien when I have asked for these irregularities in the past and replied, “We spent decades trying to remove the slubs out of fabric and now you want us to put them back in!!”
ATLAS: How do you find a balance between modern tastes and historic inspiration when creating your garments?
MCCANN: I always look for a story in developing a different collection—something historical and unique from our past—and think it's crucial for proper branding. It's a fine line between designing with vintage inspiration and just reproducing vintage samples. I don't dress too costumey and think it's a bit corny when people look like they walked off the set of There Will be Blood. It's very important to update fits and switch up fabrics, and use vintage details in new ways. I believe less is more and the subtle details in fabric, production and branding are what really make a great garment. Too many bells and whistles screams for attention and lack proper refinement in making a classic.
ATLAS: Do you wear your vintage denim, and if so, do you have any tips for someone who is trying to restore and wear an older pair?
MCCANN: Yes, of course. I think it's cool to mix in key vintage pieces with modern quality clothing. Like I said before, I feel like head-to-toe, over-the-top vintage pieces look too costumey for me personally, but I know there is a market for it. [It] depends on the age and how worn a piece is. I think it's important to wash your jeans, just not often, and I prefer hand washing inside out using cold water in my bathroom sink with a mild detergent. Never washing your jeans builds up bacteria that breaks down the cotton and is just nasty and smells. By hand washing and hang drying your jeans, you don’t get the irregular fading that occurs from the twisting and turning in the washer and dryer, and they loose less dye. Your fades are more extreme when they only occur naturally from wear.