Even though concepts like craftsmanship and sustainability have gained a higher profile in recent years, some denim industry’ insiders started believing in a new way of making jeans a while ago. That's the case of Loren Cronk, a veteran designer who, for more than 20 years, worked at companies like Levi Strauss & Co, Marc Jacobs, Rocawear, Ecko and Ralph Lauren, before starting his own venture by creating the Loren brand in 2002. Back then, he started the process of hand making jeans. That led to some custom orders and eventually he was able to translate that process into a small run, production product. In August 2010, the Loren store in Brooklyn, New York, was opened. In our interview, he talks about fabrics, premium denim, customer service and the ins and outs of social media. Interview by Lorenzo Molina

What kind of fabrics do you employ and how is a pair of Loren jeans produced?
We always use the best ring-spun, premium selvedge denim, sourced from a range of mills. The most recognizable sources are Japanese mills, but we also use U.S. Cone Mills White Oak denim, and occasionally, some Italian fabrics.  We favor simple washes to highlight the beauty of these fabrics.  Usually that means 100% cotton but we also use a little bit of stretch and even have used some fill yarns from recycled, plastic bottles.

Back when we first opened, we did have a washing machine at the studio to experiment with different chemical treatments and enzyme washes. But over time, we found the basic rinse wash resonates more strongly. Really, the ticket price of our product is based on the time and craft invested into each pair. Major denim companies leverage an economy of scale that we simply can’t replicate. Instead, our key point of differentiation is that handmade quality. Also, having a storefront allows us to know our customers on a first name basis, so our level of personalized service is really where we hang our hat.

At the studio, we develop our own pattern, pick a few fabrics for the season and cut a small size run in each fabric. Our team will go through the process of chalking out the pattern on the denim, cutting, then sewing. We keep the length unfinished allowing us to finish each jeans on the customer, even altering the leg when needed. Our studio is open to the public, so customers, or tourists, are welcome to watch or hang out while we work. At around $300-$350 a pair, depending on fabric, the jeans are both an industrial product and a fashion product. We don’t want the jean just to sit in a drawer because it’s too precious to wear. Jeans are made to be worn, worn rough is even better.

Denim studio
Denim studio

You also sell another jeans range called The BLKSMTH. What is it all about?
The Loren “handmade,” is a great slim-straight fit, and we do our best to make it an unpretentious product. But still, it can seem sophisticated or even intimidating for a guy that doesn’t have the budget or level of product knowledge. Blksmth has a $179 ticket, it’s more familiar and approachable. And it lets us offer additional variety in terms of fit and finish. That comes in 2 fits, Slim Tim and Regular Roger, both are ring-spun, selvedge denim from Cone White Oak, 100% sourced and made in the U.S.A.

What is the price range for jeans in your store?
Our own menswear labels range from $179-$350. But we also stock third party jeans, usually smaller fashion buys to offer additional variety and prices. So we can hit as low as $120 for guys. For women, we stock Jodi Rosen, Naked & Famous, and vintage, anything from Levi’s and Lee or old department store private labels.  So that range is $40-$200 for vintage and $98-$325 for womens.

What denims are the favorite ones among your customers?
Since the Loren product is mainly for men (the women’s handmade is still in the sampling phase with a target of fall ’16.), the most successful approach is something traditional, but updated for today. So our indigo in 11.5 or 12.5 oz are really the core. But also black or black/blue are key.

The high-end denim market is in a fierce competition with fast retail chains that sell jeans really cheap. How do you think that the situation will evolve?
That’s such an important question for us. The premium or super-premium sides of the market really exploded over the past decade. And now the high end fabrics are more widely available and the customer is much smarter about what he wants. His wife/girlfriend/mother is still influencing the decision, but we’ve always spoken directly to him. Ultimately, we thrive when the broader market thrives. We expect any well-rounded jean wardrobe is going to have both inexpensive pairs and more expensive pairs.

The fall/winter 15/16 fashion weeks are over. In terms of denim, what do you think will be the key trends next season?
We do look at runway but not necessarily for jean trends. We look at culture in general and even women’s fashion for what’s next in men’s fashion. For us, it’s about the details, we do a few things with seams and rivets that are unique in the market. You might not notice at first. Subtle details are really the key. So he wears it, and anyone can see it’s a little different than other guys, but you really need to look very closely to see how that’s true. That’s really about how men today want to see themselves, as classic but unique, approachable and intelligent. Being clever is passé, but being engaging, compassionate and honest are timeless.

Loren also offers a jeans-repair service. Why do you offer this service?
We never set out to brand ourselves as a jean-tailor. But having the right machines and knowledge on construction, the demand really surprised us.  You need special threads, the right fabrics and knowledge.  Anyone that’s ever had a tailor hem a jean knows the result is unpredictable. And since that jean we love is the one we wear the most, it’s the one most likely to wear out in the crotch or pocket, or need a new rivet. Especially with the explosion of premium denim, there’s a whole generation of guys that bought $200 jeans and were told they would last for 10 years.  Then a year later, there’s a rip or a busted seam. For maybe a $30 repair, he’s getting the most from that investment.

View of the store's inside. Loren is also stocking brands like Naked & Famous and Levi’s
View of the store's inside. Loren is also stocking brands like Naked & Famous and Levi’s

How would you describe a good customer service nowadays?
Good customer service is all about listening to the customer. He’s usually pretty specific about what he wants and what’s gonna make him happy. If he wants our guidance, he’ll ask what we think. The repair business really helps with our credibility. If we did a great repair on his favorite jean, he’ll be open to a suggestion on what we think will work best for him. There’s no real answer to, “what’s the best jean?” The real question is: “What’s the best jean for me?” And our response has to be, “Well, how do you wear jeans? Who are you?” Then we can start to suggest what’s best for him.

What role does social media play for you as a retailer?
We use Instagram to show what we’re making in the studio right now. And we send emails bi-monthly to show what’s new or exciting. Plus we sell online with Amazon.
We embrace social media but don’t view it as an opportunity that needs to be maximized. We like organic social media growth, real growth, spreading the work and that takes time. That’s also part of our appeal, our customers can still come here and find something that’s not splashed all over the internet. It’s not trendy or being gifted to celebrities. If we push too hard here, it feels less special. Our customer wants to explore and work a little to find what’s right for him. In a way, he resents when you tell him what he wants. Again, our job is to listen to the customer, not broadcast his choice or exploit his trust.

What do you like about your location, Brooklyn?
Brooklyn is a series of neighborhoods, our block has Five Leaves and Nights & Weekends, which are owned by a friend and we make their aprons. Ad Hoc is across the street and they stock amazing stuff. Van Leeuwen is across the street, they have amazing ice cream and great coffee. I live down the street and my kids go to school over here. We’re next to McCarren Park which is a great place. We don’t get the tourist traffic that Williamsburg gets although we do get a little. Ultimately, we see ourselves as a neighborhood place, our customers are our friends.

Could you tell us any shop worldwide that you deeply admire?
Honestly, there’s too many to list. With fashion or retail, the most important thing is to have a point of view, we admire stores that take chances. Stand Up Comedy is a really cool online shop. Self Edge obviously kills it in denim. And Steven Alan really deserves a lot of credit.