The inspiration behind Raleigh Denim Workshop came — originally, at least — not from contemporary fashion, not from styles found at vintage stores, not even from the designer’s own closet. It was wine-making, actually, that laid the foundation for Sarah Yarborough and Victor Lytvinenko’s now-beloved clothing company. The pair launched the denim brand in 2007 in their home state of North Carolina, the birthplace of modern denim and the region where Levi’s and Wrangler produced a lot of their products up until the 1980s when they moved most production out of the USA. “I was making wine up in the mountains in North Carolina, but it wasn’t working out. What I found up there instead were all the old denim mills, including the oldest mill in the country,” Lytvinenko says. “I just thought I could take the philosophy of winemaking — the idea of terroir, craftsmanship, something that represents the land — and apply it to jeans.”
I wanted to put a thing on that knew my body, that made me feel more badass, and gave me a little confidence to move.
Raleigh Denim Workshop was built around the simple but profound belief that you could create ideal jeans in an ideal way, producing everything they make right in North America, responsibly and with a sense of wisdom informed by North Carolina’s textile heritage. “A lot of the machines I use to make the jeans I bought from the last Levi’s factory in America,” Lytvinenko says, referring to a mill in Bakersfield called Taylor Toggs. Their jeans were an immediate hit, quickly scoring a spot on the racks at the now-defunct but once-essential luxury department store Barney’s, which catapulted them into the broader fashion consciousness. At that time, there just weren’t that many companies producing high quality, carefully considered, well fit denim jeans that you could wear both to the office and to a night out, and what was available in more mainstream stores was often cheap-feeling and shoddily made. “Denim had just become a commodity and it wasn’t meaningful. I wanted to create heirlooms,” he says. “I wanted to put a thing on that knew my body, that made me feel more badass, and gave me a little confidence to move.”
Now, Raleigh is bringing this know-how (and nearly 20 years of experience) to a new and possibly bigger audience. Though their prices have always hovered somewhere between $200 and $500, Lytvinenko has been obsessed for years with the idea of making a $100 pair of denim jeans that’s created entirely in America and with as much thoughtfulness as a fancier pair. This year, he’s made it happen — calling it the R100 — and they are exactly what one would hope they’d be: slim in the right places, loose and easy in others, sturdy but soft all the same. “I’ve always had this knot in my heart that what I was doing was not accessible. My friends even sometimes can’t afford our jeans, so I’ve always dreamed about making honest, pure, accessible, and 100% American-made jeans. Something that I would wear, that my dad would wear, and that my grandpa would wear,” he says. “I’ve spent 15 years rebuilding machines. I’ve designed thousands of pairs of jeans. Worked with cotton farmers and spinning mills. Refined the color of indigo. And now I feel like I have the right product — you can wear it to a rodeo, you can wear it to the Lil Wayne concert. A true American jean.”
Lytvinenko is also flexing his creative muscles by turning their brick-and-mortar store in North Carolina into something of an atelier: he is now offering the chance for customers to collaborate on making clothes from the ground up, not just with pants but with outerwear and shirting as well. He takes meetings, shows fabrics (“beautiful treasure fabrics,” he calls them) and fits, and asks questions about what someone is looking for in an item, sketching ideas right there with them to get the creative juices flowing. “I like to interview a person, learn who they are, what they like, what they don’t. We put on a lot of things. What shapes do you like? What style, what color?” he says. “I don’t want to work it to death. This is not, ‘Let’s nitpick over every single thing.’ This is, ‘I want to learn who you are, what the need is, what you like, and then make you something.’”
When it comes to denim specifically, having something tailor made for you gets at the heart of what has made owning the perfect pair of jeans — increasingly difficult in our mass produced world — so wonderful from the beginning: the exact right pants are those you want to wear again and again and again and again. “People want to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m self-conscious about my thighs. Can we work and make sure that that looks great?’” Lytvinenko says of what customers ask him for. “The whole point of jeans is that you feel awesome in them. And if you go and try on all the jeans in the world and you don’t feel awesome in them, that’s a rotten feeling.” This is the kind of practical, pure ethos at the core of the Raleigh name. “I have no formal design training. I’ve always been making things. When I want to learn how to make something perfect,” he says. “I just start doing it.”
Raleigh Denim Workshop's R100 features 12 oz denim and is made out of 98% Cotton & 2% Lyrca, right here in the USA.