Philadelphia has a history of being a clothing manufacturing hub, creating everything from textiles to military uniforms, and more.
Now a young company based in Fishtown is tapping into that American-made heritage with their bespoke selvage denim jeans for men. "I think there's a movement right now with people getting back into their own history and are proud to be American again, and are really interested in American made which is great," says co-founder Michael Stampler.
Norman Porter Co. was started last December by brothers Michael and David Stampler along with their good friend John Mahaffey; the brand is named after the brothers' grandfather. I talked with Michael at the Norman Porter pop-up at Art in the Age this past Friday about their company, the intricacies of selvage denim and the process of making made to measure jeans.
Where do you source your denim from? What makes it stand out?
We choose Japanese denims and American denims, mostly Japanese because a lot of the selvage looms that were once in America were sold to Japan, and they've since refined the American denim like they do with most things American. But we mostly buy the Japanese denims because it's what's most readily available, there's only one real manufacturer of American made selvage denim, which is Kone mills and they have a great product but it's only limited to what they put out, so by using the Japanese denims as well we've been able to make different kinds of jeans, colors, weights, and variety.
Why choose selvage denim?
Selvage denim is basically the bastardized words of "self edge," this type of denim has a self binding edge on the roll. Traditional denim jeans would use that type of denim, so it's more or less a throwback to those styles.
When you buy common jeans they have a fade process done to them already, that process happens naturally when you use selvage denim or raw denim. Technically all denim is raw denim before you do that process. So our thing is that instead of doing a treatment we let the customer do it (by wearing them over time), and in order to get the best results with that selvage denim is the best denim for it.
What's the construction process for making a pair of Norman Porters?
We've spent the better part of this year writing all the patterns for our cut, so typically we'll have people come in and try our jeans and decide from there what they really need. Certain denims will fit a different way so we can swap out one denim for the other and get a pair of jeans that fits the customer properly. We'll cut all our jeans long and then hem them up to fit the person. Using that process, it's kind of like small batch manufacturing with a personal feel I guess you could say, and with those two variables we can get the jeans fitting right for just about anybody.
Every hang tag for a pair of jeans has the type of denim, the size and any other specific information on it so anytime anybody wants to buy another pair they can just refer to that tag.
How long does it take to make a pair?
I do most of the sewing right now, and I can make a pair of jeans start to finish in around 3 hours. A little example if you go to a facility for Levi Strauss in Mexico it's about 15 minutes a pair on their mass scale, we can't compete with that at the moment.
How would you describe the feel and fit of a pair of bespoke Norman Porters?
We've tried to tailor our cut, we offer a select sizes (28-36), ones that we really think can maintain the cut that we're trying to do. We suggest people come in and buy a pair that's slightly tight because when you buy a pair like that and it fits properly snug, over the first two weeks they stretch just to your shape and then the jean fits perfectly.
So it's a fine line, because a lot of people don't really understand the subtleties of denim and that's understandable, like who would? It's a weird thing. But because we worked with it so long we can be like this is what you need, buy this, you're gonna be uncomfortable for three days, and then you're gonna love it for the rest of the time you have it.
Typically if you buy a jean that fits perfect when you put it on and it's never been worn, you're gonna run into a jean that's gonna be saggy or baggy or too loose a week later, a month later. Selvage denim, 100% cotton will get little to no stretch, the only stretch you get is that initial forced stretch that kinda forms to your body. That's why guys are really into it, they don't have to worry about jeans getting baggy or whatever it is.
What type of customer shops at Norman Porter? Who is the Norman Porter man?
That's a good question. I'd definitely say guys between 25 and 30. Guys really into American made and American heritage, and that can get behind really what we're doing. We certainly sell an expensive jean and you have to be willing to be buying into something more than just a pair of jeans.
What's the price point?
Our standard retail is $250 a pair, now if we do a small batch of something custom, let's say a double front work pant or a flannel lined jean, those can get more expensive, but our standard pair is $250.
The price point is not very different from most high-end jean companies and we do a very different process, I don't think it's too unreasonable. A lot of it is on our side, how do we make a $250 price point work for us to be profitable and for us to continue to do this.
So you only make men's jeans so far, would you be open to doing women's?
We get a lot of inquiries to do women's jeans, it's probably the most frequently asked question. But due to the nature of the denim we use there's no stretch, and it's usually heavier weight. With selvage denim when you make the patterns you typically have to design to the selvage line which is a straight line. These different variables can greatly affect how you would construct a women's jean, so in order for us to do it, it would be a limited cut –which we still would probably do– but we couldn't satisfy all women, because most women's jeans have like 15 different cuts so they can choose which one they want.
One aspect of owning a pair of selvage denim jeans is letting them naturally fade and develop character over time. There is an ongoing debate regarding how frequently they should be washed, what are your thoughts?
Washing is an interesting topic because some people claim to not ever wash jeans, some people are like it doesn't matter. I think the point to get from washing and how it affects your jeans is, if you wash them they're going to fade quicker, and they'll be the same quality jeans, you'll just lose more dye; so if you want a faded-in jean, go ahead and wash them as much as you want. If you want to maintain a dark blue jean, wash them as infrequently as you want.
What's your personal preference?
I think it's gross to wait you know like six months to wash your pants, whatever to each their own. Some guys will put them in the freezer to kill the bacteria. I'll wash like once a month.
Why start a denim company?
I was always looking to start a business, I have a masters in business and I was like, what am I gonna do? I always knew I wanted to make something and then one day when I was talking to my boss about selvage denim he was like, "What is more common than blue jeans?" Everyone has an opinion, everyone can talk about it, everybody can get behind it. It's like, I can make 'em, let's do it!
What are your overall goals for the company? Where do you see yourself this time next year?
Hopefully not sitting behind a sewing machine, that's my personal goal. I want to have a few employees so that we can keep moving forward. I definitely don't only wanna do men's denim, my business partners and I are really interested in just about everything, we definitely want to get into a lot more obscure products as far as menswear goes.
Norman Porter Showroom
2628 Martha Street,
Philadelphia, PA 19125