Today we are talking with Tony Patella of Tellason. Tellason is a premium denim company founded by Tony Patella & Pete Searson in San Francisco, CA.
What was the catalyst for starting Tellason?
Pete and I had been in the apparel industry for twenty years each in various forms — sales agents, sales directors and in my case, also as a partner in a San Francisco-based denim brand in the 1990s. It really came down to our shared passion for denim and durable goods and our desire to do something of our own.
We are a two-person operation. We have interns on occasion, but all of the design, distribution, customer service and sales management is handled by the two of us. Our studio is in Sausalito, California and the factory that makes our products is right across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The factory makes products for several other high-quality USA brands. They have been making garments in San Francisco for 28 years and I’ve known them since 1993.
With over 20 years of apparel industry experience before starting Tellason, what were some of the biggest lessons you learned, and applied, to starting your own company?
We both actually learned more of what not to do, than what to do from our previous experiences. Nutty egos taught us a lot!
In those years before starting Tellason, how had the landscape changed in terms of American manufacturing in the apparel industry?
My first job after college was with Converse as a sales representative and at that time, every pair of Chuck Taylors, One Stars and Jack Purcells were made in Lumberton, NC. During a sales meeting we made a visit to the factory and meeting the factory workers made a lasting impression on me. I quickly realized the importance of domestic manufacturing and how it built the middle class in this country. The ripple affect of off-shoring and factory closures is immense.
Why did you make it a point to manufacture your line in the USA, when it would be so easy to manufacture overseas?
It’s very important to us (and our customers worldwide) that our jeans are made in the USA and even more important that they’re made in San Francisco since it is the home of blue jeans, thanks to Levi Strauss that made and sold jeans to gold miners and John Sutter and John Marshall that discovered gold in northern California and thereby started the Gold Rush. Needless to say, American and particularly California history would be quite different had the Gold Rush not occurred. Certainly a city built on crazy hills (San Francisco) could not have happened without the wealth and audacity this extreme wealth created.
Are there any aspects of your product that has been difficult to source or produce in the USA? What would make that process easier?
It’s not that it is difficult to domestically source the components of our jeans (the denim, the pocketing, the thread, the buttons and rivets etc) it is that it is expensive — and high quality. That’s what it’s really about — yes, making a product in the USA is expensive, but in most cases, you get what you pay for with regard to durability and we always look at the cost per wear of things we buy. If something costs five times more than a cheap import, but lasts ten times longer (and is better all along the way), what is the better value? I’ve said it before, but most American consumers have placed a higher value on quantity over quality and price ever provenance. We believe it matters where items we buy are made and where the components of items come from.
The denim industry is full of history and iconic brands. How is Tellason carving out a spot in that industry, and how has the reception been to this point?
We are very focused. What makes us different than most brands is that we do not play in the fashion game — meaning we do produce seasonal collections that by their very nature are obsolete in 90 days. We make classic pants, shirts and jackets that ostensibly can be worn year around and when we get low on stock, we make more. Periodically, either based on personal inspiration or retailer/consumer comments, we will develop a new jeans fit or jacket and then it becomes part of our assortment. If sells well, we’ll keep on making it and if it sells slowly, we will let it run it’s course and move on.
Tellason works with the legendary Cone Mills’ White Oak plant. How much respect do have for, and what can be learned from, an establishment like Cone Mills that has found a way to remain relevant and coveted for over a century?
Our level of respect for Cone’s White Oak facility is tremendous. They have been making denim there since 1905 and have been a partner of Levi’s for over 100 years. We and our customers benefit from this long-term relationship. Levi Strauss has worked with Cone closely to raise the bar of quality over the years and it’s not like they say “hey, we’re making Tellason’s denim now, let’s slack off”. The White Oak plant has this legendary reputation amongst “denim heads” worldwide and yet if you don’t support it by buying denim made there, it isn’t going to survive on reputation alone. In the 1990s it had 2000 employees, it now has 400. We’re doing our part by working with them to create our three exclusive denims – 12.5 oz, 14.75 oz and 16.5 oz.
What does the community and history of San Francisco bring to Tellason.
It’s huge. As I’ve said, we’ve had customers, particularly in Japan, tell us they love the fact our jeans are made in the “ancestral” home of blue jeans. The history of the Gold Rush and how it impacted the USA and the world and built San Francisco is very fascinating. Blue jeans are part of that story.
Why is it so important for Tellason to market the fact that they are ‘American Made?’ What does that mean to you?
Made in America is obviously very important to us. I think many Americans have lost sight of the implications of buying crap often versus quality durable goods infrequently. Certainly, quality costs more, but I always come back to the cost per wear analysis. I also care about the people in these various locales that make our jeans (San Francisco), make our denim (North Carolina) and our pocketing (Tennessee) — they’ve become friends. After I left Converse in the mid-90s, Nike bought the brand and soon thereafter shuttered the North Carolina factory, moved all of the production to Asia and raised the prices! I often wonder what the woman I met at the factory that put the eyelets on the arch of the Chuck Taylors as they passed by her workstation did after she lost her job due to the closure. She was a really nice lady and had done the same job for 26 years! It’s not like she could go out and get another similar job. The factory closure affected more than just her individually, the newspaper headline “1500 people lose their jobs as Converse closes plant” doesn’t tell the whole story. The impact is felt by her family. By her community. By the local company that made the eyelets that she attached to the Chuck Taylors for 26 years. And that supplier’s families and their community and so on.
What does the ‘American-Made’ message send to the consumer and do you see it influencing their decision when making a purchase?
I see the American-Made message, in its own way, becoming a nice movement in the industry — particularly on the menswear side. Some say it’s a trend, but in my opinion, it’s a movement because once you buy a great pair of Red Wings or Alden boots, its not like you go “backwards” and buy lower quality boots the next time. You’ve been rewarded with great performance, comfort and the knowledge that you’re supporting American workers. It’s always struck me as odd that “Made in America”, until recently and still in many ways, has meant more to Japanese consumers than Americans! Our friend and the maestro of the great blog “A Continuous Lean”, Michael Williams, has one of my favorite quotes regarding Made in America and really crystallizes everything in one statement — “I don’t want to live in a country that doesn’t make anything”. Brilliant.
How do you get that message across to the consumer?
We’ve said from day one that we will let our product and our distribution be our marketing. Savvy consumers know that anyone with the required amount of money can buy an advertisement, but that only great products can be found on the shelves of the worlds’s best shops. That said, we do as much as we can to communicate with the end-user as much as possible be that via Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. We also participate in “pop up events” a couple of times per year, including the grand daddy of them all, the Pop Up Flea in New York City (November 30 – December 2, 2012) which gives us an opportunity to not only meet other small, USA producers of products, but also engage directly with the consumer, that in a sea of choices, picks your product or least is curious about it. They deserve our utmost respect and we really enjoy telling our story to them.
If you could tell our readers one factor that is the greatest threat or advantage to keeping things made in America, and allowing companies like Tellason to succeed, what would it be?
The greatest threat is that people will continue to buy cheap products produced elsewhere and not understand (or care about) the importance of supporting stores, denim factory workers, shoemakers and other local industries that actually put people to work in their communities. People should buy less, but buy better. Better costs more upfront, but over the life of the item, it costs less and is better! The advantages are myriad. Obviously the above mentioned worker/industrial implications are of utmost importance, but for us, the proximity to where our products are made is paramount. I’m in the factory four days a week. I can’t imagine designing something, approving a prototype, sending the production order to China and then not seeing it again for five months after it makes a three week boat trip from Asia. We care too much about our products, the people who make them and the suppliers of our components to play that game.
Thank you so much, Tony! Such a great vision and perspective. Really appreciate your time.
The above video is from Tribute | SF ‘s vimeo stream.