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Denim As High Art: A Conversation With Jeffrey Shafer

· fashion,denim,Environment,usa,startups

Near the beginning of autumn, I had an opportunity to speak with Jeffrey Shafer, who is the Founder of Bluer Denim, based in Portland, Oregon. During an era where fashion has been recognised as one of the most wasteful and environmentally damaging industries in the world, with denim making a significant impact on land and water pollution, many people may not be aware of the environmental and human cost into making a single pair of jeans.

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A photo still from the documentary, River Blue (2016, Dir: David McIlvride). Fashion is one of the most toxic and polluting industries on the planet. Harmful dyes and chemicals are dumped into the rivers of China.

In 2013, Jeffrey began Bluer Denim with a stalwart responsibility to the environment and launched an eco-conscious brand, partly through the support of his former company and with a combination of crowdfunding.

Living in Los Angeles, Jeffrey grew up within the apparel industry. He had earned a BA in Psychology, then subsequently received an MBA and worked as a financial analyst before working for his uncle, who owned a children’s wear company. During this time, he became interested in launching his own company. Together with his wife, Lauren, Jeffrey came up with a concept for vintage American workwear and attended trade shows in LA. During a span of 9 years, the company grew from a startup to $25 million annual wholesale revenue. Eventually his partners bought him out, and Jeffrey began to focus on creating a premium denim brand for adult men.

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Bluer Denim classic straight raw selvage men's jeans.

Through his experiences in the denim industry, he had a deep admiration and respect for how denim was being revolutionised in Japan. Half of his previous business was coming directly from Japan, and from its beautiful displays to fashion, culture and food, Japan took denim culture from the ordinary to one of high art. He launched Agave Denim in 2002 as a premium denim luxury brand targeted towards men in their 30s and 40s. Jeans are the unofficial uniform in California in the tech and entertainment sectors and at the time there were only a handful of premium denim brands on the market. After selling Agave Denim, Jeffrey began to focus on launching an eco-conscious denim brand, Bluer Denim.

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Bluer Denim is 100% made in the United States. The cotton is from Georgia, and then processed in North Carolina, with rivets and fasteners made in Kentucky, then hand-crafted in Los Angeles.

When he sat down with his crew to develop Bluer Denim, at one time he had utilised the try-on model, which is popular today from many eCommerce platforms such as Dia&Co to Amazon Prime Wardrobe. however, he found that the shipping costs were just too high. During this time, he wanted 100% transparency on the supply chain so decided to be completely produced in the USA. Bluer Denim is designed in Portland, Oregon, and the cotton is from Georgia and then processed at the Cone Mills White Oak in North Carolina and then the jeans are further hand crafted in Los Angeles, and the rivets and fasteners are from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Whereas, the majority of denim products in the market are made in factories in China or Bangladesh, with harmful dyes and pigments that are being actively dumped into oceans and rivers, Bluer Denim is entirely Made in the USA and abide by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, so that harmful chemicals such as indigo dye does not get dumped into the water. Instead, Bluer Denim is sold as raw jeans, and some of his jeans are rinsed with filtered water and treated before the water is allowed back into the environment at the LA factory where the jeans are hand-crafted.

Jeffrey tells me though that the most sustainable and environmentally friendly denim factory is actually located in Vietnam, called Saitex, which has won many awards for its eco-conscious practices. However, in the United States, Portland has become the leader in sustainable practice and that one cannot operate any business in Portland without a position in sustainability, which is a further reason why he chose Portland as the company headquarters.

We spoke a bit about some the challenges regarding launching a denim brand and surprisingly some of the hurdles came from retailers, in which they were upset that he was selling directly to consumers using the B2C model in addition to the B2B model which they viewed as competition. Many of the other hurdles came in the from of marketing: getting people to view his brand and to actively make a purchase, in addition to demand creation, developing a customer base through social media, and utilising editorials in publications and finding influencers to promote the brand. However, Jeffrey’s philosophy on denim production is simple: to be consistent. From a cursory glance, denim production appears quite simple, but Jeffrey tells me it is actually incredibly complex, and that his goal is to be consistent.

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Details on a pair of Bluer Denim jeans. Each product has a unique serial number.

Jeffrey, a self-described textile nerd, also designs much of the denim himself. He has spent 30 years developing an affinity towards different denim materials with attention to fibers and stretch characteristics and his ideal jeans are in the aesthetic of the Levi’s that James Dean popularised in the 1950s.

I think that one of the many challenges of launching companies is also finding time for self-reflection and being able to enjoy life. So much of Post-Industrial American society focuses on a kind of fervent workaholism as the ideal in which many people feel compelled to value themselves through how busy they may appear to be. However, living in Portland, Jeffrey likes to take time to enjoy nature, go on walks with his dogs, talk to his neighbours, to go skiing as often as he can; explore new cities and find new restaurants with his wife and also spend time at some of his favourite scenic places in Montana. Having a degree in Psychology, Jeffrey has mastered the art of living simply and to focus on the important things in his life in a current, divisive atmosphere in which through the US media, it has become the norm to flaunt with a compete-with-the-Joneses mentality.

In our world, we have so many choices, and within the fashion industry, denim is an iconic item with hundreds of competing brands, but Bluer Denim truly stands out as a leader in its philosophy and attention to quality and its inherent production value which supports the growing number of eco-conscious companies that have a prevailing motive to positively impact our environment, and to support local jobs and communities. Not only that, Bluer Denim is beautifully made, from its seams, to the stitching to the rivets, there is no detail that Jeffrey has not overseen.

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Jeffrey Shafer is the Founder, Creative Director and CEO of Bluer Denim. He is an architect in the denim industry, and puts his heart, soul and passion into his vision. Balancing capitalist values with social values, Jeffrey collaborates with the most talented people on the planet. He has taken huge risks both financially and professionally and always tries to put a dent into the universe in order to create possibilities for the next generation.

Jeffrey also previously founded two other companies, Agave Denim and BC Ethic, which began at a dinner table with a $200K initial investment, which then grew into a $25 mln revenue company and sold throughout department stores in the US and Canada. He can be reached at