Since husband-wife duo Matt and Carrie Eddmenson started their designer denim line Imogene + Willie in 2009 out of a converted gas station in Nashville's 12 South neighborhood, their greatest challenge has been keeping up with the brand's incredible growth–which, you know, isn't a bad problem to have. Featuring impeccable craftsmanship that pays attention to fit and stitching detail, their made-in-the-U.S.A. handcrafted denim fills a huge void in the market.
But their success isn't exactly surprising when you consider the two have more than 30 years experience in the denim business, combined, behind them. Both spent time working in Carrie's family business, Sights Denim, a company with a roster of clients that included, among others, Levi's, Lucky and Girbaud. By the time the pair branched out on their own, they had spent years analyzing every single thing they did and did not like about a pair of jeans.
Which is precisely why their product offering is so streamlined. Imogene + Willie denim, available in only a few cuts, is purposely unadorned. The Eddmensons want their product to be timeless, classic and unique to the wearer. They want their customer to "still be wearing the same pair of jeans 10-plus years from now, only with holes and repairs and bleach stains," Matt says.
With so much denim success under their belts, the Eddmensons have expanded Imogene + Willie's product offering to include men's shirtings and a new women's collection which debuted this fall. Additionally, they are considering opening other retail locations. Ultimately, the duo wants Imogene + Willie to become a lifestyle brand. We caught up with the Eddmensons to find out how they got to where they are now–and where they're going next. Read on.
Fashionista: What struggles do you experience working together as husband and wife? How are you two similar and different?
Carrie: We have such different management styles and different communication styles, but it's sort of beautiful because at every juncture we balance each other out. They say that the key is to separate work from home but we have not found a way to do that. It's impossible because this is such an integral part of our lives right now. Even if we're not talking about business, we're talking about future plans for the company. But I feel like we've got a rhythm to it all.
Matt: I think one of the reasons it's worked for us is that we don't have an ego for the things that have happened in our business nor does either person want to try to take the credit for one or the other thing. When you take that element out, it's smooth sailing.
Describe your proudest moments as business owners. Have you had a "we've made it" moment?
M: When we started this business, everything was so doomsday in terms of the economy. We make a product that is made in the U.S.A. with U.S. fabric, and along with those elements comes a high price tag. The fact that people even paid attention and started wearing our jeans was huge. Still now, when we see someone at a restaurant with our jeans on we're high-fiving. Probably the biggest thing for us has been when we've been outside of Nashville and seen someone wearing our jeans.
C: When we started, it was just the four of us [Matt, Carrie and husband-wife team Nestor and Gloria Maranan, a master patternmaker and sewer, respectively who the Eddmenson's worked with at Sights Denim]. Now there are 18. In the last few months, it's started feeling like a well-oiled machine. Our team is as proud as we are of what we're doing. And we're all super proud of our fall women's collection because it's a first.
What have been your biggest challenges with the business? What were some of the early obstacles?
C: Honestly, other than exhaustion, the early days were the easiest. We were very fortunate. It was cash in/cash out and we profited in the third month. It worked like clockwork.
M: Our challenges now are because we've been fortunate to grow.
C: A specific challenge in that regard is manufacturing. We're passionate and dedicated about manufacturing in the U.S., but it's not as easy as it used to be. That's been our biggest challenge I would say—but we're working through it. There are creative solutions. And manufacturing in the U.S. is making its way back.
Where do you find inspiration? Do you follow fashion?
C: We really don't look at what other people are doing. We use this set up, a sewing setup, so if I'm feeling something or if we're missing something from our closet or if our team feels like there's something that's missing from the philosophy of Imogene + Willie, we can make it and test it. One of us can wear it. You know, we can just make five and put them in the store. We really design and create from instinct and we always have.
What's the inspiration behind your women's line? How is it different from the men's line?
M: Guys are simple. Guys don't need a lot of bells and whistles. But with women, it's so different. I've stayed in the store for the last three years and listened to what the customer wanted. Carrie—whether she'll admit this or not—has such great style that I felt like everyone that came in the store wanted to dress like her. Carrie mixes new with old, and it just made sense that those pants that she's wearing or the blouse that she has on, that we should make our version of that, with fit and fabric in mind. And now we have a women's assistant designer. That has allowed Carrie to give direction to someone who is equally creative, and through that we developed what we are really proud of as our women's collection. I think that's why it's doing so well. It's doing fantastic in Anthropologie because it has such a wide audience.
Note: The Eddmenson's recently stated on their website that, going forward, Imogene + Willie will be experimenting with how and when new pieces are offered posing the question: "Why in the world do we have to follow the rules and make a ‘spring' and ‘fall' collection? What we make really isn't a collection anyway. And we only sell it in our store. All our ‘collection' represents is just thoughtfully designed staple pieces that we love, in hopes that you feel the same."
How did you take the business into wholesale markets?
C: We've been uber picky about who we partner with. It works because there are tons of great stores throughout the country (and we have some stores overseas now, too) who, by their own right, are very passionate about their product mix and are very in tune to it like we are. They've been following the brand and they've picked up on the high points that are important to us, such as the relationship with the customer. But the challenge has been that, for the first time, all those people are getting jeans and we're not getting to see them on their bodies, we're not getting to shake their hands. The whole premise behind us doing this is to get people into a timeless product. Jeans have been around forever and will be around forever and we just want to get the perfect fitting jean on him or her. We've gotten to be such a part of the process that relinquishing that has been a little tough. But it's also something we can be comfortable with because our partners are so great.
What is your average workday like?
C: We wake up at 7:30. We make the coffee the night before and go straight to the coffee pot. Then we work for an hour in bed. I go straight to the computer and look at the financials and emails. Matt is such a creative that he goes to blogs and motorcycle sites and he looks at artists and videos. Then our team shows up between 9:00-10:00. [Part of the Imogene + Willie team works out of the Eddmensons' home office during the day. After the initial team meeting, Matt heads off to the store.] The best way to explain it after that is that it's like the New York Stock Exchange. It's crazy. Everything we do is in-house—marketing, PR, graphic design. So it's just knocking through those things all day long. It works. It totally works.
What is your next big focus?
M: Deciding on the next city to open the next store in. We're in the beginning stages. But it's going to happen, and we're really excited about it.
C: We're not necessarily looking for another gas station because what we've pulled off here cannot be replicated. That's why we don't want to have a hundred stores. We don't want to replicate this in five or 10 cities. Each will have to speak to its community.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming designers and business owners?
M: The reality is that nothing comes easy. You really have to work hard at something to be good at it. The main advice is to not give up and to learn everything you possibly can, and just know that really being good at something doesn't happen overnight. I always encourage people to do what their passionate about because passion leads to you not having to work. That's the way we feel. Like we've really never worked a day in our lives because we love what we're doing so much. That's really important.
Craft is really everything in terms of what this generation is really looking for and is recognizing. So, the better you are at something, the more recognition you'll get for that product. Like I said, be passionate about it because being passionate about it will lend a story towards what you're doing. And people love stories.
C: Almost everyone told us this would fail. But we knew it wasn't going to. So my advice would be, even though you do have to learn and make sure your concept is strong, do it. If you're in a position to take the risk, then do it. And do it originally. Knock-offs are really boring. And accept that sometimes you may not get a paycheck. Then keep doing it…