Exclusive Interview – Andrew Chen & Johan Lam of 3sixteen
Solely dedicated to crafting timeless and premium products, 3sixteen has grown to become one of America’s most versatile and essential high-end menswear brands. Though the New York City label had its start in graphic tees, it wasn’t until they transitioned into a more minimal and utilitarian creative direction that they saw traction; especially with their coveted range of raw denim.
However, while the surface of 3sixteen is aesthetically pleasing, one is sure to be left even more impressed after learning about the individuals at the brand’s helm - Andrew Chen and Johan Lam. The duo were kind enough to take a few of our questions and share some of their insights, experiences, and what they’ve got brewing up (pun intended).
RD: As our traditional first Q – why raw denim?
JL: Quite simply, factory washed jeans never look as good as the real thing. If the original intent of the garment was to be durable and long lasting, it seems illogical to pay extra for pants that already have holes in them.
Secondly, as everyone becomes more environmentally conscious, it’s important to note that unwashed jeans preserve water both because they aren’t brought to a wash house during the production process, and also because most consumers tend to wash their jeans less than their other garments.
AC: One thing that’s special to me about raw jeans is that no two pairs end up the same way – they tell a story of the wearer and what he’s been through. I have a particular fondness for the jeans that I wore the year I quit my day job to work on 3sixteen full time.
RD: In terms of the company name, its origins are from the bible verse John 3:16. Has there ever been a particular instance in starting up and running 3sixteen that your Christian devotion has really helped you guys through a difficult time?
AC: Our intent is for our faith to play a role in every business decision we make. Honestly, we’ve been through a lot and each season is difficult. Over the years we’ve faced some pretty crazy hurdles with retailers and manufacturers – everything from being cheated out of money to horrible production runs with no accountability.
To be fair, we’ve also dropped the ball on things: we’ve made promises that we weren’t able to keep, and there were times when we were slow to pay our bills. Our faith reminds us that we are imperfect people dealing with imperfect people. It helps us to grow from our past and try to be as upfront, honest and respectful as possible in whatever we do.
RD: Speaking of milestones, was there ever an “a-ha” moment when you guys knew 3sixteen was something bigger than what you initially planned?
JL: About a year and a half ago, it dawned on us that we really had a special range of products with our denim collection. Up until then, we were designing and producing a full collection, including outerwear, shirting, footwear and accessories. It was a lot to manage for the two of us, and although the products sold well, denim was always our best selling category.
At the start of 2011, we decided to focus all of our time, effort and dollars on our denim collection. It was one of the best decisions 3sixteen has ever made.
AC: I agree with Johan. We definitely miss designing collections from season to season, and holding back from making new product takes deliberate restraint. We love textiles and are oftentimes excited and inspired by something that we feel we could turn into an amazing garment.
That restraint, though, has been essential to our business growth because it allowed us to focus our efforts and finances on making the best jean possible at our price point.
RD: In addition to your Christian values, much of 3sixteen‘s brand seems to have a New York City feel. Actually, is that the Brooklyn bridge skyline we see in the banner on your website? What is it about the city that has served a source of creative inspiration?
AC: Yes, that image was taken during our Fall 2010 photo shoot and is a photo of the Manhattan Bridge. New York City has a certain fast pace to it that is undeniable. As exciting and inspiring as it can be, I’ve found that it can be draining too. Amongst my friends, we all agree that NYC can take away reasonable expectations for a proper work-life balance if you let it.
For me, living in NYC is a constant exercise of balancing priorities. I look around and see plenty of friends and acquaintances who crush it at work but also care about their families. Their example reminds me to try and do the same.
As far as cultural influences, there are too many to note. Just working out of my office in the back of Self Edge NY, I get to meet people from all over the world who are into all kinds of different things. Denim is not everyone’s first love, but there’s something about it that certain people really get.
It’s the people who are detail oriented and have an appreciation for quality and things that look better over time – they may be in a totally different industry, but the values cross over quite naturally. I learn a lot from them and find ways to apply their passion to what we do at 3sixteen.
RD: Digging deeper into your approach, one understated strength of 3sixteen is your strong sense of timing. In the past, you mentioned your thought process for new product ideas was founded upon looking at seasonal trends and how it will impact a man’s wardrobe. Is that still consistent today and where do you feel raw denim stands moving forward?
AC: Given that we’ve pared down our offerings to exclusively denim and accessories for the time being, we’re more focused on making non-seasonal goods. Sure, there are days when it’ll be too hot for most people to wear a pair of raw jeans, but we’d like to think that the jeans that we make are good for (almost) year-round wear.
This has helped us out on the business end too – we never have to worry about having seasonal leftovers and can focus on running the business as efficiently as we can. The demand for our jeans continues to grow from season to season, so it says to me that there are people still getting into their first pair of unwashed selvedge jeans every day. I think that our brand has a lot of room to grow.
RD: What is your go-to pair of raw denim? Aside from 3sixteen, of course
JL: I really only wear one pair of jeans at a time. Currently, it’s a pair of 3sixteen+, a line of products that we produce in Japan only for Self Edge stores. For non-denim days, I throw on Roy Duck Pants.
AC: I am also in a pair of 3sixteen+ jeans that are still in their beginning stages. My other jeans that I’m wearing a lot are my Flat Head F380s. They are probably the best straight leg cut that I’ve had the pleasure of wearing. The denim fades beautifully, too.
RD: What other labels (denim and non-denim) do you admire?
JL: I have great respect for Christophe Loiron of Mister Freedom and Roy Slaper, or simply, Roy. Christophe’s attention to detail placed on every rivet and stitch, along with the backstory for each collection is truly amazing.
Roy, the one man show, is a story that I love to tell in a world where it is becoming increasingly rare to find true artisans. Look around at everything you own – how many of those items are made by one person from concept to completion?
RD: What’s on the horizon for 3sixteen over the next few years? Any upcoming collaborations?
AC: We’re continuing to develop new denim fabrics in conjunction with Kuroki Mills – nothing crazy and gimmicky, just classic and interesting fabrics that we’ll proud to have in the lineup in years to come. Johan and I are definitely thankful to have this kind of flexibility with the mill; it allows us to offer products that are truly unique to our customers.
JL: We’ve developed a great relationship with Chris, Tyler and Mike over at Handsome Roasters, who all come from rich backgrounds in the coffee world and are on the verge of opening their first cafe in the Arts District of Downtown LA.
Along with outfitting their team in 3sixteen and designing a barista’s apron for them, we’re also collaborating on a travel coffee kit that will hold all the essential equipment to brew a great cup of coffee no matter where you are in the world. It will include an Aeropress, a Hario hand grinder, a scale and Handsome coffee beans. We’re hoping to have the kit available for purchase this Spring.
If you have any additional comments or questions, please feel free to leave them below. Thanks again, Andrew & Johan!