The high-stakes world of makers — especially those hoping to develop a national brand built on quality craftsmanship — can require connections beyond what someone finds in a simple Google search, said Ryan Martin.
“You kind of have to know somebody,” the Kansas City denim guru behind the KC Jacks workwear line and the couture brand W.H. Ranch Dungarees explained of the process that blends access to curated goods and labor with consumer expectations.
For KC Jacks — a collaboration between Martin and Eric Edwards of E. Edwards Workwear — stitching together the needed pieces for handmade-in-the-USA workwear products required literal backdoor channels to the best in the business, Martin said.
“I did an inspection on our jeans halfway through production. We’re driving all over L.A. [where KC Jacks products are made] and we ended up in this back alley and there’s this unmarked building … we go in this door and we go up three flights of stairs to an unmarked door,” he continued, painting the picture of what he called a modern day speakeasy of makers.
“You open the door and it’s probably a 100,000-square-foot warehouse full of hundreds and hundreds of workers and machines just going wild in there,” Martin said.
At that moment, the Kansas City maker realized KC Jacks had the potential to be something special, he recalled.
“You don’t just pick up the yellow pages and find the reputable manufacturers and sewers in the USA,” he laughed, noting the importance of strong network building — which ultimately allowed the company to take advantage of such an opportunity.
“We get to use Texas cotton and watch it be woven in L.A., specific to KC Jacks colors and specifications and then we see it walked down the road to be cut and sewn. That is something that frankly, very few people can claim about their products,” Martin said. “Not only is [KC Jacks product] made in the USA, it’s being made with fabric that is also made from raw cotton in the USA.”
Achieving the Made-in-the-USA status doesn’t ding the brand’s affordability, he said, with products ranging from $16 to $60.
Click here to shop KC Jacks’ website.
Not only did a strong network open manufacturing doors for KC Jacks, it’s the reason the apparel startup was stitched in the first place, Martin said.
“[Eric Edwards and I] casually met through a friend of a friend some months back and he knew my background in the apparel industry — specifically sort of the notoriety I had in that world,” Martin said of the natural working relationship that developed between the two entreprenuers, who each had an established brand name behind them.
“He had seen a need within his own stores to have a well-made work pant that was made in the USA,” Martin continued. “He was a big Carhartt dealer — and still is. But more and more of their portfolio was being imported. And his customers had, for 20-some-odd-years, been used to buying a good amount of made in the USA products and were sort of becoming disillusioned.”
With a need identified, getting in the US-made game was a clear solution to the problem for Edwards — but presented its own set of roadblocks, Martin said.
“That’s when he came to me and said, ‘I think I have something here … but I’m sort of uninterested in doing the day-to-day of it and I know this is your wheelhouse,’” he said of the conversation that led to collaboration between the pair.
From there, KC Jacks evolved from a side hustle into a full-fledged brand, identifying even more market needs, Martin explained.
“We sat down over lunch and it really sort of evolved from, ‘I think I’ve got this category that could be filled with maybe a single pair of pants,’ to really a fully fleshed-out line. [I identified] some low-hanging fruit for good, made-in-the-USA heavyweight pocket tees, sweatshirts, socks, sort of these bread-and-butter basics and he liked the idea and just sort of let me go for it.”
After eight prototypes of pants — which Martin called “bulletproof” — and countless hours spent on other designs, KC Jacks launched to an in-demand crowd in 2018.
“You’re definitely seeing workwear sort of explode into the mainstream,” Martin said of the popularity of brands like Carhartt and Filson, which often show up in Instagram feeds as social influencers deem workwear cool.
“[These are brands] that have been around for over 100 years, but have sort of had a resurgence in the last decade,” he said. “These were very utilitarian items that didn’t necessarily have the best fit. And somebody kind of got smart and figured out, ‘We need to make a slim fit version of this classic shirt and jacket,’ and then things really started to take off.”
Such trends further prove KC Jacks is in the right place at the right time, Martin noted.
“My big focus right now is to just sort of keep this thing going, keep the momentum going and we’ll see what happens next,” he said.