The Spark: imogene+willie

What sparked me to share my own adventures in business with you last week, and to initiate an on-going series on people and companies who are rethinking consumerism, capitalism and business, was a feature in Anthropologie’s the Magazine on imogene + willie.

Before that day, imogene + willie was simply a company name I’d noticed when perusing Anthropologie’s denim collections. I was drawn into the feature on them by this image of a dark skinned, brown haired woman with her animated, open mouth smile obviously complementing a woman in a wonderfully designed leather jacket. She looks like someone I would be interested in meeting, especially with that long, chunky necklace she’s wearing that I’d love to borrow.

The Spark

This woman, whose face and style I immediately warmed to, is Carrie Eddmenson the co-owner and co-founder of imogene + willie. She and her husband began this business three years ago. The premise of their business is family. This is why they named the company after Carrie’s maternal grandparents. It’s why they’ve chosen to sew and sell (and, at one point, live) in the same location: an old service station that they’ve renovated. It’s why they are as passionate about creating relationships with their workers and customers as they are creating perfectly crafted apparel.

In the Magazine, Carrie explained, “We knew that relationships had to be the pillar of our business because often, when clothes are your livelihood, you start to become bitter about consumption […] It’s just so much stuff. Like, why do we need so much stuff? We knew that this business had to be built on a foundation of relationships and on a lifestyle.” She added, “Almost to a fault, because sometimes we forget to sell blue jeans because we’re too busy getting to know people!”

If this sounds like just another empty company byline, head over to their actual website. In their Our Voice section, Carrie recently told the story of a three year tradition, supper+song, that may now simply become a legend.

Just before opening their store in July of 2009, Carrie led her husband into the backyard of their business, which was still a junkyard of scrap car parts, and shared her vision of transforming it. She said to him, “Ok, Matty.  I know it’s not in our plan, but we need to haul off all this junk, level out the dirt, bring in thousands of pounds of gravel, plant six 18 foot tall slender sweet gum trees and string some lights.” She wanted create a place for their neighbors where they could meet, visit with each other, eat and listen to music. She wanted to create a space and experience that would set the tone for their business.

Tired from their extensive remodeling, and believing they were out of money, her husband was reluctant to agree. When she shared that she’d held money back for just this purpose he needed a night to sleep on it. Then he let her move forward with the plan.

A few weeks after their opening, they hosted their first supper+song. For three years, they kept it going during the spring and summer months until recently, noise complaints from their neighbors shut them down (though they had made a big effort to be contentious).

In Carrie’s farewell post to this tradition, she says,

“Honestly, we are all really sad.  The end of supper+song definitely leaves a huge void for all of us at the shop.  And an empty backyard!  But, we are not defeated at all, as we will always cherish that we had a vision for that damn backyard and you fulfilled it.  We wanted to open our home to you, asking nothing in return.  We never charged a penny.  And, trust me… we spent a lot of pennies to pull it off every month!  We accepted with pleasure, that on that 3rd Wednesday of the month, sales would be little to nothing.  A neighborhood party is much more fun than trying on jeans!  And the plethora of musical talent that you have enjoyed:  not one artist ever asked for a dollar from us.

 They did it for you.

 So many of you (actually, thousands of you) accepted our invitation.  You either walked from your house down to the shop with your blanket and wine, or drove from the other side of town to meet friends.  And then this motorcycle gang started showing up as of late!  And this is true more-so than some of you would realize: so many of you planned trips to Nashville by plane or long road trip to join us just for the night.

 We just thank you.”                        

With their intentionally small business of only fifteen employees, and establishment of such a beautiful tradition, I’m inclined to believe Carrie. To believe that the passion invigorating imogene + willie is more than a desire for cold hard cash. It’s about relationships and the American dream of creating the life that you’re enthusiastic about.

Besides their passion for relationships and a sense of family, Carrie and Matt are in love with blue jeans. They’ve both grown up studying the denim industry. Carrie’s father got into making acid wash jeans back in the 80’s when it was just becoming a fad. She grew up learning the ins and outs of the family business; working her way up from the most basic jobs to running her own shop and then helping to establish one of their factories in Turkey for four years. Matt came into their business after college and learned the intricacies of denim construction. If you watch their video on the About page of imogene + willie, you can hear their passion for yourself.

They’re very intentional about bringing the past into the present. Not only incorporating their personal histories into the environment of their shop and work place but melding classic construction and aesthetics with new knowledge to create the best fit jeans. Due to their belief in the importance of ethically, American made products, as well as their desire for superb quality, their fabric is all from manufacturers in the United States and has been woven on antique shuttle looms. All of their apparel is made in house. They have an expert patternmaker and seamstress who they’ve  been working with since they started in the industry in Carrie’s father’s business. One of their wonderful business practices is that all of their exquisite, handmade apparel will be tailored for you with no added charge.

Looking at the cost of their jeans, which are $200+, you might be inclined to judge them. To think, all of this is well and good but their prices say all I need to know about this company. As someone who is modestly acquainted with apparel making, let me tell you that ethically made, American spun fabric is not cheap even at wholesale prices. With the small size of their business, the fact that their clothes are handmade and will be altered for you at no extra added cost, I can tell you that their apparel is worth every penny. In this instances, their prices reflect the quality of their products.

imogene +willie is a business that is living out a narrative manifesto which illustrates that business is about more than consumption. Please, check out their website!

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