Maurice Malone walks into a café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, his home and base of operations for nearly 20 years, looking suitably stylish. Soon, the man Brooklyn Magazine once called "the Steve Jobs of denim" is teaching a fashion-backward journalist about the joys of "raw denim," which Malone specializes in.
In an age where jeans come pre-washed, pre-sanded, sometimes even pre-torn, raw denim is a return to purity. They’re for guys who "prefer to start with their own canvas, create their own artwork with the jeans," he explains. Each wrinkle, each tear, each faded patch will be yours and yours alone. Die-hard enthusiasts of raw denim won’t clean the jeans till they start smelling, Malone explains with a laugh. Some don’t even clean them then, preferring to stuff pairs in the freezer to kill off the bacteria.
The focus on raw denim is a return to simplicity for Malone, whose Williamsburg Garment Company first launched in 2011 (the company recently reached a milestone Malone had set for it, shipping its first made-in-the-USA jeans last week). And it’s the most recent turn in a long and distinguished career in fashion.
After seeing Star Wars in the theaters as a teen, Malone decided he wanted to be a special effects artist, so he moved to Los Angeles in the early '80s and lived with his uncle. Unable to afford a car in that sprawling city, Malone was "super bored"—you can’t take a girl out on the bus—and he soon wound up back in Detroit, without prospects, delivering pizzas for Domino's. That’s when he first saw the video for JoBoxers’ "Just Got Lucky."
The lead singer wore a leather cap that "looked like a crown going round," Malone remembers. "I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a cool hat. I want to get one.'" He went everywhere looking for one, and when he couldn’t find one, he decided to make one for himself. Friends saw him wear it, and asked him to stitch one together for them. Soon, he was selling them to stores. "Next thing I know, I’m making about 100 bucks a week at 19." It beat Domino's.
Entirely self-taught, Malone would make the 12-hour drive from Detroit to Manhattan just to buy books at the F.I.T. bookstore. He’d stay in New York for a few days at a time. "We went to clubs and didn’t understand why we couldn’t get in. ‘What’s this rope thing?’" he recalls. "We didn’t know anybody." He took out an ad for his clothes in Interview Magazine, then bought a newsstand copy and tore out the ad for the bouncers to see. "This is me," he told them. And so they let him in, he remembers with a laugh.
As the '80s became the '90s, and the '90s became the new millennium, Malone launched several brands, some out of Detroit, some out of New York. His first venture was formed with investments from anywhere he could get it: his dad, friends from high school, drug dealers, "a little money from everywhere, some clean, some unclean," he says. He ran a nightclub out of Detroit, which didn’t serve liquor in order to stay open past 2 a.m., but the cops kept shutting it down anyway.
"I really just think they wanted a payoff," Malone thinks now, but he was finally driven to New York for good in 1995, settling in Williamsburg, long before that neighborhood became the hipster-yuppie playground it is today. He fell in with a bunch of rappers: Q Tip, Tribe Called Quest, many of whom would wear his clothing. "I remember going to Biggie’s house," he recalls. Over the years, his clothes came out under a number of labels: "Hardwear by Maurice Malone"; "Mojeans"; the inspired "Maurice Malone Designs: Jeans for Your Ass."
By 2001, "I thought I was rich," recalls Malone. He decided to use his own money to finance a new venture. Just as his first round of designs were coming in, after a massive outlay of capital, 9/11 happened. "Retailers were scared about terror attacks in malls and stuff, and they canceled orders." He went into debt, then went out of business. He was still recuperating through the latter part of the decade, working mostly as a freelancer between 2006 and 2011.
Over the years, young designers had come up to him for advice about starting their own labels, and he’d always tell them the same thing. Start small. There’s a temptation for a starry-eyed young designer to want to put together a grand collection right away. Bad idea. Begin with one piece, become expert at selling that, and "each season expand a little bit...before you know it you’ll have a collection."
"One day, I’m like, ‘Why don’t I take my own advice? Start like a new designer?’" That was the genesis of the Williamsburg Garment Company, which launched in 2011 with the extremely simple goal of selling quality jeans at reasonable prices.
Malone kept the company willfully, stubbornly small. "I vowed for the first year not to hire anybody," he says. He refused to spend money on marketing. He did all the customer service himself. He wouldn’t sell anything on credit, to reduce transaction costs and the risk of unpaid invoices. "It’s gonna be just like the old-fashioned candy store where you know the guy," he recalls thinking. It was going to be the leanest of lean startups, a one-man operation, and a proof of concept that you could launch a designer brand on your own, even in the midst of a recession. It was this willingness to go against the grain of conventional business wisdom that led Brooklyn Magazine to dub Malone "the Steve Jobs of denim" last year.
His strategy has been to sell to one luxury store per major city, so that that store can essentially own the WGC brand in that market. So you can buy the jeans at Sugarcube in Philadelphia, Nomads in San Francisco, Charlie & Lee in Vancouver, and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. You can also get them directly through WGC’s website, where a pair of jeans will sell for a little over $100. His jeans gained enough traction that Malone indeed began to expand into other styles, slowly building out a collection. He now has a staff of three. "I just hired my nephew to help me do some computer work," he says.
Taking his own advice has paid off; after a meteoric rise and just as spectacular fall, Malone’s on the upswing again. "I said I’m gonna make the highest quality product I can make, at a very reasonable price," he says. Like a raw denim enthusiast, all that was needed was a return to basics.