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To visit the premier denim manufacturing business in America, you need to head to Los Angeles, but not Hollywood or the garment district Downtown. Drive further south, to South Gate, a stark Dickensian landscape of rough neighborhoods and industrial plants with belching chimneys. And there in the heart of it all, like an oasis, is AG Jeans, a thriving, socially conscious eco-friendly campus of a company and a beacon of premium fashion, full of young, chic staff and one, very happy owner.
“Denim you have to love otherwise this business you can’t survive,” chuckles Yul Ku, in his accented English. “And I love it why? Because people wear every day. For a hundred years it’s the same.”
A gently spoken Korean grandfather of four, Ku has a lot to be happy about. Widely regarded as the godfather of denim manufacturing in America, today AG Jeans is the only premium vertically integrated denim manufacturer in the country - everything happens here from design to manufacture to marketing. At a time when the textiles industry is struggling in LA, on account of mass outsourcing, the rise in the minimum wage and a younger generation that is less motivated now to learn the old crafts of pattern making and sewing, AG Jeans is a rare and flourishing exception.
“AG is premium denim.”
Not to mention Ku also has a manufacturing plant in Mexico, as big as the one in LA. But he’s too modest to say the real reason he’s survived in LA while so many others haven’t - his extensive experience and attention to detail.
AG Jeans is a heartening story of immigrant success. Ku’s family came from South Korea in 1975 when he was 24. After a couple of years in the family textile business, he broke out on his own, with a sewing factory in Downtown LA.
“I make anything. I can make shirts, t-shirts, pants, whatever you want! No big deal.”
He even called his brand back then “No Big Deal” after his favorite catchphrase.
But it was only when he focused on denim that he began to make his mark, building a client list that included Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and J Crew. And moving to South Gate was a boon. Here, he’s one of the biggest employers, he’s friends with the Mayor of Southgate, and until recently, his children were closely involved too.
"Now they move away. Maybe they don't love me anymore," he jokes.
In 2000, through Jeff Rudes, the founder at J Brand, he met the famous Italian designer Adriano Goldschmied who made Diesel a household name. They hit it off and in 2004, Ku decided to expand his involvement from just manufacturing, to running the entire brand, from design to distribution. And all of it, critically, under one roof. Who better to maintain quality control?
“If you use contractor they always go for cheap, cheap, cheap.” Ku says.
Vertical integration is a sight to behold. The company operates something like a giant organism with 970 people in all. Upstairs there’s a football-pitch sized open plan office - home to the design team, production, pattern makers, retail, marketing and customer service. And downstairs is the endless factory, where they create 25,000 units a week.
“The fabric’s from Japan,” says Brandon Choi, the production manager, showing me around. He points to a heap of giant rolls in the delivery bay (AG has 800,000 yards of denim in stock on any one day). “It’s the best. Apparently in the 1950s Americana was huge there, so they built fabric mills that focused exclusively on high quality denim.”
We pass the huge swaying robots that unroll the fabric and let it breathe, then the dying department. ‘Prepare For Dye!’ - it reads on the wall. In one room a series of laser machines burn distressed patterns onto the jeans one by one, to replicate vintage weathering according to a computerized design, and then there are the various stages of spraying, rinsing, washing and even baking. In one particularly steamy corner, a man pinches jeans around the upper thigh and seals them with a resin spray - a process called “hand creasing the whiskers.”
Every detail is thought of. Even the boxes that transport the jeans to the stores are painted blue to shield them from ultraviolet light.
“By the time the jeans get to you, 150 people have worked on it,” says Choi.
An enormous endeavor. And some of them have been with Ku for 20 years or more. Ku’s right hand man has worked with him for 37 years, and they still go regularly for soju and barbecue together.
“We are family at AG,” he chuckles. “No big deal!”