RALEIGH — Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko are starting to get their due, at least on the national stage.
In one of the worst retailing climates in decades, their Raleigh Denim jeans company can't make enough of its $200-plus jeans for the high-end department store chain Barneys. Walk into almost any major Barneys across the country -- New York, Boston, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Philadelphia -- and you'll find a pair of their handmade Raleigh Denim jeans for sale.
The fashion press has found them, too, with recent mentions on Daily Candy, Style.com and, this month, Elle magazine.
"I've been pleasantly surprised with the national acceptance of their product in what is a very crowded, crowded market," says Chuck Stewart, owner of the fabric dying company Tumbling Colors in Raleigh, who was among those encouraging the Lytvinenkos from the beginning.
But aside from a small but growing and dedicated local fan base, few here even know they exist. (Only two stores in the state sell the jeans: Holly Aiken's Stitch in downtown Raleigh, and Edge of Urge in Wilmington.)
And even fewer know that it's about as local as a company gets.
Almost every part of Raleigh Denim is from North Carolina. The jeans are cut and hand-sewn by a crew in a production space in Stewart's building on Bloodworth Street in Southeast Raleigh. The denim and labels come from Greensboro, the zippers from Oxford, the thread from Mount Holly, and the screen-printed pockets from Raleigh.
"It's a local production from start to finish," Stewart says. "They have all of the right ideas. They're doing it with local fabric, yarn, and nothing is automated. It's truly designed to be sustainable and local."
The flurry of good press in the last few months has helped the jeans move beyond fringe buzz to become a cult favorite.
No doubt their bootstrapping story is part of the charm: Two young designers go from a makeshift sewing area in their living room to having their denim on Barneys' New York sales floor in two years. No venture capital. No high-tech sewing machines or gadgets.
Raleigh Denim instead relies on old-fashioned savings, bank money and textile technology -- sewing machines from old denim manufacturing plants -- to make its jeans.
It has been blessed with ideal timing. As more people rethink where they buy their clothes, who makes them and what goes into making them, Raleigh Denim is a model for socially and environmentally responsible textile manufacturing.
"We're supporting our economy on every level," Victor Lytvinenko says.
What you pay for
Still, some scoff at the Raleigh Denim prices -- $215 to $285 -- that are hard to justify for some, especially those struggling to make mortgage payments or handle job losses.
But then again, when people buy Raleigh Denim jeans, they're supporting the local economy -- something few other denim lines can say.
"We know that they are expensive," Victor Lytvinenko says. "So we appreciate it when people make the leap and buy these jeans."
He explains that these aren't just knock-around Levi's that you'll mow the grass in. Some even consider the jeans a form of art, in large part because the Lytvinenkos rely on so many vintage methods of sewing to make each pair.
It starts with the denim, called selvage, the thick, stiff kind some might remember getting when they were kids. You had to wash and wear them a few times to get them to mold to your body.
The denim has deep roots in North Carolina. It's made on the vintage shuttle looms that denim was made on 60 years ago at Cone Mills' White Oak plant in Greensboro. And most of the cotton used to make it is grown in North Carolina or South Carolina.
"It's the best American-made denim," Victor Lytvinenko says.
The denim is cut in small batches, and the jeans are sewn in the next room, using sewing machines that Victor Lytvinenko found on Craigslist or eBay. Each pair is measured in eight places to make sure it will fit right, a tip the Lytvinenkos picked up from their pattern maker, who worked for decades at Levi's.
The Lytvinenkos take such pride in their craft, each pair has a serial number stamped on a leather patch. And jeans don't leave the building without being signed by both Victor and Sarah.
But the concern doesn't stop once the jeans are shipped. The Lytvinenkos have made a point to talk to as many of the sales associates at Barneys who sell the jeans as they can. They want them to know everything about the jeans: How much they'll stretch, what sizes are best for certain body types. They've even taken phone calls from a customer on the sales floor wanting to know whether to buy a size 30 or 31.
"This helps people understand we're trying to make a living, and we're trying to do it the right way," Sarah Lytvinenko says. "It holds us accountable."
Their passion is a large part of their success. Theirs is an ideal husband-and-wife business partnership, each bringing experience and a different style of energy and enthusiasm. She was studying at N.C. State University's College of Design and was involved as a designer in the popular Art to Wear fashion show. He was an NCSU business major who taught himself to sew so he could make himself a pair of jeans that fit him the way he wanted them to.
Friends saw the jeans and wanted a pair, too. Soon Sarah joined him in the business. And for a while, it was just the two of them sewing. In the beginning, they put out five to 10 pairs of jeans a week. Today, they turn out about 100 pairs a week, thanks to a few more vintage sewing machines and a handful of select employees.
Longtime friend Mike Noël is one of the friends who got Victor Lytvinenko to make him a pair of jeans. He remembers how getting into Barneys was once just a dream.
"At one point, he said, 'I'm going to be in Barneys one day,' which was ludicrous when he said it, but sure enough, within a year he was there," Noël says. "Some people try for 15 years to get into Barneys without even getting a phone call back."
Now Noël has about five pairs of the jeans, including a few pairs under the Verses label, the name before the brand changed to Raleigh Denim last year.
For now, Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko are focused on men's jeans, although they are slowly getting into women's denim, a market that's certainly bigger but has a new set of challenges, including smaller tolerances in how they fit. That means they plan to take their time to make sure the jeans meet the same standards as the men's line.
As for bigger, newer, faster machines, don't expect them any time soon, if ever, the couple says.
"We've made a conscious decision to grow slowly," Victor Lytvinenko says.
They recently took a break from the denim grind to create a line of clothing for the recent FashionSpark fashion show. But no blue jeans were on the runway for this show. Instead they showed that their design prowess could stretch well beyond denim with pencil skirts, ties, vests and hats. Ideas, they said, that had been incubating. And perhaps it was a hint of what is yet to come for Raleigh Denim.
"They do have a passion for what they do," Stewart says. "They do believe in their jeans. And the jeans are fun to wear, too."