Sarah & Victor Lytvinenko
(co-founders, Raleigh Denim)
This husband and wife duo has grown from playing with a store-bought pants pattern to a global denim brand that sells in some of the world’s top fashion markets and even exhibits at New York Fashion Week. Their products and their story have been featured in Elle, GQ, Nylon and The New Yorker. Today they produce high-quality, small batch denim jeans with the lowest carbon footprint.
The key to their success: an almost obsessive focus on craftsmanship…and a little bit of luck.
Admittedly, I’ve never been someone who could stomach paying for designer jeans. I like my Levi Outlet purchased denim, and I think the most expensive pair I ever bought cost a whole $40.
That all changed a year ago during the Raleigh Denim sample sale. I was dragged their by my much better looking other half, and figured I’d just look around. I’d hear lavish tales of the amazingness that is a pair of Raleigh Denim jeans, but was skeptical. Half-heartedly, and a sucker for a sale, I snagged two heavily discounted pairs and they collected dust in my closet for about 6 months. Eventually, I sucked it up and got them hemmed. I made it till about Noon, but on a walk at lunch I had the biggest smile I’ve ever had about a piece of clothing. I texted my girlfriend and simply said, “I get it now.”
I am a convert. I am now a believer.
It is something you just have to feel to understand.
Sarah and Victor now have the Curatory in downtown Raleigh that serves as production and a storefront, but also a second flagship store in New York City that opened in 2013.
Today, Raleigh Denim works with Cone Denim in Greensboro, who helped invent denim production, have been making denim since 1891 and have been making it in the same building since 1905. The denim is hand cut and sewn, inspected and then numbered and signed by Victor, Sarah or one of their artisan responsible for that batch. Now having expanded to over 20 employees, Raleigh Denim in total can produce about 300 pairs of their hand crafted jeans each week. There is an incredible amount of love and attention to detail that goes into every single pair.
(PS: Sarah & Victor, if you read this, I think there’s a really fun opportunity for you all to create and share stories around the people behind the signatures because I know I’d love to know more about the people who signed my pairs. Lets talk!)
But it all started for the Lytvinenkos, then a couple but not yet married, were living apart after college. As Victor tells it in an interview with Need Supply Co.,
“The first pair of pants that I ever made was when I was living in Ukraine. They weren’t jeans but they were what got me into making jeans. I was living with my Aunt and Uncle way out in the country. They didn’t have running water or much power. It was a little village of about 80 houses on one street. Everyone had five acres of land and one or two cows, completely sustainable and organic…but not necessarily by choice.
After college I went to live with them for three months. Two months in I was so bored I thought ‘I’m going to sew some pants!’ I took the thirty or so mile trip to town on the bus and bought whatever fabric I could and started making patterns. I used an 1880’s treadle sewing machine to sew these pants together. I didn’t have anything for the waist band and Sarah had sent me some home made cookies tied with a baby blue ribbon which I ended up using as the inside of the waist band. I keep that first pair up on my shelf in my office as a reminder of where we started. Soon after I had arrived back to North Carolina we really got obsessed with making jeans.”
Victor and Sarah created their first jeans in 2008. As luck would have it, not long after a friend happened to ask them where they wanted to be in five years. Victor’s response was simply, “I’d like to sell our jeans at Barney’s.” Unbeknownst to Lytvinenkos, that friend introduced the two to a Barney’s buyer and they had their first meeting with a major retailer a week later.
Remembering that first meeting, they told Katie Morrell,
“We found out that they wanted to meet us, and we had just one week to prepare by making a press book, business cards and re-making our samples. But here’s the thing: We couldn’t afford to go up to New York City. I’d never asked my parents for money, but I knew I had to. It turned out that my cousin from Ukraine was visiting, so my dad said he’d give us $300 and his minivan to get up there as long as we took my cousin around. And that’s what we did. We stayed with a friend who lived outside the city.
The meeting itself was nerve-wracking. We’d never been to this kind of meeting before, and we had no idea what we were doing. They wanted me to try on every single pair, so I had to keep going to the dressing room and coming back out. Sarah was left to talk about [the jeans] without me. At the end of the meeting, they told us our stuff looked interesting but that they’d already spent their budget and they’d get back to us. It was a bummer. We wanted a resolution…
We walked out of the meeting and laid down on the grass in Central Park and took a nap. We were so tired from driving all night from Raleigh; I think we’d slept for two hours. We got back to my friend’s place, and just as we were going to sleep, they called us to say they wanted 114 pairs to put in their Beverly Hills and Madison Avenue stores for spring.
It was August 2009 when they put in the order, so we had until December to produce. Sarah and I cut and sewed every pair ourselves. Sarah’s dad put in the rivets. We had friends pitch in. We were ready by the deadline, and in spring 2009, one of the worst retail quarters ever, our jeans sold out. Barneys called us back, saying they wanted to put us in six stores for the next season.”
That’s a pretty inspiring story. It is the American dream.
That aside, what I fine extra inspiring about this two is their dream to create a high-quality product that has a conscience. As Sarah told New Raleigh,
“We feel that the right way hits a lot of different elements. There’s a socially responsible way of doing things; there’s an environmentally responsible way of doing things; there’s an economically responsible way of doing things. Our goal is to encompass all of these things. Our goal is to create well-designed, responsibly produced clothing that lasts for a long time. To produce apparel that is smart and valuable because of that. The longer we can continue as a company, the greater, more positive influence we can have. We try to make sure that the impact we do have is monitored so it’s not bad for the world, things like that.”
Sarah and Victor source North Carolina supplies and hope to help bring back the textile and denim industry in our state. Today, several pieces of Raleigh Denim equipment and a number of employees have come from a Levi’s plant that closed in 2005.
That could have chosen to run to New York, LA or San Francisco, but instead of stayed true to their Raleigh roots.
I am absolutely inspired by their amazing work and their mission. I imagine this household will continue to help them along that journey as our Raleigh Denim jean collection grows.