Tell us about yourself – familial/personal story, education, and prior work.
I graduated from Ohio University in Athens in engineering– from there, I moved to Austin, TX to play music. I played & toured with my band, and worked as an Audio Engineer & publicist for artists for about 6 years. I got a little burned out at the slog and late nights– so I moved back to my home state of Ohio with my wife.
There, I met my soon to be close friend Chris Sutton. He’s the creative director and designer at Noble and the company was his brain child. We actually started playing music together (surprise) and had a really good go of it. We worked very well together creatively and practically, and he asked me to help him launch Noble.
I pretty much handled the operational side, and he handled the product & creative side. I had a natural inclination to computers, programming, organization and basic ‘left-brain’ stuff… so stepping into the role of C.O.O. felt very natural.
What is the importance of ethical and sustainable fashion to you?
It just feels like the right thing to do. Sourcing ethically and running our business with sustainability at its core was among some of the first tenants we put in place. Chris, his wife Abby (our CEO, and biggest advocate for sustainability) and myself started down that road early.
It was a need we saw in 2012 when we founded Noble– there weren’t a lot of denim companies or clothing companies for that matter who were successfully doing everything the way we thought it should be done. In truth, there are a few parts to it: sourcing, production & transportation.
A company like Patagonia (who we all very much enjoy) does a phenomenal job in their transparency and sourcing. But their factories are in Asia– even though they are run properly, that is a long way for those goods to travel to meet their American customers, and that is done on a container ship that spits out a massive amount of CO2.
We wanted to make things ‘closer to home’, source them sustainably AND work to find smaller factories that were hit hard by NAFTA. We felt that those three pieces would help us make our product the cleanest, most sustainable and ethical out there.
What is Noble Denim – source of its title, and its mission, productions, and vision?
Noble was the name of Chris’s grandfather. Not only does it have a personal connection to him, but the word itself sparks a lot of preexisting feelings in people– ethics, quality, altruism. It seemed a perfect name to create a vivid idea of the product, along with that personal touch.
It’s mission has been the same since we started– to make premium garments, in the most sustainable and responsible way possible. We leave no stone untouched in this pursuit (from organic inks or recycled packing materials, carbon offset shipments, sourcing within 200 miles, etc.).
We started doing all the sewing ourselves in our Cincy workshop, but quickly became overwhelmed at the demand… so at that point, we looked for help and learned about all of the factories around the midwest who were highly skilled, but under worked due to NAFTA and companies moving operations to overseas. We decided to embrace that network wholeheartedly.
You’re a co-founder of Noble Denim. What is the importance of collaboration and teamwork with the creation of new companies?
Simply put, a single person can’t do everything. If they try, they certainly can’t do everything well. Chris and I were lucky at first since we both specialized in VERY different areas. He– with the eye on design, skills at the sewing machine and visual communication & me on organizing, problem solving, commerce and web.
That still wasn’t really enough though, and his wife Abby, and Chris’s college buddy, Sam, joined the team once we formally incorporated. They all brought very clear and unique skillsets to the table. We could all go about our own tasks without butting heads really at all– we trusted one another to be the master of their domain and still very much enjoy those roles.
One of Abby’s skills is understanding people, and bringing people together. So through her structure, we’ve all become a very tight-nit and comfortable team. That collaboration was so important at the beginning (and continues to be important).
What things become easier with co-founding a company?
You know that everyone has skin in the game, so the motivation is steady with all the partners. Since all of the partners head up different specialized departments within Noble, we can always lean on each other and rely on each other to get stuff done. That is incredibly refreshing.
What other work are you involved in at this point in time?
Noble isn’t for everyone. It is a premium product, made for someone who knows what they want. It probably wouldn’t be a great jean for someone who has never owned a pair of Raw denim. It is a lifestyle and requires a lot of devotion to make that pair of Raw jeans your own.
Plus, you probably wouldn’t notice all the extra features and thought we put into certain areas to make them more durable or comfortable. We realized this from the beginning, but we still had the dream to create sustainable garments for the masses. So, we started a sister-brand: Victor Athletics. It has taken up pretty much all of our extra time, and it’s awesome.
Victor makes vintage-inspired ALL organic athletic wear for men and women. All sourced and made in the USA (even the cotton is grown here). As I mentioned, it is a lot easier to acquire organic knit fabrics in the US than denim. With Victor, we use the same code of ethics as Noble, but decided to price the items direct to customers (so no wholesale, no extra markup for 3rd parties).
We wanted to take the barrier of entry WAY down for someone to get a USA made, organic cotton garment. So far, it has been met with open arms. We launched Victor via Kickstarter and to this day it is the 3rd highest grossing fashion Kickstarter campaign of all time. That was a big help in granting us affirmation on the idea.
Victor just turned 1 in the spring and we’ve been able to open a brick and mortar store in Cincinnati that doubles as the Noble Denim workshop. We offer custom hems, denim repairs and special small batch releases there, as well as stock all the Victor stuff. It’s been pretty fun.
What meaning or personal fulfillment does this work bring for you?
I think the validation that people WANT what Victor and Noble make is pretty awesome. It has been a passion of all of ours to create sustainable garments, and now we are able to make them for the connoisseur (noble) and the general public (victor).
With regard to ethical and sustainable fashion companies, what’s the importance of them now?
Since we started down the long road of making our product ethically, we’ve watch the climate of the garment industry shift. It is much easier for new companies to start up with very little funding, and the ‘field’ is that much more saturated.
Some follow what we’ve done and attempt to make their products close to home, but we still don’t see a large push for creating organic products. That was one dream of ours that we still strive for… we’d like to offer much more organic fabrics, but the fact is, they are incredibly difficult to source.
We’ve been able to offer organic knits and a basic indigo selvage… but as for different weights, colors, washes, it isn’t easy. Cone Mills in N. Carolina for example used to make organic denim, but stopped because the demand didn’t match their standard conventional denim. They have no plans to start up again.
This is certainly disappointing from a sourcing standpoint, but we still try to push the envelope and our customers do respond to it. Our organic products have sold very well and we are always getting requests for more options. I think this is one area we will continue to focus on to differentiate ourselves from the masses– plus, it is right on par with our mission: to create the highest quality garments, in the most sustainable way possible.
Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Glad to know that this idea of sustainable fashion continues to gain traction! Hopefully it isn’t just a trend and people will continue to vote on how they want businesses to run with their dollar.
Thank you for your time, Christman.