I met Elmer at one of those career day things at an elementary school. There was the fireman, I was the radio guy, and Elmer was the entrepreneur. The set up was that you’d go into a classroom, you give your speech to the kids for ten minutes, they ask some questions, or don’t, then you move along to the next classroom. I thought I was going to have an easy gig. I interview musicians for a living. My job is a dream to a 7th grader. The first thing they asked me was how much money I made a year. I made less than a million dollars. I hadn’t interviewed Drake. I was dead to them.
After 10 minutes of blank stares or, really, no stares at all, I gave my card to a kid that said that he had a fire mixtape. I moved onto the next classroom.
I recognized the guy at the front of the class. I’d seen him at 88Nine a couple times. He was well dressed and just had something about him. I’d wanted to introduce myself, but I never had. He stopped his presentation. He looked at me. He pointed. “Justin Barney.” Then he returned his gaze to an entire class whose attention was glued to him. “We don’t know each other, but we know each other.”
He was just telling the class about the unexpected decisions that an entrepreneur has to make when they start a company. “How do we print our label?” Do we stack it? MKE DNM CO, like Northface? Do we use “Company” or “Co.?” You could see the kids picking in their heads.
He had em. He owned the room. Where my petty references to interviewing Chance the Rapper bounced off as the shallow grab for “cool” that it was, Elmer proclaimed the kind of self-confidence that any public speaker longs for. His belief in what he was doing was undeniable. His honesty unsinkable.
His product? He was making jeans. Quality jeans. In Milwaukee.
As a follower of menswear, the prospect of someone making raw/selvage denim jeans in itself is interesting. Raw denim has life. It starts stiff and almost un-wearable. But the more you wear them, like leather they break in. Waffles form on the back of the knee. Spots that get used more lighten up and get softer. Every pair ends up being totally unique. An imprint of their owner.
I may have just been sold on a guy selling raw denim in Milwaukee, but it was the way that Elmer talked about Milwaukee.
He didn’t talk about Milwaukee in the wide-eyed loving-Milwaukee-for-the-sake-of-it, love. It was the same feeling that I have for this city. Not just for what it is, but for the what he can make it. With a charismatic grin he evangelizes. Elmer has vision.
300 employees. $150 million company. Cream city brick buildings on two sides of a street. On site childcare. That’s what Elmer wants to do in Milwaukee with Milwaukee Denim Co.
“Milwaukee Denim isn’t just a company, there is something about denim that is Milwaukee itself.” He’ll tell you. Denim is rugged. It’s blue collar. It’s elegant, but still humble. And Milwaukee has a reputation for making things that are excellent. Elmer did, after all, come from Allen Edmonds where he saw that first hand.
Elmer’s vision scales from the size of the city down to the stitch in his jeans. He gets a twinkle in his eye when he talks about detail. And Milwaukee Denim Company jeans are for the detail obsessed.
Hand stamped tags where the size is circled by Elmer himself. 100% Cone Mills white-stripe selvage denim. Other detailed phrases with words like that that you don’t know and shouldn’t, but Elmer knows because he’s obsessively researched the seven different alternatives and picked just the right one, which probably has roots to Milwaukee somehow.
They are incredibly simple and exquisitely done.
And aside from the jeans themselves it’s good to buy good things from good people. The jeans are a story. They are an idea born on a plane, a design drawn up with his co-conspirator Jess in a building on 32nd and Greenfield. Cut, sewn, and stamped in the city where we live.
In Elmer’s presentation to that seventh grade class he had them hanging on every word as he said that he wanted to do three things: Make beautiful things. Pay people a living wage. And rep Milwaukee.
He’s still got me hanging on every word. I’m in with that vision of Milwaukee. I’m in with those details. I’m in with Milwaukee Denim Company.