At Raleigh Denim in Nolita, Southern heritage and handcraftsmanship lead to the ultimate in premium jeans.
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It’s like a modern fairy tale: A young couple begins making handcrafted goods in a small apartment, the business takes off, and they open a store in the big city. That’s the story behind Raleigh Denim, a shop run by high school sweethearts Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko (now married), who got their start making artisanal blue jeans in North Carolina and recently expanded to NYC to cater to the downtown elite.
The Lytvinenkos had no real experience in fashion, but both have a background in design, and they were drawn to the world of denim, with its emphasis on craftsmanship. “We just bought two sewing machines and started to work, and then we realized after the fact that there was this rich history of denim production in North Carolina,” says Victor . “That’s when things took off.”
They sought out former employees of the old denim factories in the Carolina mountains, who taught them to work and fix the old sewing machines and perfect their patterns, so they could start selling to stores. Barneys picked up the collection in 2009.
“It was a dream to sell in New York,” says Victor, who previously worked in the city as a cook at Nobu. The New York store was designed in collaboration with architect Shohei Shigematsu from OMA, who designs Prada’s stores and runway shows. The layout is based on a traditional Southern home; after walking from one space to the next, you end up in a parlor. At the back a 10-foot Ferris wheel holds stacks of jeans in its passenger boxes, and an employee sits at an antique sewing machine to hem your purchases before you take them home.
The jeans themselves come in about 10 to 12 styles per season, and there’s a pair for virtually everyone. (Victor says the clientele ranges in age from 16 to 75.) He likens the denim’s texture to umami—the hard-to-translate Japanese word for the meaty, earthy, savory taste of food.
Raleigh uses an exclusive variety of selvedge denim that it gets from the Cone Mills White Oak factory in Greensboro, North Carolina, the oldest working denim mill in the U.S. The fabric is woven on an 80-year-old loom. The resulting finish is clean and consistent from far away, but a close look reveals small inconsistencies. As they break in over time, the jeans take on a patina that makes each pair unique. They have a tailored look but are not tight, with a dark, rich color that makes them dressy but not trendy.
Victor’s current favorite is the Jones Organic, which is made from the first crop of certified organic cotton ever grown in North Carolina. All of the jeans are still crafted in the couple’s workshop attached to the flagship store in downtown Raleigh, and a new shipment comes to New York every week. A batch contains anywhere 50 to 300 pairs of jeans, each signed and numbered. The process requires about almost 10 times more labor than factory-produced denim, but the Lytvinenkos say it is worth it.
“We want it to be apparent that we make things by hand,” says Victor. “I tell everyone that we’re making Ferraris. It’s not about making higher quantity but about making the best-quality product that we can.”