With the opening of the Curatory, Raleigh Denim marks a new chapter in the life of their business. The storefront and adjoining workshop, housed in downtown Raleigh’s Warehouse District, are the newest destinations for anyone interested in fashion, North Carolina’s textile heritage, or simply seeing how a pair of jeans are made.
The Curatory gives you a private glimpse into Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko’s magical factory, as a 40-foot vertical window allows shoppers to observe the makings of a unique American brand.
“We want people to be able to ‘feel’ our brand," co-owner Victor Lytvinenko told me, "what we’ve built and what we believe in, to feel and see the grit of the manufacturing. There is a lot of value in what we’re doing. We’re actually making the product in a different way."
Sarah Lytvinenko, Victor's wife and co-owner of Raleigh Denim, added, “We want there to be a really strong connection between the store, the place where you go to enjoy the product, and the place where the product is made.”
We met up with the Lytvinenkos to talk with them about this milestone, what inspires them, how they got to where they are today, and what it means for their business.
New Raleigh: How did you come up with the name "Curatory?"
Sarah Lytvinenko: We like to make words up; we really like to do that a lot. It’s a combination of the words laboratory, curate, and curiosity. It has a lot of layers. We think of our store and our workshop kind of like a museum and a testing ground.
New Raleigh: What does opening the new space mean for Raleigh Denim?
Sarah Lytvinenko: It means we have windows, which is way important [laughs]. Seriously, though, it’s a mark of growth, which is exciting.
Victor Lytvinenko: It’s a moment to stop and reflect on what we’ve done in the past few years.
NR: Why now?
S: We were growing at a rate that was not sustainable where we were. It was holding us back, because we could only have so much square footage in the other building. So we really needed space. There was nothing magic about that part, it was just necessity.
NR: Moving on to the creativity of your business, what inspires you?
S: Each other.
V: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say.
S: It’s true.
V: Yeah. I would say Sarah.
V: It’s true. I don’t know—What else inspires us?
V: History. And other passionate people.
S: Music inspires Victor big time.
NR: Did you collaborate on projects before Raleigh Denim?
V: We tried to. But we were not very successful.
S: It didn’t work.
S & V [in unison]: We were too stubborn! [They laugh.]
S: Yeah, we really could not collaborate at all.
V: We tried many, many times. And it failed horribly.
NR: Were you trying to outshine each other?
S: I think we both… we weren’t totally comfortable. We were both still experimenting. So we couldn’t give to each other when we were doing that. And, collaborating doesn’t do that all of the time.
NR: What was the moment when this somehow came together?
V: I was just making jeans in our apartment.
NR: So you just decided one day, "I’m going to make a pair of jeans?"
V: Yeah. It was just for me. It was a fun and challenging project.
NR: How did you figure that out? Did you use a pattern?
V: I had a pattern for a pair of men’s dress pants. And then I took apart another pair of jeans, and kind of made a pattern … morphed those two and made a pattern from that. And then would make a
sample every single day, for months.
NR: You just wanted to find the perfect pair of jeans?
V: It wasn’t even going to be perfect… I just wanted to have a decent pair of jeans that I could wear and tell people that I made them.
NR: So how did the very first pair of jeans you made turn out?
V: Oh, the first pair? The first pair was a joke!
S: Yeah, they were atrocious!
V: It was probably like the hundredth pair where I could actually wear them around. Where I was…
NR: Then did you wear them all the time?
V: I wore them for like a week.
NR: When did you decide, okay, this could be a business?
V: July of 2007.
NR: Was there a moment? An event or a conversation?
S: Conversations. It started out as a personal project and just kind of snowballed. Somewhere in the snowball we had the conversation, "Maybe we should try this for real, if we’re
serious. Maybe we should make a label and give it a real shot." But, there wasn’t a life-changing moment or decision. It was more like, "We’re already doing this, so let’s try and make it official." We still had a lot of figuring out to do, even after that.
S: I think the "a-ha" moment was in our first buying appointment. Victor had to try them on for the buyers.
V: At Barneys.
S: And if they didn’t fit it would have been really embarrassing.
NR: Did you realize you were going to be a model going into that appointment?
S: No, we actually planned for Victor to do most of the talking, because I’m kind of shy about stuff like that. And, so we went over all the points that we wanted to discuss. And of course I had opinions about things, but I didn’t want to do the talking.
V: And then we got into the meeting…
S: ...and they were like, "Okay, go to the bathroom, try these on. Now go to the bathroom and try these on." So it was up to me and our intern to pitch. It was funny (smiles and laughs).
V: We took our intern to the meeting.
NR: A great experience for your intern.
V: She had to drive. The deal was that she could come if she drove, because we had to drive all night to get there.
NR: Why did you drive?
V: We didn’t have enough money to get there.
S: We were broke. We were so broke.
V: My cousin was in town from Ukraine, and my dad said that he would give us $300 and let us borrow his minivan if we took my cousin who barely spoke any English.
NR: To New York?
S: To New York. He was a trooper. Oh my goodness, he was a trooper.
NR: Were you nervous?
S: Yeah we were nervous, and sleep-deprived and a little bit lost, because we had no idea what to expect.
V: But somehow it worked. We managed to pull it off. We’ve come a long way since that initial appointment. Our jeans are now being sold in 17 Barneys stores across the country.
NR: Which brings you to where you are today. Where is Raleigh Denim available now?
V: All over the U.S., in Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Ireland…
NR: At Barneys? And in other stores?
V: Oh, yeah. Like 15 or 18 other stores.
NR: And they’re all on your website?
NR: So you've gotten to travel as part of this, too?
S: Yes, it’s really nice.
NR: Talk about the mission of Raleigh Denim. What distinguishes it from other brands, what's your goal for the brand, and why Raleigh Denim?
V: When we were making jeans in our apartment, we wrote out a mission statement, and it included, "To make the perfect pair of jeans, in—"
S: "Principle and form."
V: It also included, "To be a part of the…
V: "…revitalization of the garment industry in North Carolina." Which I think is happening.
S: "To embrace quality over quantity and the humanness inherent in this idea." I think those are the ideals that still sum it up. I think the bottom line is to be conscious. We don’t think that there’s a strictly "green" way to do things or a strictly…
V: … "eco" way.
S: 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. I think balance is the big thing. We’re not beholden to anybody yet. We’re able to make the decisions we think are right, to trust our gut instincts.
V: We do what we think is right. What we think is right is usually the environmentally smart thing to do and the socially smart thing to do, and also the thing that we need to do to stay in business.
S: Also, in terms of what sets Raleigh Denim apart, our focus is on three main things: material, fit, and process. The material is the highest quality available. North Carolina has a rich textile history. It used to be the heartbeat of the denim industry. Cone has been making denim since 1891; they’re hands-down the masters.
V: They invented denim production. And, they’ve been making it in the same building since 1905.
S: On the same machines.
NR: Where in North Carolina is Cone Mills?
S & V: Greensboro.
S: And a more recent development on that is that now we work with them to design our denim. So all of our denims are exclusive. That’s what sets our jeans apart, as well.
NR: So you can talk with them about finish and color, and…
V: …yarn, dye, shade…
S: …the warp, weave patterns.
NR: You guys have become denim connoisseurs, I’m sure.
V: We say dorks. Denim dorks. Yeah. [Laughs.]
S: We’re denim nerds.
V: It’s part of the deal, though. I mean, that’s the way it should be.
S: Other points of difference are that the fit of our denim is really different, and our production process is unique.
V: Quality and craftsmanship are paramount to us. We’ve focused on making the best pair of jeans we possibly could from the very start. Sarah and I hand-sign every single pair of jeans we make. We sign the inside pocket after we’ve inspected and approved of each and every pair. Craftspeople sign what they make; artists sign what they create. We understand every single stitch of every single pair of jeans we make. We won’t sign our names on something we don’t believe in.
S: We’re building off of North Carolina’s heritage of craftsmanship. Everything we use is sourced from North Carolina – the thread, the denim, the zippers, the labels. The entire production process is done here in the workshop – sewing, washing.
V: We make all of our jeans in this building. We changed our labels recently and now on the label it says, "Raleigh Denim, handcrafted in North Carolina by non-automated jeansmiths."
S: We use vintage machines. No automated machines. So, we employ a lot of people to work things.
NR: How many people are working for you now versus a year ago? Where has the majority of that growth been?
S: Oh, Victor has a list now!
V: I had to make a list.
S: How many is it?
V: There’s…hold on… 21!
S: A year ago we only had around 5 employees. We now have roughly eight sewers, a pattern maker, a cutter, a couple of finishers, interns, PR people, a photographer…
NR: What else is new for Raleigh Denim?
V: It’s all changed. We’ve been building the infrastructure. We’re able to do more things than before. We’ve been able to open a store. The store also serves as a design showroom for us.
S: That’s part of why it’s so great. It’s a way for us to have a store and a showroom, without separate overhead.
V: Another plus is that we’ve been able to spend more time designing. Last year we spent 2% of our time designing and 98% of our time manufacturing. Now we probably spend 30% of our time designing and 70% of our time manufacturing.
S: That’s the most rewarding part. We’re working towards the point where if we can think about it, we can make it. Which is really cool.
V: Yeah, a year ago there were a lot of things holding us back—space, time, capital, knowledge. Now, maybe only one of those things on any given day. We’re really focusing on becoming a design house rather than just a denim brand. We’re making a lot of different things now. We’re making leather bags, belts, wallets… And, we’re going to start making jewelry. We’ve started thinking about stationery and cards…
NR: And I see out in the store there’s a little tooling area for the leather, is that where you’re going to be making belts, handbags, those types of things?
S: Yes, that’s where they’ll be made.
NR: Talk more about your leatherworking shop. How did it come about?
S: Well, Kieran Ionescu, the former designer and owner of Blackarm Bespoke leather goods, will be heading up our leather department. We wanted to carry his line in the store, and actually in placing that order we realized that we have a lot of overlapping ideas. We discovered that we could be helpful to him to be able to grow his business and reach a wider audience. We also found that he could be helpful to us, because we’ve always wanted design leather goods, but Victor and I can’t personally handle the learning curve right now. So Kieran had the idea, "What if this is Blackarm Bespoke’s last run? And then we team up and collaborate?"
S: Yeah. So, we have all of Blackarm Bespoke’s remaining leather goods here in our shop. Kieran is now our director of leather goods. Everything else he designs from here on out will be new, original products for Raleigh Denim. We’re so excited. Kieran is very talented; we’re thrilled to have him on board.
NR: Other than leather goods and denim, what other new things are available for shoppers at the Curatory?
V: Women’s jeans are on the table right now. We have a brand new wash available. New pieces from the Raleigh Denim line, other than denim, will be out just before Christmas. We’ll have our shirt dresses in stock.
NR: And you're carrying other brands as well?
S: Yes. Part of the "curating" process for us is bringing new things to the Triangle. We’re carrying brands that haven’t been available in Raleigh before. We are making an effort to try and carry brands by like-minded people, brands that are doing similar things with a complimentary or different aesthetic.
NR: So it sounds like the other brands that you're carrying have missions similar to that of Raleigh Denim.
S: Exactly. We’re carrying a lot of great brands – Grown and Sewn, Outlier, Farm Tactics… A lot of them are domestic, which is really wonderful. There’s a reason behind each thing we carry in the store.
V: I think the other thing about the clothing we’re carrying is that we’re trying to offer "better" goods to the public, higher quality merchandise. We like the idea of people buying fewer things, but buying better things. We want to encourage people to be conscious consumers.
S: Yes, for example, we’re carrying St. James sweaters. They have been making sweaters for the French Navy for over a century. We believe that people are yearning for more ways to express themselves through clothing. We believe that that can be done in a considerate way.
NR: So what do you want the public to know about the Curatory?
S: We want people to know that there’s always something new to discover when you shop here. We’re bringing in other lines which, until now, have not been available in the Triangle. We’ve chosen them because they’re beautiful, impeccably crafted, and are either timeless wardrobe staples or innovative and forward-thinking.
V: We want people to know that there’s something here for everyone.
S: We offer very high-end items in the store, but we also offer some very crafty, original items, as well.
V: We offer products in every price range, for every shopper. For example, we have winter hats that have been hand-spun by a North Carolina artisan, and we plan to carry hand-crafted cards and stationery.
NR: Do you think you will be opening more stores in the future?
S: Sure, we talk about it… If the Curatory does well, we would love to open up a new stand-alone shop one day.
NR: How does it feel to be where you are now?
V: It does. It feels really good.
319 W. Martin Street
Raleigh, NC 27601
919 917 8969
Holiday Hours through December 23rd:
Mon-Wed 2-6, Thu-Fri 10-8, Sat 10-6, Sun 12-5
Brands: Raleigh Denim, Blackarm Bespoke, Farm Tactics, Outlier, Shakuhachi, St. James, Grown and Sewn, René Talmon l’Armée… and more.
All Photography by Katie Little.