Raleigh Denim was founded by Sarah and Victor Lytvinenko. The couple met in high school, when they attended Saint Mary’s and Enloe, respectively. They began dating, and after spending a few years in New York and Europe learning the fashion scene they returned to Raleigh with Sarah determined to finish her design degree at N.C. State. She was in the middle of assembling a line for Art to Wear when Victor’s denim project seduced her.
One thing led to another, and Verses Jeans was born. (The name changed last summer). The two married in October 2008, and today they’re making jeans—and history—full-time in a studio on Bloodworth Street. New Raleigh met them there Friday evening before they headed out to the Rosebuds show. Sarah was wearing boots over Raleigh Denim jeans and an old black L.A. Raiders t-shirt, with her hair down long and straight. Victor, wearing cuffed Raleigh Denim jeans with an old White Horse Tavern t-shirt, remarked that he was missing his usual hat since he’d showered that morning.
Other than a piano and a Luke Buchanan painting that was given to them as a wedding present, the studio was packed with old-fashioned sewing machines and shelves of denim scraps. Victor and Sarah just hired their first two employees and are currently handsewing 700 pairs of men’s jeans for Barneys, where Raleigh Denim debuted in February. In the fall, the jeans will appear in 8 additional Barneys stores nationwide.
Here’s what the husband-and-wife team had to say about long workdays, favorite mixtapes, and their love for Raleigh.
New Raleigh: First off, how many times a day do you end up screaming at each other?
Sarah: [Laughs.] Only about once a month now.
Victor: At first it was ten times a day. We’re both really stubborn, and at first we didn’t know what we were doing.
S: There was no standard to look to.
V: We took on a lot at first. We don’t outsource anything.
V: Okay, we outsource to Raleigh, North Carolina; we outsource to Capital Boulevard.
S: Victor has to literally pick me up and pull me out of bed in the morning. Then at night I read him to sleep. We energize each other.
N: Why here? Why Raleigh?
S: This is where our friends and family are.
NR: But you branded your work “Raleigh” Denim. Why?
S: North Carolina has a rich textile history. It used to be the heartbeat of the denim industry, and there is all sorts of weaving and manufacturing here. We’re doing it our way. This is where we are. We don’t feel like we have to go to New York to be fashionable; being here is special and different.
Everything we use is from North Carolina—the thread, the denim, the zippers, the labels. We do everything in the studio—sewing, washing. We’re building off a heritage of craftsmanship. We wouldn’t stay here if there was nothing going on. The most sustainable and enjoyable way to do anything is to do it where you are, around people you like.
V: We could not have started this business anywhere else.
[We head outside for photos and Victor regales us with tales of finding prostitutes at work in the yard behind the studio. An empty Colt 45 bottle makes its way into the frame, and Victor tosses it out.]
V: No Colt 45!
S: Victor, yes! Embrace our location!
NR: Who are your heroes in Raleigh?
V: Vicki and Charles Phaneuf. We keep coming back to them as an example of how to run a business as a family.
S: Ann Marie Baum and Louis Cherry. They’re our mentors and friends.
V: We are so grateful. So, so, so, so, so– I’m getting teary–
V: ...to all the people of raleigh who have supported us. Up until three months ago we were just some punk kids making jeans that nobody thought were real, and for almost two years a lot of people supported that.
S: That’s another reason we love Raleigh.
NR: What are your favorite places to eat or drink?
S: Foundation and Poole’s. The Busy Bee now sometimes. Raleigh Times if I want a big salad.
V: We are economists here.
S: Plus, it’s all local!
NR: On your website you say that your “old-fashioned approach is forward thinking.” How does that paradox play out in the jeans you make?
S: Everything we like is either really old or really new. I love rusty bolts, and I love lacquer. I love things done the old fashioned way– a time consuming weave, limited edition material, nothing fancy.
NR: No bottom shit?
S: No rhinestones.
NR: When you design, what kind of person do you imagine wearing your jeans?
S: First us. Then our friends. Then, in terms of universal figures that everyone would relate to? Probably…
V: Ivan Rosebud.
S: Nobody too flashy. Some indie band. Somebody conscious, somebody edgy, somebody who cares about quality. People who think a lot– about what they eat, what they listen to, where they live, what they do and why. What’s good and what’s bad. People who care about the craft combined with people who like something new and small and fresh and who analyze aesthetics.
V: We analyze every single part of what is made. I don’t know a single other denim designer who sews their jeans.
S: People who get shit done and love what they do.
NR: People like you.
V: It is an active sacrifice every day.
S: There is a lot of joy in that. It’s empowering.
NR: Sarah, what’s your favorite outfit on Victor?
S: Those jeans [points to the ones he has on]... and this white button-up shirt where he rolls up the sleeves. Very casual.
NR: Victor, what’s your favorite outfit on Sarah?
V: She’s got this short white sweater with blue stripes, and she wears a little shirt underneath, and jeans and boots.
NR: Are there any songs that totally seduce you right now? When I asked Sarah Powers that she just blurted out, “Kanye West!”
V: He’s on my go-getters soundtrack.
NR: Your what?
V: Every day theres a time when I want to reach up and grab the ceiling because, Yes! Something great happened. And every day there’s a moment when I want to bang my head against the wall.
S: That’s when he puts on the go-getters soundtrack.
V: There’s Jay-Z, “My First Song,” which is like, remember back when you were an intern? It’s an inspirational, ghetto-inspired mix. All rap, all “I’m gonna make it, I’m coming from the hood, from the streets.” I made it when all the bullshit was hitting the fan. Another song on there is Kanye West, “Touch the Sky.”
S: Bat for Lashes, Santogold, and one Spice Girls song. Those are on my “crunch time” list. I also like cool stuff! Oh, and there’s this amazing song, “One Step at a Time” or something.
V: That is her jam!
S: [Laughs.] It’s the cheesiest song on the planet. I was having the worst day ever and it was like ten o’clock and I was driving around and I just put on that song. It’s terrible, it’s worse than Britney Spears. Victor loves the Estelle song “American Boy.” We were going straight from New York to L.A. to look at Barneys right when it came out and Victor made it his soundtrack.
NR: Anything else?
V: We have a cat, Magneto! Put that in there.
S: We don’t need to have kids because we love her so much. She’s like a tiger you can snuggle with.
V: The best kind of tiger, I think.
When they finish the Barneys order, Raleigh Denim plans to produce a limited edition line exclusively for Holly Aiken’s Raleigh shop, Stitch, made with unique materials and style for the Raleigh community.
To find out more, visit their website, or try to snag them at Foundation between 12-hour workdays.