THEY AREN’T EXACTLY AIRCRAFT ENGINES, but constructing a quality pair of jeans is nevertheless a complicated process. A single pair of Levi’s, for instance, passes through the hands of 85 individual factory workers before completion. It’d be ludicrous, then, to imagine a single person attempting to tackle such a labor-intensive undertaking by himself. Ludicrous, that is, unless your name happens to be Roy Slaper.
Slaper is the man behind the aptly-named Roy Denim, a small line of jeans he designs, manufactures and operates entirely on his own. Though it’s only been four years since he first began tinkering with sewing machines, Slaper’s handmade dungarees are beloved by denim aficionados—partly because of their inimitable quality and detailing, and partly because of just how farfetched and improbable it is for one man to be manufacturing jeans all on his lonesome.
With an avid online following and a co-sign from venerated denim shop Self Edge, Roy Denim is an undeniable success. When discussing his unlikely career arc, Slaper speaks with the relaxed drawl of a man who is content to be making his living doing something he loves. But the 39-year-old is quick to admit that this was hardly his plan all along.
AN AVID SKATEBOARDER, Slaper packed his bags after high school and moved from his native Texas to Oakland, CA, hoping to ride alongside the best. But after a few years of grinding pavement, the cold realities of adulthood inevitably began to creep in. “When you’re a skateboarder,” Slaper says, “you feel like your life is over at 23. It took me 10 years to recover from that shock.”
During that melancholic decade, Slaper took up a handful of trades: he spent time working with metals as a sign maker, and became familiar with a wide range of machinery during a stint as a mechanic. Nothing, however, seemed to fill the void left in his life by youthful, carefree skateboarding. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until Slaper found himself unemployed during the economic downturn that things began to look up.
“One day I just decided, ‘I’m going to make jeans,’” Slaper recalls. “It really was no more complicated than that. I wanted to make a pair that I could wear myself.”
It took a bit of trial and error to make that dream a reality. Slaper picked up an antique sewing machine, and went to work using some denim and a pattern for women’s jeans that he’d gotten from a local fabric shop—it was all they had, but he figured he could make it work. “They turned out so small,” Slaper says of that first pair with a laugh. “The only person who could pull them on was a 12-year-old girl.”
After a fair amount of experimentation, Slaper successfully created his first pattern, and used it to craft another (larger) pair of jeans. “They were wearable,” he says. “But then I made another pair and those turned out 100% percent better than the first. And then I made a third pair and those were 100% percent better than the second ones. In the first four months I got better exponentially, which was really heartening.”
Before long, they were good enough that other people began to take notice—and wanted pairs for themselves. Within two months, Slaper took his first custom order from a close friend, and his reputation slowly began to grow through word of mouth. Suddenly Slaper was receiving requests for jeans by e-mail, and what had started out as a hobby on a whim was beginning to take over his life.
“My apartment was packed with machines, and I was sleeping in the closet,” Slaper chuckles. “It was a freak show.”
FAST FORWARD TO TODAY. Slaper now works out of a full studio in Oakland. His jeans are no longer made from fabric store denim—instead, he uses textiles from North Carolina’s Cone Mills and Japan’s Nihon Menpu, two of the most illustrious denim suppliers in the world. When trying on a pair of Roy Denim jeans for the first time, the sheer, distinctive quality is immediately apparent. You can feel it in the hardy construction, and see it in the minute details: the handmade leather back patch; the vintage-style waistband stitch; the custom name stitching on the pocket bag.
Certainly, over the last four and a half years, Slaper has elevated the caliber of his craftsmanship to that of an artisan. He recently adopted a technique called “lean manufacturing,” which sees him complete an entire pair of jeans in one fluid motion, running around the room in a circuit from machine to machine, doing each step in order, rather than performing a single process on several pairs at a time.
“Because I’m only working on one pair at a time, the quality is even more perfect,” Slaper explains. “If something is slightly wrong, I’m much more inclined to fix it. And besides, it’s so much more fun than sitting on my butt all day. It builds morale.”
Despite his apparent mastery, however, Slaper refuses to see himself as anything more than an apprentice. “Every time I think I’m great I get humbled,” he says. “There’s always this uphill climb to a certain plateau, and once I get close to the top and start feeling really confident, there’s another climb there waiting for me.”
SLAPER’S GROUNDED PERSPECTIVE is not only refreshingly rare in his industry, but it’s also had a great deal to do with his success. Making jeans, he says, is his second calling—the first thing he’s truly loved doing since his skateboarding days—and Slaper realizes it’s that genuine passion that fuels his admirable work ethic.
“When I was first starting out making jeans,” Slaper recalls, “someone told me, ‘If you’re in it for the love, you’ll do fine. If you try to make money, you’ll do awful.’ And it’s true.”
For the late-blooming entrepreneur, then, the money he’s now making is a welcome bonus. But Slaper’s strongest motivator remains his connection with the people who wear his jeans. “I can have a hard day where something goes wrong,” he says, “and then I come home and there are five emails from people who I don’t know and all they want to do is tell me I’m doing a good thing. That feels great.”
As much as those personal touches drive Slaper forward, however, they are also holding him back in some sense. In addition to his jeans, Slaper makes his own shirts, jackets—practically everything in his wardrobe. He’d like to expand his line to include those items, too, but knows it wouldn’t be feasible without bringing in another person to help out. “The dilemma of hiring someone else is trying to teach them to sew the way I need,” Slaper explains. “Not that I’m the best sewer in the world, but it’s just the level of integrity. How do I get someone to sew and care about this stuff the way I do?”
For now, though, Slaper’s not worrying about that. He’s satisfied with how far he’s come, and glad that he’s finally doing what he was meant to all along.
“I’m trying not to take what I do too seriously,” Slaper says. ”I feel like Spicoli right now, in that scene where he tells Stu Nahan that the key to surfing is to look at the wave and say, ‘Hey bud, let’s party!’
“I just relaxed and went with what felt natural, and I feel like the universe responded.”
For more information on Roy Denim, visit http://roydenim.com/
Top image by Yang-Yi Goh. All other photographs by Mark Randall.
Video courtesy of Self Edge.
Previous installments of “Denim Dialogues”: