Young Wichita entrepreneurs proving these aren’t your average jeans

These aren't your average jeans

Two 24-year-old Maize High School graduates who make custom-made jeans in Wichita are preparing to open their first storefront near Douglas and Emporia on Sept. 17 with a sneak peek Aug. 26. (Video by Gabriella Dunn, published Aug. 3, 2016)
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Two 24-year-old Maize High School graduates who make custom-made jeans in Wichita are preparing to open their first storefront near Douglas and Emporia on Sept. 17 with a sneak peek Aug. 26. (Video by Gabriella Dunn, published Aug. 3, 2016)

Two 24-year-old Wichitans who have been making high-end, custom jeans in a basement are preparing to open their first storefront at Douglas and Emporia.

Frank Hopkins and Levi Fitzmier graduated from Maize High School in 2010, moved to Los Angeles a year later, quickly burned through their money and moved back to Wichita.

They learned some sewing basics from Fitzmier’s grandmother and have since sewed by day and worked restaurant jobs by night.

Their brand is FNL Denim, which stands for Frank and Levi.

They’re in the process of putting together the downtown storefront. The space has tall, exposed ceilings and 10 industrial sewing machines in the middle of the shop. Silver pipes hold rolls of raw denim on the store’s exposed brick walls, which are decorated with samples of their custom-made men’s jeans.

The store opens for a public sneak preview on Final Friday, Aug. 26, with a grand opening planned for Sept. 17.

Starting out

Hopkins and Fitzmier first thought about the business when Hopkins bought a pair of $250 designer jeans in Los Angeles that ripped a week later.

They toured an art institute in L.A. and quickly ruled out fashion school.

“We don’t come from wealthy families,” Hopkins said. “I didn’t want to go $200,000 in debt learning how to sew dresses and stuff, so we just kind of bootstrapped it and did what we could.”

We don’t come from wealthy families. I didn’t want to go $200,000 in debt learning how to sew dresses and stuff.

Frank Hopkins, co-founder of FNL Denim

They soon ruled out factory production, too, which required large orders of each design and size, rather than one-by-one customization.

After quickly depleting a $3,000 loan, they moved back to Wichita in October 2013.

As their sewing abilities grew, so did the complexities of their problems.

The most mentally taxing and time-consuming aspect: making the pattern.

“That’s where a lot of hours have been spent for sure,” Fitzmier said. “Pretty much we’d sew up a pair, throw them on and see how they fit — do it all over again.”

Hopkins added: “And half the time we’d make adjustments while we’re sewing, rather than on the pattern, so when they did fit right we didn’t know what we did.”

YouTube helped, Hopkins and Fitzmier said, but even YouTube couldn’t answer some of their problems.

For example, the two struggled designing an area of jeans called the yoke — the v-shaped section above the back pockets and below the belt line.

“The jean would just pop straight up and you would have this big flap just flapping out, and when you’d tighten your belt, there would be this big scrunch back there,” Fitzmier said.

They sought help from a master tailor they admired on Instagram named Ben Viapiana. Viapiana, who lives in Bangkok, e-mailed some pattern ideas to Hopkins and Fitzmier for the yoke and helped mentor them on other aspects of the design process.

“The way he does it is super old school,” Fitzmier said.

“Really super Plain Jane old school. … We wanted to do it different. We wanted to make it a better fitting jean, more modern looking.”

Eventually, Viapiana stopped replying to their e-mails.

“It got to this point where I think he would get on our Instagram and be like, ‘Oh, OK, these kids are actually getting better.’ 

‘Oh, OK, these kids are actually getting better.’

Levi Fitzmier, co-founder of FNL Denim

Out of the basement

Since moving back to Wichita, the two have purchased 10 industrial sewing machines from around the country.

They bought most of the machines used because, for example, a new machine that only makes buttonholes costs $18,000, they said.

Hopkins’ grandmother and Fitzmier’s father helped the two with their first sewing machine purchase in Dallas. Fitzmier and Hopkins then hosted a crowd-sourcing fundraiser on Kickstarter in September, which raised $11,240 before their investor, Brian McLevis, came on board.

Over the course of roughly five years, Fitzmier and Hopkins estimate they’ve made about 350 pairs of jeans; they have sold about 100 pairs and still have the other 250.

They balked at the idea of throwing any away.

“We have our very first jeans we ever made,” Fitzmier said.

“We made Chiefs jeans, we made Jayhawk jeans. We were just practicing, so we just did anything we could do.”

Before the downtown storefront, they worked in Fitzmier’s parents’ basement, then Hopkins’ parents’ basement, and finally Fitzmier’s own basement.

FNL makes its jeans with a technique that uses the outer edge of the denim. The technique is called selvedge, which refers to the “self-edge” of the fabric.

Selvedge edges are thicker and created from an old-fashioned denim weaving technique abandoned by most large-scale producers.

Another twist: People aren’t supposed to wash jeans from FNL — at least for as long as they can hold off, and then hand wash or dry clean.

People aren’t supposed to wash jeans from FNL.

FNL uses raw denim, so if it’s machine washed, it will shrink and fade.

“I wore these for about eight months, and I finally washed them,” Fitzmier said.

Hopkins pointed out how the creases behind each of their knees are perfectly placed because the raw, heavyweight denim fades and forms exactly to the wearer’s legs.

“If you go anywhere in the mall (to buy jeans), you have a really lightweight material that gets broken down and beat-up really quick,” he said.

A custom fit

When customers come in to shop, Fitzmier and Hopkins will measure their waist — true to size. Retail sizes, they said, are often two to three inches smaller than the actual waist measurement.

Customers will then try on sample jeans from a rack of roughly 80 try-on pairs — made in various cuts and sizes. Jeans will cost between $135 and $250.

“It’s easier to see a jean on and make the adjustments, than to go from 13 measurements on your leg,” Hopkins said.

The shop will also have a wall with three customization categories — “choose your denim,” “choose your thread, hardware, patch and pockets” and “choose your fit.” That’s where people will decide the look and feel of their pair.

They only make men’s jeans for now, but hope to make women’s jeans sometime in the future.

On the web

They also are launching a website sometime in the fall, after the store opens.

Their investor, McLevis, took the lead on much of the website project because he owns Envyus Media, which specializes in internet advertising.

He arranged for web developers to create the website. Dynamic displays will update as customers choose their denim, thread color, pockets and fit to customize each aspect of their jeans.

McLevis compared it to Nike ID, which allows customers to do the same thing with sports shoes.

The site will also have a “look book” of people wearing different styles of jeans.

The site will launch a couple months after the store opening, to give Hopkins and Fitzmier time to adjust.

“If we get a couple hundred (online) orders in the first week, we’re going to be in trouble,” Hopkins said.

Plus, they have to make sure people take accurate measurements and place the correct order.

“We can’t return custom jeans,” Fitzmier said. “You customize it for yourself, so we can’t have that.”

McLevis first met Hopkins at a Longhorn Steakhouse, where Hopkins tends bar five nights a week. Hopkins had seen McLevis eating at the restaurant several times before he approached him about making jeans.

“I had a couple pairs made,” McLevis said. “They fit good.

“I came back, got a couple more pairs made with different jean, and I kind of just got addicted to them, so I think I ended up with 12 pairs.”

I kind of just got addicted to them, so I think I ended up with 12 pairs.

Brian McLevis, investor

After a few months, McLevis invested in FNL.

Hopkins and Fitzmier, standing in their storefront space, reminisced about how far they’ve come. They’re now able to make a pair of custom jeans in less than two hours.

“The first pair of jeans took us almost 20 hours to make, and they were awful,” Hopkins said.

“There’s not many jobs that you can see the finished product. It’s kind of fun to see all three steps – coming up with the design, creating it ourselves and actually giving it to the customer.”

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn