Oakland’s Roy Slaper crafts artisan jeans; just don’t tell him we said so.
Roy Slaper could do with out the word artisan. He also wouldn’t mind ditching handcrafted, either. Unfortunately for him, both pretty accurately describe his one-man denim operation housed in a warehouse in Oakland. Amid bolts of fabric and wooden desks covered with Union Special and Singer sewing machines that date back to the pre–1950s, he transforms rare, specially made denim into his Roy Denim jeans, which have earned him a cult following in the Bay Area and beyond.
These aren’t your dad’s jeans: Everything—from the patterns to the embossed leather tag aged by the sun through his window—is done by hand, and each pair can take up to three and a half hours to construct. The process starts with selvedge denim, which is produced to Slaper’s specifications at the famed Cone Denim Mills in North Carolina—typically unheard of for a small brand. The fabric has a different look, feel, and aging process than typical denim. As Slaper works, he jumps from machine to machine in his crowded workspace, adding a button hole here, attaching a belt loop there, and stitching his signature into the lining of the back pocket. But his work still isn’t done. When he’s not sewing jeans, Slaper tweaks his technique, tearing apart old machines for parts or experimenting with new styles.
“I’m never happy with the thing I know how to do. I always want to learn something new,” Slaper says. “My friends always say I’m patient, which I don’t understand. I’m not. I’m persistent.”
Slaper first tried his hand at denim following a career in metal fabrication, making signs. The transition to jeans wasn’t exactly born of fanaticism. “I never really wore jeans before I decided to make them,” he admits. “I wasn’t sure what was going to work.” What followed was a three-year period of trial and error, including a stint spent sleeping in his closet as his growing arsenal of industrial sewing machines filled the rest of his apartment; an experimental pair of bright red, skintight waxed cotton jeans; and one frustration-bent needle following a learn-as-he-went project on deadline.
“People ask me now, ‘What did you do, cut apart a pair of jeans?’ And that would have been so much easier. But to me, that was almost cheating,” he says. “I wanted to look at something and figure out how it was made. There are certain things you only understand from actually figuring out how every little piece works and fits together.”
His obsession with detail pays off. Fans of Roy Denim swarm San Francisco’s Self Edge, one of the first stores in the United States to carry Japanese brands and specialize in selvedge denim. Slaper sells his work exclusively through Self Edge’s stores and website. A shipment of up to 170 pairs, which arrives roughly every two months, can sell out in as little as 12 hours. Kiya Babzani, who runs Self Edge with his wife, hasn’t encountered anything quite like Slaper.
“He’s the only person I know of in the entire world—and I’ve been doing this for quite a while—making jeans from beginning to end without any employees, not to mention on pre-1950s machines,” says Babzani. “If someone had been working in clothing for 30 years and knew nothing about Roy, they would think his jeans were made in a Japanese factory. That’s how good he is.”
The jeans typically retail for upward of $300 (most quality selvedge comes with a hefty price tag), but the typical customers aren’t wealthy tech dudes or flashy high rollers.
“It’s kind of been the more rugged guys that want something made by a type of guy that they feel like they know or have a connection to,” says Babzani. “It’s the opposite of those faceless companies. You know every single thing about the person, which is very rare.”
While the story behind the jeans and their workmanship differentiates Slaper’s work from other denim, he thinks the contrast goes deeper.
“It’s kind of like when you look at old buildings versus new buildings,” Slaper explains. “Old buildings have all of this beautiful texture. There are easier and faster ways to sew things, but I can look at a stitch and tell the difference.”
Self Edge’s Kiya Babzani breaks down the blues.
· Selvedge: Also called selvage, this term comes from the finished edge of the fabric itself. The easiest way to spot the difference? The cuff at the bottom will be significantly crisper on a pair of selvedge jeans.
· Un-Sanforized: Jeans that have not been exposed to a chemical or manual process to shrink them. They need to be soaked and air-dried, but age more naturally.
· 12–16 ounces: The average weight of denim, per pair, based on the density and weight of the thread. Heavier jeans take more work to break in. Many Roy Denim pairs are 14.5 ounces but can range from 12 to 25.
Three other East Bay outfitters that place a premium on denim.
· Atlas: Along with well-known Citizens of Humanity and Hudson, the Walnut Creek store stocks Raven, a line that sources its selvedge denim from top European mills. atlasshops.com.
· Two Jacks Denim: This new Oakland menswear spot focuses on American-made selvedge denim. Pick up a pair by Railcar Fine Goods, which makes its jeans with vintage equipment. twojacksdenim.com.
· Venture Quality Goods: Try one of the Lafayette shop’s rugged Tellason pairs, cut and sewn in San Francisco. Tellason sends a handwritten thank-you note with all online orders. venturequalitygoods.com.
For more information, visit roydenim.com.