LONGJOURNEY is one of those brands that flies deep beneath the radar. The L.A.-based brand has been around since 2012, but as most L.A. labels have taken advantage of the city's strong denim manufacturing reputation, LJ has gone in a completely different direction while still taking advantage of the resources surrounding it. Sourcing all of its materials from vintage outlets and military surplus spots and combining them with innovative fabric washes and treatments, LONGJOURNEY designers Alex Carapetian and Alonzo Ester have an exciting brand on their hands. From the waxed and patched F/W 15 collection to the parachute fabric and nylon-heavy S/S 16, it's clear that the production end of things is meticulous and incredibly detailed. And it's off the strength of that great craftsmanship that the brand has found its way into big-name retailers like Barneys and Colette. We talked to Carapetian and Ester about the two's long journey (pun absolutely intended) and the process behind making the old new again.
How did LONGJOURNEY start originally?
Alex Carapetian: I was at Fred Segal Santa Monica in 2005 doing retail and moved up until I was buying. Alonzo had a store in the same center and we’d see each other everyday. Eventually I was getting nosy with what he was doing.
Alonzo Ester: I was a buyer at Fred Segal Melrose for many years, then I had a store with a different partner where Alex and I met a few years later. We ended up working for the same person, doing completely different things and just bumped into each other.
AC: We compared notes and helped each other and made one jacket together—a regular Olive MA-1—then did another and just kept making stuff.
AE: We bought a lot of vintage for our stores. We’d seen so much and wanted to hopefully try and see it in a new way—to have it not look vintage. We’ve seen customized vintage with studs or patches. We’d seen that, so we wanted to see how we could take something vintage, rework it and not have someone know it was vintage unless we told them. How do we strip it of its vintage-ness and have it be a new garment they fall in love with? That’s what we’ve been trying to accomplish.
That takes a lot of work and, in general, your stuff is really intense when it comes to construction and treatment. Could you talk about how that plays a part in the LONGJOURNEY process?
AE: In L.A. there’s a culture of denim and t-shirts. So a lot of companies want 5,000 units of a t-shirt or a basic jean. But the combination of our orders being smaller and this idea of slowing things down to stop and take the time to understand how it’s put together and it’s not automatic—that's not our thing. It’s been really great to find a connection where someone gets it and they’re willing to try it with us. We have a few spots that have gone there with us.
AC: It’s also helped streamline it too because we get to see how far they can go. We find ways to work.
On the topic of washes and treatments, you have tons of crazy treatments you use in the collection.
AC: We found this Ozone treatment last fall, which is a waterless powder formula. It’s a spray and pulls all the color out of the cotton fabrics, giving us a new starting point. We take fabrics, strip it and now it’s a clean textile. The treatment is environmentally friendly and allows a clean canvas to work with fabrics we like. The grey parachute [in S/S 16] was bright yellow. We wanted to figure out a way to transform it and Ozone allowed us to do that. Anything from the white up to the light indigo in this collection was white at some point.
AE: It’s really about creating these things in this organic way. You bump into someone and they say “I have a facility” then we go and check it out and they’re doing amazing jeans but we’re not doing jeans.
AC: So we ask them to do something else like strip a Champion sweatshirt instead. And they’d never thought of that before and they get excited. They get to see how far they can go [in their process] and it’s cool for us because we’re using technology that we can bring into our world.
AE: When we had the yellow parachute, we knew we weren’t going to use that marigold yellow, so how could we transform that? We had no idea it was going to become grey. We thought it was going to become indigo. It’s a surprise. Then we can do something else with it. One step leads to the next.
You're working with so many different factors. Does it ever ruin plans when a piece comes out with a color you didn't expect?
AE: We’re super open to the discovery of something that comes in the process. We’re not afraid of that coming up and welcome it.
AC: We were dyeing sports jerseys indigo for S/S 15 and a yellow one turned to this amazing green. Each time the surprises sparked something and we realized we could do things by accident on purpose.
AE: Our indigo dyer has so many clients who were so strict and with her work that she could never get it EXACTLY on. Then we would come in. She wasn’t sure if we would like it and we’d love it. Figuring out ways to work with what comes or push to realize it in the best way is the best part. The pinks were a great example of that. We were really trying to get them right and they kept coming back too bright.
AC: We had to rub it on the ground and take it back to show them how dingy we wanted them. Sometimes it takes ten times, but we keep at it until it works and if it doesn’t we save it for next season.
Could you talk about how you get your materials?
AE: We are constantly out and about. During the previous season when we’re out finding materials something might catch our eye, he [Alex] may grab something and I’ll grab something similar. Then we start collecting. The flight suit pieces from this season, we started collecting those about two years ago. We had a bunch hanging [in the studio] knowing we were going to do something with them.
AC: They were supposed to be for F/W 14.
AE: Then we narrowed the ideas down and did some samples with the flight suits but didn’t use them. When we decided this collection was going to be about flight, we went back to them and for F/W 14, we bought the paramesh. These parachutes made out of this really interesting woven, fishnet-type thing. We bought those and indigo-dyed them. It was our first parachute. We asked the guy who got those for us to keep an eye out. So he started searching for them and he eventually came back and asked us if we were still interested in them. Because we’re doing everything, production from one season, conceptualizing the next, we save scraps in big bins in our space. When we finally get time to put the next season together, we see what we have.
You collect all these different scraps and the result is a fairly different collection each season. Do you worry about a disconnect from season to season? For example, S/S 15 was almost all blue and indigo-dyed, F/W 15 was waxed and predominantly black and S/S 16 is flight-inspired with a much lighter color palette.
AE: I don’t think we think in those terms. A lot of the bodies are the same, they’re just rendered in a new material and treated in a special way. We don’t change the styles drastically, but the overall mood and spirit flows and evolves. We’re pulling the thread. So there’s still indigo from previous seasons, but done with parachutes this time.
AC: The denim this season is from F/W 14 track pants. We did a trackpant from vintage sweats, but everyone was doing track pants, so we did it in denim. Some never saw it as a track pant, but when they see it as denim, it changes.
AE: And the customer who did see them as track pants, they also get them in denim.
A lot of brands do that rotation of staples and build a larger collection around it, which is somewhat similar to what you do.
AC: Ultimately, guys are easy: you find a fit you like and buy ten pairs. A guy gets into something and they love it. If we keep repeating that jean and hit them over the head with it enough, they’ll love it. It makes it approachable because it’s a familiar piece, but the fabric is the story and it allows us to shine and do it’s thing. We like the fabrics we’re using, the old sweatshirts and denim. But we store ideas away until the time is right. In S/S 15 we did the indigo collection, that was based off the first time we came to New York in 2012.
AE: We knew that couldn’t be a fall collection, so we had to put it on hold for a season to try the right partner to help us do indigo. Each season, we want to take something that is simple and transform it. This F/W 15, the jeans are made from patchwork. For S/S 16, they’re made fully from vintage jeans. It’s a different look and feel, they’re softer.
You mentioned how the entire operation is very eco-friendly, is that a big selling point for you?
AC: It’s just a conscious thing. We want to try to do the right thing, but in the end it’s just a natural part of our process.
AE: We are working with vintage, so there is an element of recycling in that. We wanted to work with natural dyes as closely as we could as well. But it was never “let’s be a green brand."
On the future of LJ, you've ended up in some big name, larger scale stores even with all the meticulous construction. Is there a difficulty in that and looking to grow and get bigger? What's the next step?
AC: Everyone wants to grow and the reason we want to is to explore more within what we’re doing.
AE: At the same time it’s a business. It has to be a viable, strong business. We want to grow it as big as it can get, but at the same time keep the soul and spark and excitement that we love about it.