“We had a hard time finding good quality selvedge jeans here in the Philippines. Back then, you could only buy Levi’s Vintage Clothing and the Japanese brands abroad,” says Jake Antig. He along with his brother Albert, Raul Lejano, and Iver Aldas launched Leon Denim back in 2014. Then, they were making their own jeans by importing Japanese denim from international suppliers and getting them made by a tailor who used to work with Levi’s in the Philippines garments manufacturing heydays.
The group realized that they could improve the product by using the correct machines and production techniques and processes from the late 1890s to the 1960s. After acquiring the needed vintage equipment, they launched Leon Denim. “We loved denim and we saw the opportunity to create our own locally produced brand, one that could stand toe-to-toe against the premium brands,” he says. It’s been a hit so far. They’ve grown from their initial three offerings to about 12 lines today.
Here, Antig spoke about what heritage and passion collide in their rapidly-growing endeavor:
Did you have any background in design or the fashion business?
I work in IT and my brother in telco. Iver has a strong background in supply chain and production, and Raul is a manufacturing and process improvement professional. Businesswise, we have a diverse set of skills and experience so we are quite comfortable with spreadsheets, costs, revenue and profits.
What we have in common is a love for well-made objects. We use an engineering point-of-vier to approach the design and manufacture of the garments. Design-wise, we take our cues from vintage Levi’s, Lee, Wrangler, as well as workwear and military inspired staples.
My brother and I used to travel all over Asia for work. We were exposed to fashion in Hongkong, China, Korea, Thailand, Japan, Singapore. Raul used to go a lot to Japan and Europe for work, drawing inspiration from there. Iver has a penchant for construction and details. He also has a strong photography and art background. We are voracious readers of fashion and design magazines from Japan, US, Europe. So we have a good grasp on how clothes are supposed to fit. Of course, we try to practice what we learn on ourselves, for starters.
Who are your style inspirations?
My brother and I take our cues from our grandfather who was always well put together. He had a uniform of freshly pressed shirts and jeans, nice shoes, sunglasses and a neatly trimmed mustache. His jeans were cut at the ankles, just a bit on top of his Florsheim or Bally loafers so his socks would show. He had a liston sewn on the front panels of his jeans so they would always look crisp and newly ironed. Our grandfather taught us about fit, proportion, colors, shining shoes, grooming, how to be a gentleman. We had a barber visit our house every Sunday to maintain our crew cuts. His Levi’s were faded beautifully because he used them all the time running a saw mill, and visiting logging sites around Northern Mindanao. This was back when logging was the main industry in Butuan.
Raul’s mother used to run her own atelier. He and his siblings had the benefit of being exposed to an innate sense of style early on. Iver’s dad was a true-blue denim aficionado even in his early days. As a young boy he messed around with his father’s favorite pair of jeans. His father wasn’t very pleased at all, to put it mildly.
What were the challenges in starting the brand?
We had no experience in the garments business so we had to learn on our own. You can imagine that this involved quite a bit of trial and error. We held off coming out with products until we were confident they would be well-received by the market. The machines broke down from time to time. They still do. Selvedge denim is also niche. We had to find a way to educate the market on the merits of this heritage movement and lifestyle.
Can you tell us a bit of history on selvedge?
This denim is a throwback to when fabric was made using hand operated looms. It’s usually about 30 to 33 inches in width because that’s how wide a normal sized person could operate the machine by hand. This machine was mechanized and the design remains mostly unchanged to this day.
The edges on these fabrics come finished with tightly woven bands running down each side that prevent fraying and unravelling. Because the edges come out of the loom finished, denim produced on shuttle looms are referred to as have a “self-edge.” Hence, the term.
When denim exploded in popularity in the 1950s, manufacturers started using projectile looms which produced denim at 60 inches in width, at a much faster rate. Selvedge then declined in popularity because it was more tedious to manufacture. It was only during the 80s and 90s that the Japanese starting popularizing selvedge denim again.
Do you think this resurgence will last?
This is tied to the heritage, craft and artisan movement in the US, which is now reaching critical mass in the Philippines. The whole maker and craft and heritage lifestyle is becoming popular here. You can see it in the proliferation of local makers of leather goods, pomades, craft beverages, dairy, food, and garments. Social media is also fueling this movement.
It’s here to stay because people are starting to care more the provenance of their garments, accessories, footwear, even food and beverages. They care about the quality, craftsmanship, and the impact on the environment. And people are willing to pay a premium knowing that the products they buy come with a certain sense of identity behind them.
Why did you name your brand Leon Denim?
We chose it because of the symbolism that the lion evokes, it being the king of beasts: powerful, fierce, and yet exudes a stately and steady calm at the same time. It is an icon we strongly identify with. It sounds Filipino, yes. But at the same time the brand name has the potential to be easily recognized internationally. As an aside, I am also a big fan of the movie Leon the Professional, which starred French actor Jean Reno and a very young Natalie Portman.
How would you describe the Leon Denim style?
We like to think our pieces are durable, well-made, and takes a page from its blue collar and military heritage. Selvedge denim is a key component of this heritage lifestyle, identifying with the original purpose why they were created. Back then, miners, construction workers, lumberjacks, factory workers, mechanics, military personnel, needed utilitarian clothing that could withstand harsh environments. These were part of the tools needed to get things done, so it had to be constructed using the toughest fabrics, leathers, buttons, rivets and zippers. This is the philosophy that we adhere to. It’s the opposite of disposable. They get things done in this fast changing world.
So what’s next?
At the moment, most of our engagements are via meet-ups and through social media. Even with this simple setup, we are thrilled that even international customers have taken notice of the work that we do. It’s particularly encouraging that they are rooting for and are genuinely excited for us.
We also have get-togethers with the Selvedge Philippines community, a group that we set-up earlier this year on Facebook. It spreads awareness, and a sense of community among like-minded denim and heritage wear enthusiasts.
Photography by Renzo Navarro
Art Direction by Mags Ocampo
Modeled by Mano Gonzales
LEON DENIM IS FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM. FOR INQUIRIES, CALL 0917-8633554, or 0917-5515273.