FASHION: GLOBAL NOMADS
Hyperlocal Small-Batch Production in Los Angeles
JUST BLACK DENIM
Conversations with Jessica & CW
Written by CW Nolen
Christine Chung spent several years in corporate fashion, working for big names like Kate Spade and Tommy Hilfiger in New York City. Four years ago, she returned to Los Angeles to help manage her parent’s denim manufacturing business, Just Black Denim, built on the principles of hyperlocal, small batch, vertical production that distributes to boutiques across the country. As VP of Sales & Marketing, Christine prepares to carry on Just Black Denim into the distant future as a second-generation business.
You’re a multi-generational business based in Los Angeles. Can you tell us the origins of Just Black Denim? CHRISTINE: My parents immigrated from Korea in the ‘80s starting from nothing. When they began, they realized there was a void in women’s denim. At the time, there were a handful of denim brands, and they understood that denim was one of the more challenging garments to make. They knew if they could unlock the manufacturing of denim, that they would succeed.
As you innovate the company’s trajectory as VP of Sales and Marketing, what would you say is the most compelling aspect of working at Just Black Denim compared with your former roles at larger apparel companies? CHRISTINE: The most rewarding aspect is the people that I’m able to work with every day. I’m proud to be working for a company that creates jobs in our local community. I’m also grateful to work in a collaborative environment where we can cultivate young talent. I’ve had incredible mentors and peers in my past who’ve helped shape how I lead to this day. The guidance of both my parents is something that’s irreplaceable, and I continue to strive to be like them every day.
You’re lucky to have denim visionaries as leaders and mentors. What’s your definition of leadership? CHRISTINE: Leadership is learning from the team and my peers. I try to lead with empathy, with the mindset that I’m going to be absorbing from my team. My parents are skillful leaders who’ve led a company for three decades, funded solely by themselves. That’s pretty incredible. I can’t say there’s a lot of that today. The advice that they’ve given me is: “Always be humble for the team that works for you”. As well, to have patience and persevere through difficult times, like what we experienced in 2020. I think that the immigrant storyline of “nothing is beneath you”, is the definition of leadership.
Growing up in the industry, has this affected how you view your own consumption? CHRISTINE: My parents started from the humble beginnings of immigrants in America. That affects not only my view on consumer goods, but all types of waste. I was taught to be thoughtful about how much waste we’re producing. I think the making of consumer goods is challenging to keep sustainable in any environment. I have brands that I look up to, brands that have been the source of sustainable apparel. However, it is still consumerism — going into the wheel of purchasing a product, and potentially wasting that product. On a personal level, as a consumer in the last five years, I’ve been a lot more mindful of where I’m shopping, who I’m buying from and what I shop for.
How is it working with family from different generations? Do you share the same approach when it comes to sustainability? CHRISTINE: I think we’re learning from each other. One example of how I’ve helped educate the older generations — I took my aunt to a lecture on sustainability. It was eye opening for her as she had not thought about sustainability from a business perspective, but after the lecture she started to think of how it applies to our future business. From the older generation, I’m learning from them on how to save in the day-to-day: from printing paper to our retail packaging.
What would you say are the fundamental ways Just Black Denim operates that you are committed to maintaining? CHRISTINE: I am committed to continuing the ethos of local manufacturing and supporting other local businesses. From a product standpoint, we are committed to creating great jeans for great value. The foundation my parents have laid out resonates with me deeply. When I left corporate fashion, I felt strongly I wanted to work in a space that values human connection: from working with individuals of different backgrounds, to training young talent who see more than a singular task and take interest in all aspects within the business.
Sustainability is challenging, especially with a product like denim. What kind of products are you looking to develop, given the way you see consumers’ spending patterns and needs have changed in the past year? What about your long-term aspirations for Just Black Denim? CHRISTINE: Consumers are continuing to desire transparency and a connection to the product life cycle from inception, purchase, wardrobe, to what happens after that. Our long-term aspirations are to remain at the forefront of responsible product creation. When it comes to sustainability, it’s both a personal and business mission. Sustainability is extremely challenging for all apparel, and consumer goods. A lot of brands have been marketing sustainability, but for us, we wanted it to mean something internally too — in our daily routine. That includes working with sustainable materials, innovating on the manufacturing front, and developing digital components of all business types.
It’s very challenging to have denim production be 100% sustainable. We’re not yet entirely sustainable but we’re inching towards it in long-term plan. For the next 30 years, our focus is to continue to be the experts in denim craft. We’re striving to expand on multiple fronts regarding sustainability and manufacturing.
With many physical retail spaces closed for a significant portion of 2020, how has your company adapted in terms of e-commerce and relationships with retailers? CHRISTINE: Like every industry, we had to quickly pivot to protect the health and safety of our employees. Once we had the green light from the county to operate, we added strict protocols and educated our team on our new operating routines. We’re lucky due to our smaller team size; we can stay nimble and adjust our day-to-day for the safety of our teams.During this time, we also had to rethink how we supported and communicated with our vendors and boutique retailers. We started doing virtual appointments to stay in contact with our vendors and retailers. We invested time in doing Zoom Livestreams to keep our retailer base feeling connected and up to date with launches. We know that all small businesses have been struggling this past year. We’ve conducted additional incentives for the retailers during this time; reducing our margin so that we can assist in any way we can. We’re so grateful to have launched our e-commerce site last November and since our launch it has grown tremendously. Through our retail site, we were able to stay connected with our wholesale customers by launching our newest collection or concepts there.
Do you have any advice for somebody who might think about joining a family business or even starting a family business? CHRISTINE: My biggest advice would be to have patience. As I work with multiple family members, I have learned to grow empathy for their trajectory in their roles. Although there is a generational gap and cultural gap, everyone’s heart, especially within the family, is for the success of the company. We may come at it from different perspectives, but everyone’s motives and missions are the same.
Workshops and the zine are organized by Slow + Sustain through the volunteer efforts of our contributors. Funding comes from both the contributors and the public.