DIVINE DENIM

Bill Mitchell is an evangelist in the American denim revival.
By Savannah Mozingo ’15

Once synonymous with bowlegged cowboys and the miners of the San Francisco Gold Rush, denim has transformed itself into one of the most innovative fabrics in today’s textile trade. It has weathered the trends from the rough and ready 19th century utilitarian uniform through 70s bellbottoms to today’s skinny jeans and many more in between to become a permanent staple in every closet. Like any icon, denim has its own fans who follow it with a near-religious zeal.

But there are also the artisans like Bill Mitchell ’10 who step forward to own the movement, reshape it for the next generation. In the manner of a true ambassador, Mitchell has taken it a step further, specifically in his commitment to using denim to revitalize the South’s rich textile history.

But the road from denim fan to culture preservationist has not been short.

  • Coming up with something cool

For most college seniors, desks are a clutter of last-minute assignments, job applications and maybe a graduate school application or two. But scattered over Bill Mitchell’s desk were scraps of denim and bits and pieces of patterns.

“When I wasn’t at class, I’d be back in my room with a giant rack of clothes compiled from all my friends, and I would go through and fix them,” Mitchell said. “Most of senior year I was just listening to podcasts and sewing.”

It began with just the odd tuck here and a stitch there on whatever was at hand. A natural born tinkerer, Mitchell loved the problem solving that came with clothes. He approached them just like another one of his childhood Lego sets: no directions, just a visual image and the powerful combination of creativity and a can-do attitude. Almost unconsciously, his natural curiosity soon pushed past tailoring back to square one — the design itself.

“The idea of building something from raw materials was so exciting to me,” Mitchell said.

While Mitchell didn’t know it at the time, he was taking the first step of what was going to become Billiam Jeans: an artisan boutique that would be hailed as a pillar of the returning Southern textile craftsmanship — turning out raw, highly coveted selvedge denim, made on vintage shuttle looms and custom stitched to order.

“At the time, I was just trying my absolute best to come up with something that was cool and something that was me.”

  • Learning to be curious again

But who was Bill Mitchell? It was going to take him some time to come to that answer. Uprooted by a family move to the Greenville area when he was in high school, Mitchell found himself an outsider at his new school.

“I kind of had a crazy, go wild sort of period in my life,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was making decisions that probably weren’t the best.”

Chuckling to skirt the details, he says he eventually came to a fork in his road. Either he could continue living the way he was living or he could be a totally different person and figure out his life. While he’d attended the local tech school, Mitchell had friends who went to Clemson and were members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). After a bit of encouragement, they finally convinced Mitchell to join them for one of the group’s weekly Thursday worship sessions.

He still remembers how electric that first night was. Ever since moving to South Carolina, Mitchell had searched for a community where he could belong and contribute. And finally here it was.

The realization had stunned him.

“I saw the band and was like ‘Man, that’s what I want to do,’” said Mitchell. That night he returned home with a challenge before him: do well at Greenville Tech so that he could transfer to Clemson and be a part of this community.  His sophomore year Mitchell buckled down, taking 46 hours of credit and practicing for his audition. Almost before he knew it, it was the fall semester, and he was on stage as the FCA guitarist and taking management and marketing classes in Sirrine Hall.

Looking back at what he learned, Mitchell sees that it was never about tests or grades. “I learned how to be curious again, and I think that was the most important part,” he said. “I learned how to be a kid again.”

In Clemson, the childhood habit of tinkering came back full force. “I had taken so many things apart that I kind of understood through reverse manufacturing how [clothing] worked,” Mitchell said. “So I bought a pattern and was like, ‘I’m going to make a pair of jeans.’ I wanted to create something from nothing.”

It had started with just one pair of jeans, born out of curiosity more than anything else.

“They were pretty rough,” Mitchell recalls, laughing. The legs hung unevenly and there wasn’t even a button to recommend them, just crudely stitched belt loops that Mitchell wound a rope through. First and foremost in Mitchell’s mind was that he wanted to improve. The first pair had been good in its own way, but good needed to be better; better needed to be perfect.  It was just the sort of creative challenge he thrives on.

“I started tailoring things, then I designed my patterns,” Mitchell said. “Then after that I began putting things on Facebook. The posts simply said ‘Making jeans now. If you want some, then send me a message.’ People would start messaging me, and I would take it from there.”

Aided by Mitchell’s contagious charisma and his innate desire to get out of the woodwork, Billiam Jeans was quickly on the tip of everyone’s tongue. He soon had a waiting list more than 400 orders long scrawled in one of his school notebooks.

“I got to this point where I was hiding from everyone because everyone was asking ‘Jeans? Where are my jeans?’ I was one person; I couldn’t make 400 pairs of pants!” Mitchell exclaimed. “I’m sure there are still people who are waiting on their jeans from six years ago.”

What makes a pair of jeans well crafted?

DENIM DEALER

As he moved toward graduation, Mitchell realized he needed to get serious if he wanted to grow his hobby into a real business. He sold his car to purchase the first of many machines that began to fill his parents’ basement with their steady whirring. The small room was soon packed wall-to-wall with straight stitchers, sergers, rivet presses and any friend with nimble fingers that he could get to help. When they inevitably grew out of the basement, a friend offered them the backroom of his rock climbing gym. After that, Billiam Jeans expanded once more in the backroom of Dapper Ink, the screen-print boutique on Wade Hampton Boulevard. He eventually moved into the storefront space next door.

Even as he nestled himself more firmly into the Greenville community, Mitchell was picking up traction in the larger world of denim connoisseurs. “There’s a massive culture of people who are just addicted to denim,” he said. “They won’t wash their jeans for two years and will watch them fade and take on a character of their own. “

Mitchell will joke that he’s a “denim dealer” for these sorts of fanatics, the connoisseurs who obsess over every element of the product.

And details abound in Mitchell’s jeans. Most important is the unmistakable weave of selvedge denim — a tighter, denser knit that gives the material a sturdier feel than traditional denim and also results in visible variations on the material’s surface. Cuff the leg and you can see the delicate chain stitch. Hardwear, rivets, buttons, thread, pocket linings — it’s all American made. The machines that bring it all together are a blend of the old and the new — some from the 1940s sourced from warehouse auctions and old estates, in a variety of conditions, that Mitchell has coaxed back into a semblance of working order in his pursuit of holistic denim. Balancing that out are some of the newest machines available.

Then of course there is the fabric itself.

“The things needed to make denim were all right here, and I did not know about it when I started doing things,” Mitchell said. “So I literally haphazardly walked into a goldmine of living in the perfect area. I mean, talk about full circle of my parents first moving here and me hating living here, and now it’s kind of been the best thing ever. Where I sit now was only really made possible by their decision.”

Woven on American Draper x3 Shuttle Looms from the early 1900s that bounce off the hardwood floors of the mill, the fabric is sourced from Cone Mill, one of the oldest and most renowned mills in the world. Famous as the exclusive supplier for Levi Strauss & Co since 1922, it’s also America’s last selvedge mill — located right in Greensboro, North Carolina, just three hours from Billiam’s headquarters.

The intention behind Billiam Jeans extends even beyond its final product. A portion of the proceeds from every pair goes toward supporting Wellspring Living in Atlanta, a nonprofit that serves to rehabilitate the victims of domestic sex trafficking. It’s not part of a marketing plan. In Mitchell’s eyes, it’s about doing what’s right, and that should be a given, not a gimmick.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re the best jeans in the world; every pair of jeans, they’re cotton. By its very nature, it’s going to fall apart,” Mitchell said. “I have this kind of, now I wouldn’t call it fatalistic, but I have this understanding that nothing lasts forever.” He goes on to explain that while material things might not last, the impact that they can have when paired with intentionality can be powerful. Jeans will just be jeans, but Billiam will be a movement. It says by example that craftsmanship without purpose is only half an idea.

Why the nontraditional approach to financing your business?

  • American denim crosses the pond

These passions for details are what attracted Mitchell’s next business opportunity. Drawn by the quality craftsmanship, the London-based luxury shoe designer Oliver Sweeney approached Billiam Jeans with a special request.

“We were on Instagram and had liked one of their photos,” Mitchell said. “He saw and turned around and bought a pair of jeans immediately. I think he was looking for a denim brand to collaborate at the time so it was definitely a right time, right place scenario for us.”

Sweeney and Mitchell began talking business and eventually dived into a full-on collaboration. Roughly a year later in the summer of 2015, Billiam had completed a line for the London designer. For the grand opening, Mitchell and several of his denim magicians were flown over to London to act as the artists-in-residence at the Oliver Sweeney shop. Europeans were pulled in by the living embodiment of the American denim revival; jeans flew off the shelf.

It’s been seven years now since it all began in his Clemson dorm room. The jeans that used to lie in piles on his bedroom floor are now stacked neatly on shelves in London and in his very own workshop.

“I got an external hard drive two days ago, and I saw all of the beginning photos of what we started with,” Mitchell said. “Looking at those pictures again, it was a thought of, ‘How did this even happen?’”

But the waiting list hasn’t grown any shorter since that 400 orders. And now Mitchell isn’t sewing alone. Several fulltime employees and interns from virtually every college in the area huddle over their sewing machines in the light-filled front room of Billiam’s workshop, trading jokes between stitches. Americana music plays over the speakers, and friends and clients are a constant stream through the front doors paying homage to Mitchell’s vision with their enthusiasm.

It’s not a huge factory of days past, but this is undoubtedly a creative preservation of that history, a new spin on an old idea.

Savannah Mozingo ’15 is a budding techie working with Blackbaud Inc. when she’s not busy turning words into stories. She lives in Charleston.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *