Industry Spotlight: W.H. Ranch Dungarees

Photo: Scott Slusher

Photo: Scott Slusher

There's a new denim company in town! W.H. Ranch Dungarees recently relocated to the Kansas City area from Colorado. Ryan Martin, founder of W.H. Ranch Dungarees completely hand-makes denim jeans from start to finish in his one-man workshop. Martin was recently named the Best Denim Maker in the world by The Artisan Challenge, which was no easy feat. The challenge was 2 years long! After hearing of his accomplishments, we took the time to get to know Ryan and his brand, and to welcome him to the Kansas City area. 

Photo: Stephen Smith

Photo: Stephen Smith

Who is Ryan Martin?

I am a sixth-generation professional sewer and pattern-maker born in Salina, KS.  We moved to KC when I was young.  I have been behind a sewing machine since I was seven years old, the soonest I could reach the power foot.  Since I was a teenager, I had a passion for design and men’s fashion.  I was probably the only kid on the block with subscriptions to GQ and Esquire.  I went to my dad’s alma mater, Kansas State and majored in Apparel and Textile Design.  I studied European pattern-making and draping in London.  I still make my patterns that way, completely by hand.  While my roommates were playing beer pong I was hard at work making patterns and perfecting my sewing techniques, as I would do most nights.  I was once talking with my grandmother who grew up sewing her own clothing in Victoria, KS during the Great Depression.  She was talking about how much of a perfectionist her mother was, who had taught her the trade.  She quipped, “we spent more time ripping than stitching”.  It all became clear where my obsession with perfection came from.  It was literally in my blood! I have been known to rip out an entire inseam because one stitch was a little wonky.  

My personal design philosophy is “stick with the classics”.   I am heavily influenced by Ralph Lauren and the way in which he built his brand.  Ralph understood it wasn’t about the Polo shirt, it was about selling the romanticism of the lifestyle.  You will rarely see photos of my jeans that aren’t heavily worn or out in the real world.  Even my stock photos show the jeans worn.  That is the core of my Creative Direction.  My jeans are really a souvenir of the romanticism of the Western lifestyle.

Why denim?

Denim is my passion. I remember in the late 90s, dark indigo started to make a comeback.  Most people were still wearing GAP chinos because of their famous commercial where everyone was swing dancing.  I remember seeing Bare Naked Ladies on SNL and their lead singer was wearing crisp, dark indigo jeans with a rolled cuff.  That seems common place now, but it was a retro look back then.  In fact, finding raw jeans was incredibly difficult at that time.  I got introduced to Japanese selvage denim in the early 2000s, which was almost impossible to find.  I came across a pair of raw selvage RRL jeans and was hooked!  They had hidden rivets, full selvage side seams and could stand up on their own.  I had never seen anything like it.  You could just tell they were special.  I tried in 2002 to start making custom jeans as I do now, but it proved an impossible task.  You couldn’t get the raw materials without insanely high minimums from suppliers.  Even if you could, there was really no way to market them.  In 2011, social media was going strong and I saw a way that I could reach my prospective clientele.  I sold all my best cowboy boots, found some jobbers that would sell me premium selvage denim, sweet talked my way into an account with YKK for the hardware and got to work.  I offered up ten pairs on Instagram to my 20 some odd followers at that point and sold out in about a week.  Honestly, I would have been happy if one person bought a pair.  Maybe I had something here.  

Photo: Stephen Smith

Photo: Stephen Smith

About W.H. Ranch Dungarees

The jeans I make are a throwback to the golden-era of denim.  The majority of my fits, minus the CC Ryder, which was designed by Willie Watson of Old Crowe Medicine Show fame and a talented sewer in his own right, are stitch for stitch replicas of Midwestern dungarees from the 30s-60s: the jeans found at the local feed store that were built to withstand the laborious work of the wheat field, or the rail yard.  They become a second skin. These are the jeans my great grandfather wore in Western Kansas just trying to survive the Dust Bowl, not knowing where their next meal was coming from.  I am a student of vintage denim, specializing in the history of Lee jeans, and incorporate those long lost construction techniques into my denim wares.  Many of the machines that put together the inseam, for instance, do not exist or are no longer used in mass production; even if they were still in operation, it is too costly to replicate and the knowhow is likely gone.  These are the sort of throwback details you will find in a pair of W.H. Ranch Dungarees that are only obtained through a considerable working knowledge of vintage construction techniques and a great deal of skill.  The denim too is special.  I work with Cone Mills in North Carolina and a few Japanese Mills to find denim that is period correct in weight, weave and selvage ID.  


What makes W.H. Ranch Dungarees special from other brands?

The Heritage Collection, which was the start of W.H. Ranch, is designed and made by me from start to finish, one pair at a time.  It is the antithesis of mass production.  I jokingly tell people I am the CEO all the way down to the Janitor.  Because of the nature of the setup, I can only make 200 pairs a year, so they are limited in nature, which only adds to their value.  Some have said that the jeans are more art than clothing.  That may be, but rest assured they can take a beating like you wouldn’t believe.  Recently, I was recognized by The Denim World Championship as the Best Jean Maker in the World.  This was a two-year long contest that pitted the most renowned makers in the world against one another to crown the best.   This solidifies my belief that quality trumps quantity. I will go out on a limb and say no other pair of jeans exist that will hold up better.
 

Photo: Scott Slusher

Photo: Scott Slusher

Why did you choose to come back to Kansas City?  

Home is where your heart lives and KC has always had my heart. My wife and I started our family in Colorado but I kept finding signs that Kansas was the ultimate destination for my family and business. Some people consider the plains of Kansas “fly-over country”, but once you visit or live in Kansas City you quickly realize there is no better city to raise a family, run a business, and lay down roots. The two letters, KC, are etched on my heart. As many times I heard the joke, I have to agree, “there is no place like home.”

KC is becoming a hub for denim with companies like Lee and Baldwin. Where do you fit into the mix?

I would say I actually don’t fit into the mix other than we both sell denim.  What I mean is that both Lee and Baldwin operate on a traditional business model of mass production, in that they both want to sell as many jeans as possible within the confines of their respective markets.  There are tolerances and shortcomings they are willing to accept within their product ranges to meet profitability thresholds.  Simply, they are businesses selling a product to as many people as possible and, frankly, they have done a solid job. I have a lot of respect for the marketing machines that are behind the products.  I, on the other hand have a terrible business model by comparison.  But, I never started to prove I had a great business model.  I started to prove I could make the best pair of jeans in the world, a title I recently claimed.  My handmade jeans technically operate in the Luxury Goods Category, which is rare for blue jeans.  I sell to a unique, informed, and specialized clientele that place quality of goods above all else, even price or production time.  A pair of jeans will cost $375 and carry an 18-month wait.  In an effort to accommodate those in a hurry, I recently began to offer a rush fee of $600.  That will get your jeans to you in 4 weeks, which means a double shift for me.  Even though I have made jeans for more Grammy winners than I can count, and my childhood hero Indiana Jones, the appeal for quality, hard-wearing jeans has broken through to the wheat fields and stock yards as well.  I used to sell more than 50% of my jeans overseas in Europe when I first started.  Now, more than half of my jeans are sent to postage stamp Texas towns.  Folks are starting to realize you can spend the money on a pair of these jeans because they will last.  In fact, I was recently commissioned by the boys from Midland (Drinkin’ Problem) to make some high rise honky tonk jeans because they couldn’t find any non-vintage denim with a slim cowboy leg and a high rise.  They heard I was the only one around making that style.  This brings up another point.  Aside from a carefully curated Instagram feed, I don’t do any advertising.  The brand has grown purely through word of mouth, which is a testament to the quality of the garments.  

Photo: Stephen Smith

Photo: Stephen Smith

What are your thoughts on the Kansas City fashion industry?  

I always felt Kansas City was on the verge of becoming a fashion hub in the Midwest.  We had historical brands based here whose name still carried weight.  For years the city never seemed to be able to capitalize on that.  Things have really changed recently and I will give Baldwin some credit for that.  Their PR campaign has done wonders for focusing on Kansas City and rallying the base so to speak. KC folks love KC. When you meet someone from KC they tell you all about it. When you see KC’s famous faces Jason Sediukus, Paul Rudd, Eric Stonestreet, David Koechner, and others repping KC on late night TV, movies, and in the press it makes the rest of the world sit up and take notice. Most people from the coasts couldn’t find Kansas on a map.  That has changed.  I hope Kansas City continues to invest and support local designers.  The opportunity is there for all of us and with social media and the like, the word is getting out: There are talented designers in Kansas City.

Do you have any advice for aspiring designers?  

If you don’t know who you are or what you are trying to say, you have already lost.  Be prepared to die for your brand, because there will be times in your journey when you are staring over the cliff and have to decide if you are going to jump or turn back.  It is also not enough to be a talented designer. If you aren’t business savvy, find someone who is. Being a successful designer takes both sides of the brain. Usually the passion falls on the “making” side. Be the designer, creative, maker, and builder but don’t neglect the invoicing, numbers, inventory, marketing, and suppliers.  

Photo: Scott Slusher

Photo: Scott Slusher

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