Throughout the summer, Soapbox will profile each of the eight finalists in the Artworks Big Pitch competition, which offers artists, makers, designers and creative entrepreneurs a chance to claim up to $20,000 in cash prizes, as well as pro-bono professional services. The competition concludes August 27 at the American Sign Museum with the eight finalists each giving five-minute presentations to a panel of judges. You can read Soapbox’s article on the Big Pitch here.
Chris Sutton wants to put Midwestern factory workers back to work. He wants reteach our community how to grow our own goods. And he wants to make sure workers are getting paid a living wage. As much as this might sound like a political platform, Chris Sutton is not running for office. He’s making jeans.
As founder of the Noble Denim
clothing company, Sutton cares about doing things in the most ethical way possible, so customers know that each time they purchase a Noble product, they can be sure that their money is going toward a healthier environment and fair pay for workers.
“Hopefully, that means local, and hopefully, that means American made, but we don’t want to say American made just for sentimental reasons,” Sutton says. “Right now our sweatshirts are being made in Canada because we haven’t been able to find a place in American that pays its employees a living wage.”
Sutton started Noble Denim about a year and a half ago, originally setting up in Camp Washington before settling in a workshop in Over-the-Rhine
(check out our 2013 profile of Noble here
). Originally ,he hoped to hire several people locally to continue expanding production in Cincinnati. Eventually Sutton found that there was much more manufacturing talent already trained in making clothes in the neighboring areas of Kentucky and Tennessee and formed a partnership with a factory that had only four employees remaining there.
“What we found is that Kentucky and Tennessee used to be a huge haven for soft goods: clothing, bags, etc., and to my knowledge, there were 50 factories that employed tens of thousands of people until the early '90s,” Sutton says. “But that’s all been outsourced, and now the coasts are where anything made in the United States is from. So to have our production based in Tennessee is actually very local in the grand scheme of the industry.”
Now, Noble’s Cincinnati office functions as the design studio and center for experimentation on small batch items like shorts and bags, while the factory in Tennessee handles the bulk of production.
“What makes our jeans different is how they are made,” Sutton says. “Most made in America jeans are still made in a highly automated factory of 1,000 employees making several thousand garments a week. We make 20-50 a week, so just based on scale, you can do things at a much more hands-on, intentional level. And at that scale, you tend to get better quality because you can be more hands-on and materials can be picked for small scale. We can get really high-quality fabrics that other companies can’t get. We can focus on those little details and make small tweaks, and that just makes a better product.”
Sutton also prides himself on the fact that he personally knows everyone involved in the production of Noble Denim and hopes to keep it that way. In the immediate future, Noble has a few small batches coming out, as well as a collaboration with Cleveland-based Drifter Bags
For Noble, winning the big pitch would allow the company to take on one more employee here in the Cincinnati studio, as well as potentially accelerate production in Tennessee, which in turn would allow them to bring more workers back to the factory there.
“We’d love to become a nationally recognized brand and fill out our product lines,” Sutton says. “We’re still very early on in the process, but the cool thing is that Cincinnati is a creative place that is innovative, and I’m excited about using that skill set here to make those changes that will affect manufacturing towns in Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio.”
Check out these other Artworks Big Pitch finalists: