We sat down with the man behind the USA Jeans label, Todd Shelton, to learn what makes his jeans so special and why he chose to manufacture in the United States.
Tell us about yourself. Who is Todd Shelton and why is he selling clothes?
The basic personal information is that I’m 38. I live in Jersey City, NJ; which is one mile from downtown NYC. And I moved to NJ from Tennessee when I was 25 to learn the clothing industry and start this brand.
I sell clothing because it’s my calling. I’ve paid attention to clothes since I was old enough to dress myself. I knew I wanted to build a men’s clothing brand since high school. Today, I’m drawn to fashion and clothing because it allows me to be both creative and industrial. Fashion also has an undeniable psychological effect, it’s complicated, and I like to dig in to it.
On your website, it references the importance of building a relationship with the customer. How has that focus contributed to your success?
The reward for what we do here at the brand is making people happy. It’s possible for us to improve someone’s life with clothing, I believe that. It’s why we sell direct to the customer instead of wholesaling to retail stores. We don’t want to lose the personal connection with the guy that wears the product. If we had built the brand to wholesale (the business model most brands use), I believe our brand awareness would be greater than it is today. So our decision to go direct hasn’t contributed to our short term success. But I believe in the long run, our direct-to-customer focus will pay off, because working directly with the customer will make us better clothing makers.
You had a bit of a reshoring experience yourself. You tried making your clothes in China but then decided to make everything in the USA. Tell us about that experience.
Out of college I took a job with a women’s clothing catalog to learn the direct to consumer clothing industry. Through that job I developed contacts with overseas manufacturers, so when I created my first product it was natural for me to work with who I had past experience with – those early products were made in China. After a couple of years of making in China, I realized it wasn’t healthy for me or the brand. We weren’t hands-on enough, we weren’t learning enough, we weren’t building meaningful relationships. I knew if our brand was going to be special, we had to start making here.
What do you see as the biggest hurdle to making American manufacturing more competitive?
The biggest hurdle in my opinion is the influence that big business has on politicians. Big money from corporations can create trade agreements or low tariffs for importers of foreign made goods that may be good for a corporation, but not good for the workers. If politicians only looked at what was good for the American worker, tariffs on foreign made goods would be higher.
You see the American brands with the word American or USA in their name, yet the country of origin is something different. How do you react to those practices?
I see it happen. The brands that tout USA and make their product abroad can argue they design their product in the USA or they’re based in the USA. I’m not concerned about it, the customer our brand seeks knows the difference. The customer can judge what’s authentic and what’s not.
Switching gears to the style of your clothing line. Where do you draw inspiration for your designs? And what type of person are you designing for?
I draw inspiration from a singular moment when I was a kid, I don’t know how old I was, but I would guess 7 or 8. I had ridden my bicycle to the Jiffy Mart and I was waiting in line to buy candy. There was a man behind me in line, simply put, he was different. The way he was dressed was not unusual, but it looked different that the other men in town. He carried himself different and his style was different than the other men I saw every day. He didn’t break from any standards, but he was different. I remember watching him, and wondering where he was from, where he was going, what he did for a living. I just knew he wasn’t from around there. That moment has always inspired me and it inspires what we do here at the brand today. We don’t do things that are unusual, we don’t break from standards, but we definitely want to be different.
We love USA jeans and that was our first exposure to your brand. When someone is shopping for their next go-to jean. Why should they choose Todd Shelton?
I think people should get to know us and decide if we are a brand they want to support with their purchases.
Tell us about your involvement with American Made Matters.
Don Rongione, the founder of American Made Matters called me in 2009 telling me about his initiative and asking for my support. I knew he was sincere in his effort to support American manufacturers and I followed his leadership and joined his organization. Don later asked me to serve on the board and I still serve on the board.