Nothing is quite as authentically American as a white T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans — nothing except the Mississippi Delta with its unique cultural and economic history.
Once one of the largest cotton-producing areas in the nation, it’s also known as the birthplace of Delta blues and rock-and-roll. Historian James C. Cobb called it “The Most Southern Place on Earth,” and some might argue that it is the most authentic place on earth — real and raw.
The authenticity and identity of the Mississippi Delta inspired the name of a jeans company founded in Verona by two men who spent time in the Delta during childhood and college. Blue Delta Jean Co., was born five years ago. Co-owners Josh West, 34, and Nick Weaver, 33, have gone from
50 custom jeans orders a year to 50 a day, and they have expanded production in a new building with more space and employees.
“Josh and I both had some deep ties to the Mississippi Delta,” Weaver said. “And I think the reason why everybody in Mississippi has a fond spot for the Mississippi Delta is because it keeps us authentic to our Mississippi roots. That one word describes not only a landscape, but a mindset.”
Enter the “war room” of Blue Delta Jean Co.’s Verona offices in Lee County just outside of Tupelo, and you’ll see large spools of gray, navy, yellow, red, light blue, black and orange thread on the table along with samples of denim in blues, grays and browns. A dry-erase board is on the wall with swatches of multicolored denim samples taped to it and words that indicate these fabrics will be introduced in 2017.
“We have a lot of strategy on the walls,” said West, who moved from behind the table to offer a tour of the facility.
The room also features pictures of celebrities and noteworthy customers who have purchased Blue Delta jeans. They include actress Nicole Kidman, Grammy-nominated musician Sturgill Simpson, American Aquarium’s BJ Barham, Eli Manning, Alabama Shakes and many Chicago Cubs players, including pitcher Jon Lester, who owns 17 pairs.
“What do you do with 17 pairs?” Weaver laughed. “I don’t even own 17 pairs.”
What sets Blue Delta apart from other jean companies is the price and fit. The raw denim jeans are custom-made and sell for about $500 a pair.
Raw denim is not washed, and West described the process.
“The order comes in, and our pattern-maker creates a pattern by hand,” he said. “Every person has their own pattern. You can choose your own fabric, cut and style. You will select the color you want for denim.”
The fabric is cut according to the pattern, then transferred to a seamstress. Typically, one seamstress makes a pair of jeans from start to finish.
“It’s very individualized,” Simpson said. “This jean is brown with baby blue thread, but the next jean she does may be blue with black thread, so she’s always changing the thread. It’s not an assembly line feel. It’s more of a craftsman feel.”
While most of the machines are from the 1980s and later, the buttonhole machine used to create the vintage keyhole buttonholes on Blue Delta jeans is more than 100 years old.
Blue Delta’s office is located in Verona because it’s West’s hometown and notable for manufacturing. It also has a pool of workers with experience in the garment industry.
West attended South Pontotoc High School, where he was a self-described “terrible,” yet affable student. He later attended Delta State University, majoring in English.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he said. “Delta State has a really rigorous English program. It was good for me — small classes, really demanding teachers, and I loved it. I did well academically.”
West later enrolled at Mississippi State University and earned a master’s degree in public policy. During his last semester at MSU, he studied abroad in England in a program through King’s College London. He later worked for a commercial real estate company that took him to Nashville for several years. After marrying, his wife wanted to move back to her hometown of Tupelo to start a family, so West changed careers, working in economic development.
“That’s when I really started seeing the opportunity for high-end garment manufacturing,” he said. “Nobody was doing garment anymore. It was all done overseas. I approached Nick about the possibility of doing it.”
West and Weaver have a history. They met in an eighth-grade science class.
“There were probably five or six pretty girls, and we fought over all of them at South Pontotoc,” West said. “We graduated with 64 people, and so we all knew each other.”
Weaver had moved to North Mississippi from the Delta.
“I come from a few generations of sharecroppers,” he said. “I’m the first generation in my family not to pick cotton. Both my mom and my dad have picked cotton. It’s funny how things turn out because now we’re dealing with cotton. We’re just on the other side of the fence.”
Weaver attended MSU and the University of Mississippi, studying history.
“I was going to be a really bad history teacher/coach,” he said. “You know that teacher that gave really easy tests, multiple choice and had a whistle? I was going to wear turf shoes and Dickie’s khakis. I got into the financial advising world straight out of college and ended up in the software industry. Josh and I stayed friends throughout.”
Both were successful in their respective industries in their mid-20s, and both used their business-development skills to create Blue Delta. Weaver said each admired the other’s work ethic.
“We were so young and dumb, we weren’t worried about failing,” West said. “I think some people get scared, and they don’t do anything because they’re worried about failing. So what if you fail? We start a jean company and we fail? That’s not a surprise. We’re so far in now, it would be harder to quit than to keep going.”
Breaking them in
Early on, West said something that resonated with Weaver.
“He said, ‘We’ve got to create the value,’” said Weaver. “We can’t be a company that is just screen-printing logos on something that we’re not manufacturing. I think a lot of people want to start a brand.
“They want to stick their logo on something. But if the value was not being created, then some things are out
of your control.”
Weaver said the deeper he got into the business, the more he realized West was a visionary in 2009 who proceeded with the idea during an economic downturn.
“Starting a blue jean company was insane,” he said. “Starting a high-end blue jean company was even more crazy. You are steadily squaring the craziness … So this whole ‘made local’ movement, and the raw denim movement, and putting a new spin on an old product, everything, the timing — we could not have planned this better,” he said. “One year, there were four digits of sales. We went literally from four digits to six digits.”
Weaver said they started with four blue denim choices for customers, and they hired a former Levi Strauss seamstress who helped educate the owners about sewing jeans.
“I know the women don’t have college educations,” Weaver said. “But if you’re talking about garment education, those women know more about sewing fabrics than just about anyone. So it was great to pull the education from them.”
Starting out, West said they purchased equipment from a Memphis factory and didn’t know how to turn on the machines, but they hired the right people who helped them figure things out. The business initially was housed in a 5,000-square-foot building that his grandfather gave him before moving to the current facility that has 9,000 square feet of manufacturing space and four offices.
“We walked into a factory for free,” he said. “We would have never made it if we started out paying the rent I pay here. We stayed in there as long as we could.”
They started with one full-time employee and now have 15 seamstresses, pattern-makers/designers, cutters and preppers, shipping department workers, stylists and salespeople.
West and Weaver are co-owners with West serving as CEO and Weaver serving as chief operating officer. They also have a partner, N.J. Correnti, 34.
West said there are fewer than 10 companies in the U.S. creating custom-made, high-end, denim jeans. The jeans will last half a decade, and Weaver said about 70 percent of their customers buy another pair.
“And they tell people about it because it’s a great story,” he said. “It’s a coffee table piece.”
West said he doesn’t think Blue Delta Jeans Co., will ever leave the Tupelo metro area.
“We have a store in Oxford, and we’ve talked about making some stuff on-site where we are selling the product, which is great, but we would never get our seamstress base to drive 45 minutes to go to work every day when they are used to driving 15,” he said. “I think we’ll make it here as long as I can foresee anyway.”
West said the best thing that has happened to the company is it began selling to the largest custom clothing manufacturing retailer in the world — Tom James Company.
“If we started 100 times, we would not have been able to get in the door with these people, and they taught us the process and made us build for a bigger market,” West said.
“They expected things out of us from a real company, and they made us grow up,” Weaver added.
West said their jeans will never be sold on the rack. If so, one of them “is really dead, or really rich.”
“We don’t really look at volume as a goal,” Weaver said. “Right now, we’re on a six-week wait. We don’t want to run up the numbers as big as we can like we were selling rack jeans because we want to be around in 20 years. We are selling a $500 jean. You sell it differently.”
West said his dad prefers a $25 faded jean.
“He’s not our client,” he said. “And he’s not inferior because he wants that.”
The duo also clarified they are not a hipster brand.
“We love hipsters, and hipsters love us, but they can’t afford us,” he said. “And there’s a lot of hipster brands out there, but we can’t hang with them. We’re getting old.”
The company offers a variety of styles to fit the trends. A current trend, they said, is high-waisted jeans.
“That’s my favorite jean on a lot of the girls,” he said. “We were in New York recently. They all wanted the high-waisted jean. That’s what’s in. But we still have people who want flares.”
Weaver said the two have been “creative, stubborn and ignorant” to think that they could start a successful jeans company, but those qualities were a “blessing in disguise.”
“Us being so stupid and not knowing what it takes to do all of this was the best thing in the world,” he said. “And if we had a lot of money starting off, we would have opened up a store, made poorly fitting jeans.”
The two describe their product as an “affordable luxury.”
“You have school teachers who are rewarding themselves because they are on a diet, and they’ve gotten to a certain weight,” Weaver said. “We have the CEO that is 6-foot-4, a tough fit, and likes everything very particular, buying five jeans at once.”
Blue Delta jeans aren’t sold online or as “an impulse purchase” and the owners do not do very much advertising because they believe you can’t “advertise an authentic product in an inauthentic way.”
“You don’t see billboards for it,” Weaver said of Blue Delta. “It would cheapen it. Then it makes it a little bit Dollywoodish or Branson. This (Blue Delta jeans) is not a fast manufacturing, produced rack product. This is not the five-minute hamburger. If we didn’t have the product, then we probably would have been like a bottle rocket. We would have had a little flame and popped, but we really feel like the best is yet to come.”
Photos by Danny Klimetz