For some designers, haute couture is what turns their head. But for John Robb, co-owner of Jamaica Plain-based Inseam, the perfect fit, precise cut, and sharp shape of a well-made garment is what really gets his sewing machine’s motor running.
“My father used to love Brooks Brothers, and I was fascinated by the clothes,” says Robb, a graduate of New York’s esteemed Fashion Institute of Technology. He laughs. “I still have some of his old shirts in their original packaging. Some still have the price tags: eight ninety-five!”
Okay, you’ll have to shell out a little more for something from Inseam’s newly released Workforce Collection. (Hey, inflation!) But for longtime fans of the gay-favorite brand and curious new customers alike, it’s worth every penny. The menswear brand, which has always prided itself on its clothing’s flawless fit and versatility, is launching Workforce as a work- and travel-ready line that contemporizes the classically handsome vibe of the 1930s. Think Brooks Brothers by way of a uniform party: there’s the cool Kent pant, made of plaid men’s suiting fabric, a handsome pub cap, and funky but refined patterned neckties.
Dress them up and the designs are perfect for the boardroom; dress them down, and they’ll look rocking on a dance floor.
Which is where, in its earliest days, where the company almost fell apart. Literally.
“There was a knock on our door,” recalls co-owner Jeff Diaz. “It was a customer, and he said to us, ‘I went out last night and my pants fell apart on the dance floor!’” The evidence: a pair so extravagantly ripped, it looked “like a shark had gotten hold of them.” The culprit: a batch of fabric that had been improperly stored before it was sold to Inseam. “We were horrified,” admits Diaz.
It was pure bad luck that could have happened to anyone. But it could be damaging early buzz for a fledgling company that was just getting off the ground. Robb and Diaz became a couple and business partners 12 years ago; when they met, Diaz was running his own silkscreen and embroidering business and Robb was designing neckties and boxer shorts for the gift market. Together they launched Inseam from a Provincetown studio one summer. On a single sewing machine Robb hand sewed an entire inventory of pants (still the company’s cornerstone) that combine urbane style with a sense of durable, rugged masculinity. Then they’d crash the shirtless throngs at T-Dance parties in full Inseam ensembles to build big word-of-mouth.
Which meant early chatter about a single bad batch of fabric could be very damaging. Enter: ingenious thinking. “We made it a marketing campaign,” smiles Diaz. Too young to afford traditional advertising, Inseam gave away its inventory of the pants, pitching it like some sexy reverse lottery. “We’d say, ‘we’re going to give you these to wear for free. And if they fall apart, you have to tell everyone you had a fucking good time!’”
The couple laughs. Now. “It built great word-of-mouth!”
Indeed, as important as it is to be stylish, it’s being smart, crafty and spirited that has helped the couple build a successful partnership and thriving business. The company has certainly grown from its humble, single sewing machine beginnings. Inseam now fills thousands of orders each year for online shoppers and boutiques from P’town to Paris, from the west coast to the land down under. It employs six full-time seamstresses, though the couple continues to handcraft each design and sample from their live-work studio in JP, where they relocated six years ago in response to the difficulty of running a year-round retail business in a seasonal resort destination.
Not only has the company grown, its styles have evolved. Between its P’town heritage and an early fan base of adult film actors (bearish star Tom Chase was an original customer), Inseam initially established a toehold as a popular club-wear brand. But over the years it has become recognized for more diverse designs and its customer base expand to include straight men and even women who appreciate the all-occasions style. And that’s especially true of the new Workforce Collection, with its embrace of professional world fierceness.
A dozen years later, Robb and Diaz remain a perfect fit: “We have very different points of view, but always manage to come together,” says Robb. But there’s one area in which, well, things are feeling a little snug.
“Our biggest challenge now is that we’ve grown out of this space,” says Robb. Yes, the Inseam team is toying with plans to open a brick and mortar store of its own soon.
And for once, we’re looking forward to going up a size. [x]