Making It: Startup Advice from the Co-Founder of Noble Denim

My love of Noble Denim began on Instagram. The bright whites, dark blues and clean, inspiring spaces were enough to hook me in as a dedicated follower. As I got to know the story of the co-founders and husband/wife team, Chris and Abby, I was further intrigued by how they got their start and the way they were able to make “small batch” clothing work for their company. 

Makers of quality, American made jeans, clothing and supplies from Cincinnati, Ohio, Noble is a brand that epitomizes what it means to create a premium product with integrity and ethics at the forefront. I spoke to Abby about the unexpected start of an unplanned business, the high cost of doing things well, and what it’s really like to be an entrepreneur.

F45: Did you always want to have a denim line? What sparked that decision?

ND: We never planned on starting a business and had no background in fashion. We were living in Cincinnati, working desk jobs, when Chris decided to try and make a pair of jeans for fun. He had never sewn before and we didn’t think he could really do it, but we were both surprised when he was oddly good at it. That was the start of Chris becoming slightly obsessed with making jeans.

He’d stay up until 3am reading sewing machine manuals and taking jeans apart to see how they worked. With that kind of unexpected intensity, we both recognized we’d stumbled onto something important to him, but we still didn’t see it as a business idea. It wasn’t until our friends started asking for jeans and then our friends’ friends started asking. Once the demand was there, we saw it with new eyes and decided to give it a shot.

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F45: You are clearly committed to ethics and transparency, how has that shaped your brand and decision-making?

ND: Since we weren’t business people who planned on owning a company, we didn’t have any preconceived notions of how it “had to be done.” That has made the learning curve very steep, but it has also allowed us to play by our own rules. Early on, we talked a lot about what was important to us and what we wanted the business to accomplish. I was very committed to eating organic and had learned a lot about the dysfunction behind cheap food. Similarly, we started to realize there was a lot of unseen cost behind cheap fashion and we wanted Noble to be entirely different from that.

We already knew what we didn’t want to be, but it took us some time to develop what we would actually stand for. We decided that we wanted to make clothes with a certain ethic — in a “noble way.” We created a ‘Pyramid’ of 8 values that now helps us make decisions when we source fabrics and develop new products. To hold ourselves to a solid standard, we decided on 4 tenants of what we think it looks like to do business well. For us that looks like North American Manufacturing, a commitment to Sustainability, Small Batches of Products, and Simple Staples.

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F45: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced that you didn’t expect?

ND: How much it costs to do things well. We originally wanted the brand to be accessible to everyone and have a low price point. But as we grew, we realized that every tenant we held was expensive — it costs a lot to pay a fair wage and use quality, sustainable materials. We had to make a decision, and we decided it was better to have a higher price point and offer a truly well-made product. But it was a challenge, and it is difficult to educate others on that choice because the average consumer is so used to paying a low price for clothes.

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F45: Tell us about the process of setting up your supply chain. What obstacles came up? What worked and what didn’t?

ND: The biggest obstacle was finding materials that lived up to our specifications. We had high standards and wanted the fabrics that weren’t always available, especially in regards to organic or environmentally-friendly fabrics. We had to learn to look for the high-quality, sustainable materials that were available and build our products around what we knew we could do well rather than designing a product detached from the supply chain. That is part of why small batches work for us — it allows us to use the best fabric we can find as it becomes available.

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F45: What lessons have you learned in your entrepreneurial journey?

ND: It is tough to own a business. I personally feel irritated when entrepreneurs are so eager to start their own company and be their own boss because the reality of it is actually very hard. I’m glad Noble exists and am grateful to be a co-founder, but if we didn’t love what we do and the people we work with, it just wouldn’t be worth it. You have to have a strong purpose outside of just being an entrepreneur because that in itself isn’t that important.

Secondly, take a vacation! The best thing we did in our second year is take a two-week vacation without checking email or doing any work. It forced us to rely on our team and see how capable they are. It also reminded us that we need rest and inspiration outside of abby-chris-noblethe brand. We came back energized and have been able to work with greater clarity ever since.

Third, don’t do it alone. So many people starting off do everything themselves and it limits their business and their own lives. We’ve been lucky enough to work with incredibly talented team members from the start and to collaborate together to make something great. This makes us less isolated and we have a mix of skill sets to get work done from different perspectives.

Lastly, be generous. When Chris was first learning to make jeans he did an internship with Hiut Denim in the UK. Hiut knew we were about to start Noble but rather than being competitive, David and Clare were role models for Chris to show what it looks like to help another business and to wish them well. Their one condition for all the help they gave us was that we would do the same in the future for others. That countercultural way of beginning business-life has stuck with us. We’ve been contacted by individuals wanting to learn how to make clothes, and Chris will sit with them and help them get what they need. When we started our relationship with our production partners in Tennessee we told their story to the world rather than holding our manufacturing close to the chest. We try to be on the same side with other clothing companies in our market because we believe there is enough for all of us. It is way more fun to work in a culture where we advocate for each other.

You can read more made-in-the-USA startup success stories here.