Over the last five years I’ve split five pairs of expensive, designer jeans right down the back seam (yes, there)—two pairs of Seven7s, two pairs of AGs, and a pair from Marmot designed for pretzel-bending rock climbers with an origami-like, gusseted crotch.
My problem was playing ice hockey growing up. Two decades later, I still have outsized quads and glutes relative to my waist and inseam, which makes it impossible for me to wear any pants off the rack. Denim is my fashion enemy #1. They either fit like yoga pants or knickers.
When loose fitting, wide-cut “dad jeans” recently began making a comeback, I quietly rejoiced that my old baggy Levis and Carhartts were back in style. My wife recoiled. For the next few years I gave up on denim entirely—which made my wife recoil even further as I retreated back to even less well fitted pleated chinos. Then, thankfully for both of us, along came Monfrere.
“Ever since I was 14 I always wanted to work in fashion,” says Steven Dann, co-founder of the startup jeans brand.
“I started my journey with fashion working at Maraolo, which was a shoe and accessory store in Great Neck that carried all high-end designer brands. I went on to work for Armani, Gucci, Versace and Donna Karen. No matter what kind of education you have there is no schooling for working with these people one on one.”
In 2005, after a decade of mentoring, Dann went out on his and launched his first eponymously named boutique Steven Dann in downtown Great Neck not far from where he began his first job, with his own hand-curated collection of designer brands. The boutique was an immediate hit, leading to Dann opening a second in nearby Greenvale, followed by his own namesake shoe line in 2011. While Dann featured a few select denim brands in his stores, they were more back rack accessories than designers he led with in his storefront windows. Marriage would eventually change all that.
In French monfrere means “my brother”. Beyond love of denim, there is no more defining essence to Dann’s new brand than this.
In 2010, Dann began a two year courtship into denim’s modern dynasty, J Brand, quickly becoming best friends with his soon to be brother-in-law, Sean Rudes, who in many ways had been living a parallel life three thousand miles away. While Dann was cutting his teeth on Madison Avenue and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, Rudes was honing his at J Brand in Los Angeles, working 16 hours days for his father, Jeff Rudes, who founded J Brand in L.A. in 2004. When it launched, J Brand’s mission was to redefine premium denim. Within a few years it had taken over prime department store real estate around the world, including what was previously exclusive turf for brands like Seven7 and Citizen. For the younger Rudes, who had already become recognized as one of the industry’s most innovative pattern sculptors, this also meant pioneering processes to source and manufacturer cutting-edge denim and managing a global fast fashion company that could stay on point style-wise while staying ahead of the fashion technology curve.
For Dann, who had already been living in jeans for years, becoming a part of the J Brand family was like marrying into the denim mob. “The family motto was you only wear J Brand.”
In 2012, J Brand sold to Fast Retailing, a Japanese conglomerate that also owns Uniqlo and Theory, for north of $400M.
“All of a sudden I could look at other denim brands outside of J Brand,” recalls Dann of that day the company sold. “After months of looking, I honestly could not find the right fit for my body, or what I would actually be comfortable wearing for hours, much less travel in. So I had a conversation with Sean, and explained what I was looking for in denim—which is when we both looked at each other and stopped talking. It was almost as if we had read each other’s minds. Simultaneously we both said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
As fashion, jeans are a lot like designing socks. They seem so simple. But in reality, they’re one of the most difficult pieces of clothing to manufacture well because of what we expect them to do. Materials are fundamental. Stitching is critical. Movement and function must elevate style, not compete with it. Wearability is paramount above all else.
Resolving the denim paradox was Dann and Rudes’ simple mission when they conceived Monfrere. How do you make the perfect pair of elevated jeans for men who live in them every day?
For the next six months, they literally scoured the planet, personally flipping through every rack at the top boutiques in New York, Paris, London, Milan, and Tokyo, and rummaging through the leftovers of every high-end department store in between.
“Sean and I went on the hunt to find any pair of denim at any price point that fit, that we loved the look of, and that was comfortable,” recalls Dann. “It was such a simple objective. But there wasn’t a single pair of jeans that checked all the boxes.”
Most great startups worth investing in begin right here: with seasoned founders who know their space a mile deep, and have found a wildly gapping hole in the current market. Dann and Rudes didn’t waste a minute.
For Monfrere, jeans start with fabric. Everything else is frosting. Dann and Rudes envisioned a new denim brand that could go from day to night, not only stylistically, but also functionally. They wanted denim that would stretch and recover, and keep its shape, fit, and feel for an eighteen-hour day.
“We had a very clear vision,” says Dann and Rudes. “We wanted to make a pair of jeans that would be comfortable and flexible for a ten hour overseas flight and still look great after getting off the plane and walking into a meeting in a sport coat. Millions of men do everything in denim, from black tie events to t-shirts for coffee. We wanted to create a new category of denim that was truly day to night that would wear well with everything and also stay true to a refined, confident fit.”
More practically, Dann and Rudes started Monfrere by remembering everything that every one of their customers’ had ever told them about jeans. In turn, they told their designers to experiment with an updated fit tailored to the modern man’s body, movements, and style. At the same time, they dispatched people to source the highest quality fabrics from the most exclusive mills in Japan that push the boundaries of what denim can look and feel like.
“We eventually developed our own proprietary Monfrere fabric,” says Dann. “Recovery was the key for us. I always want to feel like I’m wearing something that I just put on. With Monfrere, that meant making jeans that would look the same on Thursday as they did on Monday.”
Modern denim design details also bothered Dann and Rudes. Mainstream brands shouted too much, Dann told me, and called too much attention to themselves. The intent of Monfrere was to bring the basics back with a brand that was more subtle and elemental.
“Pocket placement on the back of denim is so important,” Dann tells me when I ask him what he means by that. “That might seem like an afterthought to you. But no one should have their wallet hanging out from under their sports coat from behind because the pockets are too low. Pockets also shouldn’t call attention to themselves. There are other better places for that. Hardware should also be carefully selected to elevate each wash, and stay true the vibe of the design. Or we just don’t include it all.”
This meticulous consideration of details—and more importantly, knowing when not to do anything at all—embodies Monfrere’s approach to style as much as its signature fit. Dann and Rudes’ designers are constantly called to task to justify every characteristic of form and function, from pocket placement and length proportions, to stitching and scaling.
“The world of fashion has been evolving for women for a long time,” says Dann. “It’s taken men’s fashion a little longer in the U.S. to catch up, and for men to infuse denim into their wardrobe as an essential. That’s now changing so fast as more and more men are looking for something they feel better in, and look better in, all day long.”
Since its low-key launch in November 2016 with three styles—The Deniro, The Brando, and The Greyson, named after Dann’s first son—on a small T-stand in a back corner at Barneys in Manhattan, Monfrere has been on a slow, shark-fin-out-of-the-water trajectory that’s all of a sudden claimed prime real estate front and center on almost every coveted department store floor. Dann and Rudes’ scale-organically approach isn’t accidental.
“I still spend almost all of my time on the floor selling our jeans, just like I did selling shoes twenty years ago,” says Dann. “If you go into Barneys on 5th Avenue, I’m there. My relationships with the stores, the managers, the owners, and the salespeople are the most important thing we have as a new brand. Sean and I know what it’s like to be on the floor. We pride ourselves on this. When I’m in stores that carry Monfrere, it’s my goal to make sure that I know everyone in there.”
Dann’s old school approach is paying off.
“Since we launched we’ve quietly taken over the prime department store real estate,” he says. “We’ve gone from 3 skus to 26, and we’re at all the best Barneys doors and the exclusive men’s denim at Jeffreys. We just launched at Neiman Marcus, Barneys Japan, Harvey Nichols Dubai and Qatar, and Selfridges in London.”
Those are heady names to drop. In less than three years, Mongrere is on pace to become denim’s next global brand with over 55 doors of distribution and anticipating $10 million in sales in 2019.
The high-profile exposure hasn’t gone unnoticed either, most conspicuously by the A-list crowd, who have quietly been gravitating away from denim brand, “no comment”, to Monfrere.
Dann and Rudes didn’t set out to engage influencers or leverage their celebrity black books. For all the years the two spent working in fashion’s trenches and cultivating personal relationships with dozens of notable people, namedropping always felt beneath them. Ironically, it ended up being the influencers who came calling on them, starting with Detroit Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr., who also happens to have outsized quads and glutes.
“Marvin Jones called me up out of the blue and said he wanted to meet with me,” recalls Dann of that day back in March of 2018. “So he flew in and we met at Barneys in Manhattan. The first thing he said to me was that he had bought every pair of Monfrere jeans in the store that fit him. He said he had contracts with Adidas and Nike, but that he just wanted to be involved in our company because he loved our jeans. I asked him at lunch if he wanted to be our brand ambassador, and right there we toasted. These are the hardest people to fit for jeans in the world. Now all of a sudden we have all of these NFL stars who love our denim because of how they fit and move with their bodies. That’s all because of Marvin.”
In addition to Jones, Monfrere’s growing list of star clients now also includes John Legend, Lionel Ritchie, Sting, Paul McCartney, Alex Rodriguez, and the Jonas Brothers among others Dann won’t mention until you see them in their jeans on Instagram.
For what this one humble writer’s opinion is worth, the celebs are right on this one. The result of Dann and Rudes’ collaboration is the best new men’s jeans line to enter the market in years. The cross-over potential of denim—from day to night, business to casual, t-shirt to blazer—is something brands at all price points have been trying to nail since denim began. Monfrere is the first to finally do it.
“Stay true to the DNA of the brand and always listen to your audience and their feedback,” Dann says when I ask him what he learned most from his mentors Donna Karen, Armani, and Versace before he went out on his own.
“Build good relationships also—all the time. The people who understand your brand are the ones who are going to sell it best. It’s the salespeople on the floor who have the trust of clients and buyers at the end of the day. That’s back to the basics 101.”
So is Monfrere’s denim.