With their new clothing and luggage company, these two Tucson talents want to bring denim back where it belongs: cowboy country. By Gillian Drummond. Photos by Dave Dunmyre. (Plus: see below for an exclusive chance to hang out with the boys).
As a kid, Smith Darby liked to take things apart, make things, and create things. He remembers reverse-engineering a telephone. He unwittingly put it back together wrong, and when his mother tried to answer the phone she heard a dial tone through the speaking part of the handset.
Two decades later, he would do a similar thing with a pair of secondhand Levi 501’s – meticulously taking them apart, then sewing them up again. “They turned out completely wrong,” he says. But it was all part of the process of finding out how jeans are made. And, thankfully for his customers-to-be, he has gotten a lot better at it since.
Smith is one part of the two-man business that calls itself Too Strong USA. Together with his friend Rob Easter, he is set on adding one more thing to Arizona’s famous ‘five C’s’ (copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate): denim jeans.
In a building in central Tucson that’s part home, part machine shop and a tiny part store front, Rob and Smith are their own jean genies, producing jeans, shirts, aprons and luggage in denim and leather – garments that not only honor Arizona’s cowboy heritage, but bellow it from the (revitalized downtown) rooftops.
Their premise is this: why not make jeans in cowboy country, the very place that made the garment famous?
Many kids and teens make it their job to reject a home town – flee it for a while, before returning and realizing what they missed. Not so for Rob and Smith. Smith, 30, was born in Tucson and, save for a two-year art college stint in San Diego, has lived here all his life. Rob moved here from southern California at age three. “When I became a teenager I realized how badass Arizona is,” he says, admitting to frequent after-school views of the film Tombstone and sporting a tattoo of the flag of Arizona on his right arm.
Now 25, Rob is making his name – and much of his living – as a bartender in New York and San Francisco. But he comes back to Tucson frequently, and says he would love nothing better than to bring jobs and clothes manufacturing to his hometown. (He also plans to one day open a bar here, but that’s another story).
Too Strong’s plans are grand. They want to use homegrown Pima cotton to make their denim. They want to use Arizona copper to make the rivets on their jeans. They plan a factory right here. But that’s some way off. First they have to get their brand off the ground, and also secure necessary financing. “We want to have people working in here,” says Rob, sitting in their downtown studio. “But we’re not thinking to grow too fast. We’re going slowly and just learning.”
In the meantime, the duo is sourcing its denim from North Carolina, and honing its first pair of men’s jeans, for production in Arizona in another month or so. They’ve each been wearing prototypes for many months – taking note of not only how they fit, but where the pockets and rivets are situated. For Smith, the sewer of the two, there has been a lot of designing, sewing, re-sewing, consulting (with other garment companies and with manufacturers), and “looking at people’s asses”. Smith admits he has had more than one curious look after being caught eyeing up the stitching and the structure of people’s jeans – both on a behind and a crotch.
The two came together through friends two years ago. When Rob found out Smith was making bags out of vinyl and leather, and upholstering the interiors of cars, he discussed with him his idea for an Arizona brand of jeans. Smith had not worked with denim and knew nothing about making jeans. “I really thought, ‘Oh f***, I don’t know if I want the headache’,” he says. But at the same time, with itchy feet about what he was going to do next, he knew he wouldn’t be able to help himself from getting involved.
They share a love of music (both have played in garage rock bands), good quality, simplicity of style, and things that last. And in Smith’s case, there’s also a penchant for sturdy pieces of machinery with moving parts. They’re already fulfilling orders for aprons and luggage from stores in the midwest to local firms (Boxhill, one of 3 Story’s sponsors, is working with them on some signature items.) Work is steady enough that Smith was able to give up his auto upholstery job a few months ago.
The jeans will be priced at around $200. Part of their mission is to persuade Tucsonans that investing in a good pair of jeans is worth it. “Once you put on a good pair of jeans you don’t go back to Walmart. You’re like ‘I’m going to wear less but wear better’,” says Rob. Hence the company name, Too Strong USA. As well as sounding like Tucson, it sums up their philosophy, they say: that their products and ethics must be rock solid.
Smith, both an artist and an “oddball handyman”, had flirted with sewing, making clothes for himself while he was in a garage rock band. But it was when he joined an auto upholstery shop that he caught the bug. The two guys at the helm of the business probably had 100 years of auto upholstery experience between them, says Smith. And they used a 1950s industrial sewing machine made by Japanese firm Juki. “I was really fascinated with what I could do with it, with the material they could run in it.”
So in his lunch breaks – when he wouldn’t be bugging anyone or holding anyone up – he got behind the machine and sewed. Meantime, he collected scraps of vinyl from the shop floor and went home and sewed some more. He got through several regular sewing machines before buying his own industrial one (he now owns three).
He made messenger bags, which were first given to friends, and then led to sales at street festivals and Popcycle.
“The act of sitting there is so cathartic, when you really get into that zone and all of a sudden other design ideas and solutions appear in your head,” says Smith.
While Smith does the sewing and tailoring, Rob is the marketer. Rob lasted just a few weeks at the University of Arizona, before deciding he could learn more actually working. He worked as a bartender at The Melting Pot and Hub in Tucson, then headed to “brew school” in Chicago, learning about mixology and hospitality. There followed stints in bars in Brooklyn and serving the likes of Jay-Z. He also bartends special events and private parties.
One thing Rob has learned from his bartending is the art of networking. And as a result, Too Strong is operating largely on trade and barter. Rob uses his various bartending gigs as ways to make contact with people: businesses he might learn from, individuals who might invest. A high-profile band might be given some jeans to wear, for example, and they lead their friends and acquaintances to the Too Strong USA brand.
In tandem with Too Strong, Rob is about to launch an American whiskey brand called Workhorse Rye. His is aged in lightly toasted French oak (American whiskeys are traditionally aged in charred American oak barrels). “It’s all organic, our fermentation time is long, and it’s the only one like it,” he says. “One of them looks like red wine, and we do encourage wine glass usage.” He has been sharing his whiskey with select people, much of the time at private parties.
The similarities between the whiskey and the jeans – two well-honed products with a long maturation – is not lost on Rob, who says he and Smith are in no rush: “We could have already started making jeans. But that’s simply not how we work. Smith and I are in the same boat. We want to do what we want to do.”
They appear to enjoy that they’re on the down-low. Even their digs have an air of a speakeasy; visits are by appointment only, and they don’t publicize their whereabouts.
But, just as importantly, they’re enjoying themselves. For anyone who visits, there’s a glass of whiskey or a beer waiting, some vinyl spinning on the turntable, usually a friend or girlfriend dropping by. Oh yes, and there’s this: the whiff that something big is about to happen.
* Here’s an exclusive offer for you: Too Strong USA’s Rob Easter wants to give a New Year’s present to Tucson. So this Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Jan 10th, 11th and 12th) he’s offering to hem any jean you bring to their shop, for free. Talk nicely and you may get a taste of his whiskey too… Interested? Email email@example.com to arrange.