Under the hood with David Strong of Freenote Cloth
Freenote has a run of jeans with the Red Wing 877 ORO LEGACY leather used as the back patch. Clearly, these guys have something to say. We find out more.
This story begins way back when I was working for the Selvedge Run. Kicking around the office was a list of new, up and coming brands that would fit perfectly with the craft and quality ethos of the show. The names were divided up between the show’s management and luckily I was given Freenote Cloth to reach out to.
I had heard whispers of this new brand coming out of the West Coast. Collaborations with some heavy hitters in retail as well as Red Wing Shoes providing leather for back patches certainly meant that these guys had something to offer… it was about time we had them over in Europe!
So I got on the phone. And after a couple of minutes chatting with Andrew Brodrick (one of the three founders), I understood why so many doors were open to Freenote. The guy on the other end was so open and friendly and clearly loved what he was creating. It was infectious.
Freenote took a leap of faith and joined the first Selvedge Run show. It was Andrew’s brother, Matt and their childhood friend and business partner David Strong, who flew over. Since then David has been back to Berlin with Freenote and over a couple of bottles Bourbon, we got to chatting about how this brand came about.
The Who, the What and the When
Rope Dye: Who are you and what do you do?
David Strong: My name is David Strong and I am one of the owners and operators of FREENOTE CLOTH in San Juan Capistrano, California. The three owners; Matt, Andrew and I, all have intertwining responsibilities and we each chip in on all aspects of the business but if I were to narrow it down, my specific role is the sale and distribution of the brand.
Rope Dye: Who started the whole thing off?
David Strong: In October of 2013, the three of us left our positions, where we had all worked together for the previous 10 years. FREENOTE was already being planned and organized a year previously and in December 2013 the brand officially launched. We partnered up in August of 2014 and began shipping the first collection to the North American market.
Rope Dye: How did the brand get its name?
David Strong: There were a number of inspiration points for FREENOTE. We knew that the backbone of the brand was the implementation of US manufacturing and a design aesthetic focused around the classic “American” look, so the name had to be a representation of those pillars.
A prime example of American ingenuity was the beginning of Jazz in the early 1900’s and some of the greatest Jazz musicians were a part of Blue Note Records. Had a nice ring to it so we took it a step further and thought of words that were important to us and “freedom’ and “notoriety” stood out.
Andrew said something that I’ve always liked; a name is just a name. You can name your child whatever you want and if you think you name your child something mellow, the kid might turn out that way.
We believe it’s how you raise that child and how you build that company that defines the name, not the other way around, so with FREENOTE, we absolutely love how it came to be, but even more proud of what we’ve made it represent.
Denim as a Touchstone
Rope Dye: How did you get into the denim business?
David Strong: So, we have the backbone of what FREENOTE is going to be and we have a good plan of what we want to do and how we want to do it. When it came to category development, it was mission critical to develop a denim offering that we would be proud of.
Denim is such an important part of the fashion world, and premium denim is the measuring stick to one’s assessment of manufacturing standards. We all know the story of the denim boom and everyone is aware of the monumental drop off to overseas production.
When the resurgence came about in the early 2000s with the heightened appreciation for vintage American jeans there was a new sprout of young American labels that blossomed and we are happy to be a part of that. Denim in the United States is a cornerstone of our original manufacturing capabilities, so to be developing a Modern American menswear label there was never any question that denim was going to be a large part of our identity. That being said, we do not consider ourselves a denim brand.
We aim to build a complete collection of essentials. We spend equal amounts of time on the fits of our t-shirts as we do the fits of our denim. Yes, we feel like we make incredible denim, but it is a pillar of our foundation, same as our other categories.
Rope Dye: You clearly have a passion for denim and clothing with history, how did it all begin?
David Strong: The passion and desire to create a strong denim line is directly correlated to the brand ethos, to create the highest possible standard.
I couldn’t tell you how many times we will review and sample and cut and modify and sample and modify so on and so on. If you look at the brand from every angle I want it to be obvious that these guys went all out in the attempt to reach product harmony.
It adds so much more time and so much more stress but when everything is finished, you can look at the item and feel confident that we gave it everything we had to give. The three of us have known each other for over 30 years and our fathers worked their tails off and their fathers before them and so it was embedded at a young age to do it right or to not do it at all.
We live by a lot of these typical hard work clichés but they are all relevant and I hope obvious when anyone inspects FREENOTE.
Rope Dye: What is the concept of Freenote Cloth?
David Strong: FREENOTE is a Modern American menswear label designed and manufactured entirely in the United States using the finest raw materials from around the world with a hyper-focused stance on craftsmanship and fit. Every day we strive to create the highest possible standard.
We do not use words like “perfect” or “best”, we simply aim to create the most beautiful clothing we can. Our manufacturing standards are extremely high and if something doesn’t come in correctly, it goes to the incinerator.
Another key pillar is customer service. We want to offer the highest standard of support to everyone that is associated with the brand. Whether you are our largest retail partner or first-time customer I want everyone walking away to say, “fuck, those guys are on it”.
Our retailers are our lifeblood. They are our representation out in the market place and so it is an honor and a privilege to have every one of them support us and I can’t picture a scenario where we wouldn’t do anything for them.
Every person that takes the time to call, ask questions, or walk into our showroom is taking time out of their day to support us. That’s the biggest compliment someone can give and they deserve our utmost attention and respect. Another cliché but if you want to challenge us to a customer service contest, be my guest.
The “didn’t know shit” phase
Rope Dye: What was your motivation to launch the brand?
David Strong: The three of us moved to the West Coast in the Summer of 2003. We had a very small t-shirt company that we were selling to friends basically out of the trunks of our cars and, when we made it out West, we placed the brand in a few stores and then realized that we didn’t know shit.
We eventually got real jobs and took that time to learn a business from the bottom up. We were always going to do something but weren’t exactly sure what it was going to look like until 2012 when Matt and Andrew started drawing up the blueprints of what would later become FREENOTE.
The Hard Graft
Rope Dye: What inspires you when crafting a jean?
David Strong: When we are developing a fit one the first questions we ask ourselves is where it sits in the market. We want to make jeans that people immediately feel comfortable in and so the fits have to be on a certain level of trend.
We use denim from Cone Mills as well as smaller mills in Japan. We will review 50 or so options per season and narrow it down to 4 to 6 fabrics that are unique but accessible and have longevity. We will develop special projects from time to time and Matt loves to experiment with weave techniques and weight options.
Sometimes the design lab can be a little weird but that’s one of the things I love about him is his constant drive to innovate. The amount of time it takes from concept to finished product is long and never straight but with the proper research and fine tuning we will end up with a fit we all love and we feel is good for the brand.
The three of us are all students of different disciplines and we all push each other to maintain a high level of expertise to maintain continuity and a level of tradition.
Does Anyone Remember Energie Jeans?
Rope Dye: Do you remember your first pair of jeans?
David Strong: I remember my parents putting me in Lee when I was a little guy but my first pair of premium denim came in 2003. When I moved to California I started dating an LA girl that took one look at me and then took me straight to American Rag on La Brea and put me in a pair of Energie.
At that time, boot cut was absolutely on fire and there was no way in hell I was going to wear True Religion and I saw this pair of Energie that I still have and that was that. The rear pocket construction was unique and cool and it just worked for me.
Rope Dye: Why do you think denim has become so popular recently (over the past decade)?
David Strong: I don’t think denim has even not been popular. As long as I can remember I was always amazed at how many people wore jeans. There are plenty of options for your lower body and still you can go outside right now and its denim everywhere.
What’s changing is the fit and what level of craftsmanship is being propped up. US made denim was and is quite popular. Japanese labels have really flourished over the last couple years. There are menswear and denim labels from all over the globe popping up.
But again, I think the undercurrent of “whats cool” in the denim world is still based on the fabric and construction story.
Rope Dye: What do you love the most about denim?
David Strong: That’s an interesting question. Maybe it’s familiarity? I can tell you what I like about “raw” denim and maybe give you a better answer. It’s an emotional answer but an answer none the less. I am attracted and love raw denim because it becomes a part of you.
The jeans that you have broken in are your and only yours. You have gone through life in this pair of jeans. You have been to an unreal concert, or the best night ever at a bar (I have some great cigarette burns on my denim from a wild night at 8MM in Berlin, top 5 bar in the world for me) or you have been in an amazing fight or on a beautiful date with a loved one or whatever and the raw denim that exists after those experiences is in a sense an item of connection to those events and memories.
Then there is also the patience and perseverance of raw denim. I don’t know if I really care about the miners or the people that claim vintage this or that like it’s a fine wine. What I do care about that it does take a level of discipline to get to the end of the tunnel. It’s the execution of discipline and patience. I appreciate that level of commitment and that journey.
Rope Dye: How do you wear and treat in your dry denim jeans – any special routines?
David Strong: I don’t wash any of my jeans. I don’t shit my pants so I don’t have to and if they get mud on them so be it. I’ve been in the same pair for about a year now and if my wife isn’t complaining about any smell then it’s all good.
Rope Dye: What do you recommend your customers to do regarding breaking in their jeans?
David Strong: Just live in them and beat the hell out of them. At the end of the tunnel, you will have your favourite pair.
Classical Music and Barbeque Sauce
Rope Dye: Do you collect anything (other than denim)?
David Strong: I have a pretty solid record collection that I’ve been working on for a long time. I just took on my late grandmother’s collection and have been listening to a whole lot of Classical and Opera.
I very much enjoy the process of cooking and barbecuing. The weather is always perfect in Southern California so not to be outside and making dinner for friends and family on the weekend seems like a sin. I collect a ton of cookbooks and try to teach myself this and that.
Most weekend, much to the annoyance of my wife, I will set up the kitchen and create barbecue sauces and test a bunch of different ingredients and create a little science experiment.
Also, one day, I would like to collect Porsche 911s.
Rope Dye: How many pairs of jeans do you have in your private collection?
David Strong: I wouldn’t say I am a collector of denim. I am a collector of FREENOTE denim for sure but I don’t have an amazing museum of denim. But in the 4 years we have had FREENOTE, I think I have gone through probably 3 pairs of AVILA fit Black, one pair of RIOS fit Blue Black, and for the past year been in the RIOS fit Black Black.
Rope Dye: Which pair are you most proud of?
David Strong: I am really feeling what has become of the RIOS fit Black Black 13 ounce. It starts jet black and then it turns into this really killer dusty grey. It gets a little emotional here too.
When I was 11 years old my father took me to my first concert which was Metallica when they were touring The Black Album. I remember seeing Hetfield and the crew with these faded and ripped black jeans that looked so fucked up and so rock and roll and you felt that they did some really cool shit wearing those jeans.
This pair has sort of been a journey to get to that place and I’m getting close. Maybe another couple years or a few more stops at 8MM.
Virgin Airlines, Audi and Showerheads, Wha?
Rope Dye: Is there another brand that inspires you?
David Strong: It’s probably because I am surrounded by clothing every single day that this answer will be a little off kilter but the brands that have inspired me recently are outside of our ecosystem.
I think Audi is something special. I was reading an article about the time they take developing the glues and yarns they use and how they develop and study the breaking down the process of their seats and how it smells after so many years.
Something that so many people simply do not care about, do not notice, don’t even buy for, they have a team of people that obsess over because they understand the importance of fine tuning. I think Virgin Airlines is another one that I think is (was) incredible. They took the process of commuter flying and added style.
They created a uniform program, interior cabin colour palate, and pattern combination that was meant to trigger senses in our minds. It’s another example of going above and beyond the typical or the necessary.
A very weird one that came to mind is Speakman. They make shower heads. They have been making showerheads for a really long time and they have perfected the craft of water flow. I’m not trying to be overly unique hobby guy and maybe I am on an island here but I really care about my shower experience and I have a showerhead that is amazing. Speakman has been around since the late 19th century and are still doing the same thing. They looked at a product and said, “we are going to make this as well as it can humanly be made.”
There are a million other brands that I could rifle off that I like or enjoy but most of them centre around that one simple philosophy of doing it the right way by going about it the hard way. Patience and disciple.
Rope Dye: Are there any upcoming or unknown brands that you think are worth looking into?
David Strong: Manready Mercantile from Houston, Texas. Some of the most inspirational and hardworking folks you will ever meet.
Rope Dye: Where will Freenote Cloth be five years from now?
David Strong: We have our plans and goals and targets but 5 years from now I expect we are still working, the three of us, with the same level of enthusiasm. This is a grind. This is hard and tiring work and it is not easy to build in a world where things shift so fast.
So I hope, and expect, that we will be on the same track as we are now and everyone that works with us is having a really good time.
Rope Dye: If there is anything fundamental to the brand that you don’t feel has been covered by these question, please let me know.
David Strong: I think we just about covered it. I can talk more about barbeque if you want?