A Conversation With Roy Slaper
Roy Slaper is a man who makes jeans. But, unlike most custom jean makers, he comes from a background devoid of interest in the history and trends in selvedge, custom, and specialty denim. Maybe that's what makes him and his jeans so appealing and his approach so uniquely refreshing. In an incredibly overly simplified 2-step history, Roy wanted to make jeans and then started.
Like most others who thrust themselves into industries in which they had no historical or background connection, it's the unrelated skills from the past that seem to be the most beneficial: both in setting them up for success and separating themselves from the crowd. Skateboarding, metal work, solitude, machining, precision, and practicality. That's where Roy began.
So now, Grain & Gram is giving you the first article in our Exchange series: a long form conversation with Roy Slaper: jean maker.
A Conversation With Roy Slaper
Grain & Gram:
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Roy Slaper and I make jeans. I make other clothes too but right now I focus on jeans.
I was born in El Paso, Texas and after high school I moved out to Oakland, CA because I was into skateboarding. I didn't have any illusions of getting sponsored professionally, I just wanted to be close to it — skating right along with people who are really good. When I was a kid I didn't care about school, I didn't care about girls, I didn't care about anything but skateboarding. It's all I wanted to do.
Skateboarding is such a lifestyle, non-skaters don't understand sometimes. If you're ever really, fully a skater and that's all you think about, it changes your life completely. Until I found making jeans, I felt like the best times of my life were the skateboarding days of my past.
But, yeah, that's why I came out here, because I just wanted to be close to it. I just wanted to be skating around people who were good.
Inside the whole culture, everybody understands. When you meet other skaters, there's such a lifestyle. They just know that they're the chosen people. It's hilarious and it's never really spoken out loud, but we know.
I'm 28 and I feel like the best times of my life were my skateboarding days. For some reason, I just don't think it's going to get that good again, as far as having that much fun.
What's crazy is until I found making jeans, I felt like that.
The fascinating thing, is how much Roy's passion for skateboarding spilled, and continues to spill, over into the rest of his life.
"It's still there, where I can't look at objects without thinking about skating them."
Hobbies with longevity and dedication, I find incredibly helpful and healthy. Passion about anything (as obvious as this sounds), shows an ability to become passionate about something. This willingness and ability to become invested in a thing helps builds up a propensity to become dedicated to other things. Dedication and longevity are core characteristics of a real gentleman.
How did you get into making jeans?
So, what happened was I accidentally fell into sewing. I was moving on to a different stage in my life. "Maybe I should do something different. Maybe I'll make jeans."
There's this funny assumption that I was really into jeans, so I started making them. The fact of the matter was I didn't even wear jeans. I don't know why I started making jeans. They were okay, but I didn't know anything about them.
For instance, the idea that there is a difference in denim was foreign to me until the first time I met someone from Cone Denim (one of the few manufacturers of narrow-loomed denim in the USA) who explained how denim comes together. Then I started to look at the materials differently.
I started buying machines about four years ago, but the real turning point was a year and a half ago. I was obsessed the whole time but that's the point when I started to get good. I began to feel like I was getting a handle on it.
I was making custom jeans. I was having people say "I want a pair of jeans," and I'd always think, "Wow, man. They have a lot of trust. I can't believe they trust me with that much money." At the time two-hundred bucks for a pair of custom jeans seemed like a lot. It would take me two weeks to get these jeans to fit them right. It was awesome. This was my learning experience. In essence, I was self taught.
So, long story short, I started getting machines, and with the more machines I bought, I suddenly realized that that was all I was thinking about: all I cared about was making jeans. And I wasn't really good at it yet but I thought I was great.
So just kind of figured it out on your own?
That was the interesting thing. I was self-taught. I just went crazy with it. It was the total skateboarder's approach to it. You don't go to skateboard classes, you kind of just pick it up. You see what other people are doing, you read Thrasher. That was my approach. It worked though.
So you had sheet metal experience, how did that kind of come about?
I had sheet metal experience working as a sign painter, sign maker, and then I started doing three-dimensional signage. One of the things I had a knack for was making things fit. I had a good ability to measure a space and make something fit (construction-wise) the first time. So that just translated right over to clothing.
Since you didn't come from the denim world, what are you bringing to the table that others aren't in the world of jean making?
That's an interesting question. To answer concisely, what I bring to the table is me — just who I am.
I think I'm the only person who is doing this on their own, exclusively, for a living. If there's somebody else who does it, I'd like to meet them because everybody I've met that's similar still has an employee who's involved in some part of the process. This thing is me 100%. I'm not necessarily married to that but that's the way I'm doing it right now. Having employees is so much paperwork, taxes, organization and all that. It's too much of a leap for me.
I'm really into machines. I have a lot of machines that other people don't have. I feel like people that are really into jeans, like selvedge jeans, appreciate what I do with the older machines. I'm a machine mechanic, too. I can rebuild all these, make parts, I can fix them. I have a very intimate relationship with my machines. I don't see them as wholly inanimate.
I don't feel like I know enough yet. I have got to get better.
When I first started—after the first couple of months—I was still thinking it's going to take me like five years to really get good at this. So I'm approaching the end of the "starting to get great at it" phase into when I start to become more of a designer. And I think it will be another solid year before I really start to become a good designer.
You've already moved into denim from something unrelated, if for some reason you no longer want to be in the industry, what do you think you would take away from your time as a jean maker?
I don't know. I'm not really at that point with this. One of the things that's cool about this, the way it's set up is that this can't be taken away from me. These are my machines. I can get a day job. This is my outlet for creativity. I'm just a creative person so it wouldn't kill me if this place burned down and all the machines burned down.
You know what this did? It expanded my ability to do metal work. That was the crazy thing. I've only been making jeans full time for about eight, nine months. When I was doing both at the same time, I worked all day in the metal shop then I came here worked all night. I didn't sleep a lot. The more I learn here, the more I would think differently. At the metal shop, I thought differently. I would see problems completely differently because I was thinking in different sequences. It was just really good at opening up my mind to different pathways of thinking.
I was listening to like an interview with Anthony Hopkins the night before last and he was talking about how he still learns a poem a week to exercise his mind because he thinks it's good for himself and he enjoys poetry. He named out these poets that he loves, and I thought "that's a great exercise," and that's the only thing that's ever kept me sharp mentally is continuing to read, continuing to get interested in language and words and different subjects and researching and studying them.
It (jean making) did open up another way of thinking. Denim is flat, so how do you make it conform to the curve of a body?
What's the appeal of specialty denim?
You know what, honestly, the fans ask me questions that I don't understand sometimes or maybe I don't really get the significance of. I am just now really learning about vintage denim. I know about a lot of technical stuff, about the practicalities. I know how to put things together and how to make jeans, and I've got an eye for the aesthetic so I can make it look like I want to make it. But as far as history, I'm only now starting to know that.
They're like a bunch of skaters, they have all this terminology. It's like they're talking another language.
It's just like in any profession.
Right. People are really into having a narrative be attached to it, the fact that early jeans were part of the Gold Rush and miners. There was a purpose. In the vintage denim world they all know that terminology, it's like they're talking another language. I'm starting to pick it up now.
There's a term I use: altered significance. I'm glad you're into it, but it's not important. So there's a lot of stuff they're into that's not important. But it's kind of the fact that it's not important that makes it cool.
I kind of like that autonomy, I feel like it gives me a slightly different flavor. And since I'm still developing as a designer, I've got my natural bend on what I think is cool looking.
So you're free of all those assumed influences. Turning back to a previous question, that's what you bring to the denim world. You're free from all these influences, so you're just going for it and doing it. It's a fresh idea of what's cool.
You seemed to have a special relationship with Cone Mills. How did that come about?
Cone is the oldest denim mill in America. They have a mill in Greensboro, North Carolina, called White Oak, and they make all this denim on narrow looms, they weave it slow, it's higher quality yarn, which makes higher quality denim in the end. It's much better than any normal denim.
So recently, with Cone, there was a kind of collaboration these guys came up with, where Cone made the denim and I made the jeans and it's awesome. I took it and ran with it and made this jean that I really was happy with and made some boxers and stuff too for them. And it was all made up of Cone Denim.
I am friends with people who work there, and I met them by chance.
Last question. You seemed to have a special relationship with your machines. How has this come about?
You know what? I amass them by some sort of strange magnetism, and they just talked to me. And unfortunately I seemed to waste all my money on them. I love them. That's the special relationship. I love these machines. I love them.
It's kind of like when you have a really hot girlfriend and you're not sure she's totally committed to you. You're convinced that she's going to leave. Well, I'll tell you what: if you keep thinking like that she's going to.
Sometimes when I'm leaving at night when I'm turning the light out, I just pause and look back, and the feeling I have when I look at the shop is incredible. I spend a lot of time with them. I have taken most of them apart and put them back together. I have a very intimate relationship with them. I imbue them with a lot of life. I don't see them as wholly inanimate. They do me a wonderful service.
Don't get me wrong, I don't give them names or anything like that. I'm not cuckoo. But I do love them. For a long time I was really worried that they were going to wear out. It's kind of like when you have a really hot girlfriend and you're not sure she's totally committed to you. You're convinced that she's going to leave. Well, I'll tell you what: if you keep thinking like that she's going to. So I changed to "This machine has been alive for a hundred years and it still runs strong, it's a quality machine, and there's no reason it's going to fail. So get off it. Love your machine. Treat them like well and they'll keep going fine." And so that is the kind of relationship it is. I feel like they serve me and I'm obligated to treat them well.
There are two fantastic things about Roy's story: the amount that he pulls into his love of making jeans from other sources, and, the amount of influence his love of jean making has on everything else he does. It's a lesson that is well learned early: that there are overlaps in life.
The end product of Roy's experiences (up to this point) are the jeans he makes — equal parts understated, utilitarian, bespoke and high quality. Albeit a short period of actual full-time denim creation, Roy's talent is apparent and frankly, inspiring.
What you are in one area of your life carries over into all others; be those work, relationships, family, all of them. It's not an overlooked lesson, just one that is easily pushed past as "too obvious to ever be forgotten."
Photographs: JonPaul Douglass
Interviewers: Aaron Martin, Danny Jones, JonPaul Douglass
Editorial: Aaron Martin, Danny Jones
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