A quick google search for artisanal or hand crafted denim often contains traditional heavy weight Japanese selvedge, boro mending or a combination of the two. And while we love a traditional, raw five pocket just waiting to be broken in, Emily Starobrat of Denem, is taking artisanal denim design to a whole other place. As luxury denim shifts further and further into the realm of high fashion and streetwear, the classic 5-pocket is getting a facelift thanks to young artists and creatives like Emily.

Emily’s design style conjures up that sense of sweet nostalgia we millennials and Gen Zers crave, while maintaining a level of modernity and craftsmanship that are often lost in today’s denim design. Imagine Faustine Steinmetz’s work through the mid 2010’s just met Gen Z’s favorite it girl, and you’ve got Denem.

Emily Starobrat is a multi-faceted talent having worked on bespoke pieces for Yeezy, Neith Neyer and more. She launched her own label in 2020 and we’ve been waiting for the chance to not only chat with her, but see her work IRL! Last week we sat down at the Denim Dudes studio, ate breakfast burritos and talked about all things Denem, design and being a young creative in today’s world.

Emily Starobrat, the creative talent behind Denem.

"I just have an urge to always create that isn’t satisfied solely by working for other talented creatives. So I actualized a place to construct pieces with no limits / a place to launch garments that push the bounds of what people think of typical denim garments."

— Emily Starobrat

Do you consider yourself more of an artist or a designer? 

I consider myself a little bit of both. When I am doing concept work and sketching and building pieces I consider myself more of a designer but when I do textile treatments I feel closer to my fine artist roots. 

What’s your educational / professional background?

I studied fashion design at Parsons in New York. Professionally I have done a variety of different things including design, quality control, operations and textile/surface treatment work. 

Tell us more about Parsons! What were the benefits and challenges when studying fashion design, especially for someone who’s work is multi-disciplinary?

Overall I had a good experience at Parsons. I feel like at Parsons they are very concept and creativity driven so they really push their students to think with that mindset. I think having that has helped me when it comes to developing textile techniques for jeans. Some benefits were the community of other creative people that can both support and challenge one another. I had the pleasure of meeting some really talented people like Johee Shin, who still inspire me to this day- Jo created some stunning earrings for Denem by the way. 

The school had a no bullshit sort of environment that really pushed you to put 100% into everything and pushed you to/past your limits sometimes.

I think at the same time the school really did push forward creatives that had the financial backing to create really well made garments/ visions more than others. As well as those who had a narrative that the administration wanted to highlight to make the school look better.

What made you decide to start your own business? And what does Denem as a brand represent to you?

I started Denem because I just have an urge to always create that isn’t satisfied solely by working for other talented creatives. So I created a place to create pieces with no limits / a place to launch garments that push the boundaries of what people think of typical denim garments – by manipulating the textures, layering treatments and playing around with materials while still keeping a really approachable/ wearable silhouette. Denem represents a care for craftsmanship where we produce thoughtfully handcrafted garments with a textile spin. 

The Denem Jean, a wide leg fit, hand made from start to finish.
Fuzzified and hand brushed, and yes, it really is as soft as it looks!

"Denim is the perfect canvas because you're able to play with the fabric by building up contrast and stripping down color in ways other fabrics cannot."

— Emily Starobrat

What drew you to work with denim in particular? When were you first introduced to textile manipulation?

I actually got into denim while taking a textile manipulation class in college. My teacher Amelia Lindquist really inspired me and introduced me to layering different textile techniques specifically working with denim. She encouraged me to apply for Calik Denim’s 30 year anniversary project so I submitted a proposal and ended up being one of the artists featured. Up until then denim wasn’t really on my radar. But when I started working with it for the project I loved how versatile it is. It’s such a great medium to manipulate. As someone who grew up drawing and painting, being able to blend those skills into fashion using denim is something that really inspired me. Denim is the perfect canvas because you’re able to play with the fabric by building up contrast and stripping down color in ways other fabrics cannot.

Talk us through your creative process

It differs from piece to piece. Sometimes I’ll stumble upon a vintage piece with interesting construction details that are inspiring or I will find a rock at the beach and want to translate that into a dye process. From there I’ll just sketch and sample to create different compositions and combinations of surface techniques and design elements.

Custom wash and finishing techniques created by Denem.
Highs and lows.

All of your work is so hands-on, what are some of your techniques? 

Lately I have been doing a lot of dremel work and painting with pigments. But to name a few, I have featured some techniques such as hand punching, weaving, dyeing, discharge and I rigged a machine to create a special marble wash I can do at home. 

On average how long does one piece take you?

On average the entire process for one piece from sewing to textile work is about 2-5 days depending on the technique. 

Silhouette is an integral part of denim design, how did you come to develop the Denem fits?

I worked with my friend Alex Andronescu who really is a jean master constructor, pattern maker and craftsman. We gathered a bunch of jeans from various brands, tried them on and noted what we loved/didn’t like about the fit – from the rise to the leg shape and how it sat on the hips. From there we built four silhouettes: a wide leg, a baggy jean, straight leg and a men’s fit.

Hand drawn, 1 of 1 jean.
Hand drawn from front to back.

How do you balance keeping your craft alive while trying to scale production?

I definitely focus more on the craft than scaling up. I think to me having a few really well done pairs of jeans is more important than a hundred pairs that were made with half the care. I really care about the quality of the garments and textiles in every pair of jeans that we create. 

I have found that certain techniques are more scalable than others so with that I can create pieces that are priced on a wide range. Some pieces are more accessible in price and others are dream pieces that are much more of an investment. 

How do you view and implement sustainability in your designs?

Sustainability has taken on many definitions lately but I just like to be conscious of everything I create and how I create it. I collect all the cut off scraps from my production and like to repurpose them either by creating a textile out of it (like the MLE Was Here Jean) or if I need a back patch for some jeans I’ll dig into my scraps and create one. I’m constantly trying to reduce the amount of water or energy I use to create certain textiles. In any production run I value the quality and only create limited quantities. One thing I really try to do is create designs that aren’t solely trend based so that they could be considered more timeless in the fit or surface treatment. 

Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve created?

I don’t really have a favorite piece because I tend to be most excited about what I am currently working on. But I am particularly excited about this Canadian tux set called “MLE Was Here” . It’s my jean and jacket set where I take all the cut off scraps from the year and turn it into a really fuzzy speckled textile. It’s then sewn up into baggy jeans and a jacket set. 

The "MLE Was Here" jean, felted by hand with recycled yarns.
Twisted side seam detail.
A behind the scenes view.

What’s the most difficult part of being a young creative today? What’s the most rewarding?

One of the most difficult parts of being a young creative today is establishing yourself in such a saturated market and finding the courage to go after what you want to accomplish regardless of your inexperience. 

On the other hand I think being a young creative today is exciting because you have so many opportunities to take what you learn from those more experienced than you and that information is even more accessible now. 

The Denim world is a small one, especially in Los Angeles, how has your relationship with the local denim and creative community impacted your business?

I definitely would not be able to make Denem work if it weren’t for the help and support of the community of friends and colleagues I have. Whether it’s help from my sample maker/production friends, screen printers, dyers, photographers, makeup artists, denim mills and even my musician friends.  

We trade our skill sets and barter that way. For example I will trade textile work for help on jean samples. It’s also been so great to see everyone in their element and really learn more about their craft/process by working alongside them. It’s only been helpful to work with supportive creatives and I think the community we have formed is a really special one. People are passionate about passionate people and it’s been really great to help propel each other forward. 

Dip dyed and dremeled.
Hand drawn with a Dremel tool.

How do you feel about social media as a marketing medium for independent artists like yourself?

Social media as marketing can be very challenging at times but is also so important. There’s some pressure to it because you could have such a cool piece but if it is not shot or layed out in a certain way then no one can truly appreciate the work you created. To stop to take photos of the process definitely stunts my creative groove. But if you don’t stop to take photos then you don’t have much content to post until you have a final product and social media does not favor those who do not post regularly. So oftentimes I think social media gets in the way of the actual ‘art’ of pieces. But on the other hand can be such a valuable tool to connect with other creatives and spread the word. 

What’s next for you and what is the end goal for the brand?

I am currently working on new pieces and introducing more collaboration with artists of various mediums whether it’s music, food, dance, painters etc to create a community that blends more mediums together in an organic way. The end goal is to keep creating pieces that both stand the test of time and also push the boundaries of what a denim jean is through textile techniques and materials.

Handmade from start to finish, the "MLE Was Here" jean.
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