Tampa designers make mark with cool Black & Denim clothing line made in USA

Roberto Torres, fresh out of college, would get off from his job as an auditor, come home and watch The Big Idea, a show on MSNBC about successful entrepreneurs. He'd listen to the likes of Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger tell stories about how their designs went from drawing boards to closet hangers across the world. He read biographies of TV and radio host Tavis Smiley, magnates Warren Buffett and Carlos Slim Helú, and President Barack Obama. He wanted to open his own business. University of Tampa graduate Chris Findeisen also dreamed of making it big. He was a graphic designer who didn't have a lot of luck landing a job. One night he watched the movie Hustle & Flow, about a small-time hustler who worked every angle to become a professional rapper.

The next day, Findeisen got in his car and drove to a clothing design company. He showed up half an hour before the business opened and pleaded his case to the first manager that arrived. He got the job.

Neither Torres, who lives in Carrollwood, nor Findeisen, who lives in Town 'N Country, knew each other at the time, but soon they would. Along with Luis Montanez, they eventually would create the Black & Denim Apparel Co., a small clothing line that is inching its way to prominence through their ambition and hustle. The company recently unveiled its men's fall line at Urban Body Clothing in South Tampa.

"I wouldn't say we're surprised," a confident Findeisen said, "just enjoying the ride."

• • •

The idea for Black & Denim began to take shape in 2006 with Torres, now 34, and Montanez, 28, a former Florida State University fraternity brother. Torres was struck with the inspiration while watching TV one afternoon. Celebrities were wearing black long-sleeved shirts or jackets with blue jeans. It was an all-American look, casual and formal at the same time.

"I called Luis," he recalled. "This is what I want to start. It's going to be huge."

They researched business plans. Montanez began handling digital marketing and Web and music promotion while Torres oversaw accounting and inventory. They found Findeisen — their designer — through a mutual friend. For three years they worked to create the line, launching it in 2009. What started in their apartments is now sold in showrooms in 50 stores in New York, Chicago and Puerto Rico and at Urban Body Clothing in Tampa. The line will soon be featured at Disney's Epcot in the American Adventure store, which highlights American-made brands.

The line of T-shirts, jeans, button-up shirts and bags are inspired by James Dean's look and spirit in Rebel Without a Cause, a movie Torres and Findeisen, 29, decided early on was their baseline definition of "cool."

The clothes are high end, with jeans costing about $150 and shirts selling for $40 and up. Designs stick closely to American themes, including music and the military.

"American inspired, American made" is Black & Denim's motto, and all of the clothing is made in the United States — a rarity these days.

It was that commitment that helped attract the attention of the MillerCoors Urban Enterprise Series business grant committee, which awarded the trio $25,000 this year to give Black & Denim a major boost. Also, Macy's gave the owners a week in its minority business development program.

The achievements haven't come easily. Torres just recently became the company's only full-time employee. Montanez still works in technical support in Chicago for another company, while Findeisen works full time as the lead designer for the special events team of VF Imagewear in Tampa, designing many official NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball championship T-shirts.

Findeisen got that job using one of his old tactics — he waited outside the corporation's office early one morning to make his pitch to be hired.

He did the same thing to get Black & Denim a foothold in South Tampa.

In August 2010, Torres and Findeisen cold-called Urban Body Clothing president Scott Moore to see if he'd sell their clothes in his S Howard Avenue showroom. After looking over a few of Black & Denim's first designs, Moore said no. But the trio wouldn't give up, and one morning Scott discovered them at his store's doorstep.

They told him they wanted to learn what they could from him about the clothing industry. Their moxie impressed Moore, who has been in the fashion business for more than a decade and is a Tampa Independent Business Alliance leader. He shared some of the ins and outs of the business: numbers, margins, how to acquire showrooms, which fashion shows and trade shows to attend.

Moore believed in the trio's work ethic and commitment, and he threw the guys a collection preview party that year. While Torres didn't think they were ready, they put on the show with what they had.

"It doesn't matter how ready you think you are; sometimes you have to do it," Torres says now. "We took a leap of faith."

The show yielded the three men their first clothing orders, and it gave them the confidence to begin attending major fashion buying shows in Las Vegas and elsewhere in booths alongside Levi's, Diesel and other name- brand companies.

"It gives me a great sense of pride," Moore said, "because these are our hometown boys."

Said Findeisen: "I love my city."

Black & Denim hopes to someday open a store in the Tampa Bay area to serve as the company's headquarters. The store would sell its products and host fashion shows and events for other local aspiring fashion designers, creating a fashion district.

"We live in a time with the economy right now where people are searching for an identity and pride — and jobs," Findeisen said.

In time, they want to hire local talent and help them start their own lines.

"We started in a bad economy, too," Findeisen said, "but we came with a strategy of being made in America and bringing jobs back to America."

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368.

Tampa designers make mark with cool Black & Denim clothing line made in USA 07/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 12, 2012 4:30am]

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