Story By Scott Elpers - Photography By Kacy Meinecke
Let’s start with the storefront, because that’s the first thing you notice when you step into FNL Denim’s shop in the Eaton Place at Douglas and Emporia in the heart of downtown Wichita.
The sunlight shimmers through tall windows onto an army of industrial sewing machines, each a different size and shape, each used to sew a specific part of the one-of-a-kind men’s jeans Frank Hopkins and Levi Fitzmier have been creating by hand since 2011.
“You pretty much have to go to New York or the West Coast to find something like this,” Hopkins said. “These are made 100 percent from scratch, right here in Wichita.”
“And at those places, the owners don’t make the jeans,” Fitzmier added. “We make these jeans. Every single pair are made by us right here in this shop.”
Those custom jeans on the East and West coasts are going to cost more than double what you find at FNL, even though Hopkins and Fitzmier use the same high-quality selvedge denim.
“They are going to look great, whether you are dressing them up or wearing them casual. That’s the beauty of what we do. They are so versatile,” Fitzmier said. “We’re a custom-made jean company but we try to keep everything very simple.”
Hopkins and Fitzmier, both 25, can crank out a pair of men’s jeans in about an hour. But as the sole employees of FNL Denim, their time is also divided among a multitude of other tasks required to run a small business.
A pair of custom jeans, from first fit to final product, takes about eight weeks. FNL Denim would like to offer an off-the-rack pair for around $150, about half the price of a custom pair.
FNL Denim has sold about 450 pairs of custom denim jeans since it opened its downtown storefront last August, but the business came from humble beginnings.
The idea for a custom denim company came after Frank’s brief modeling stint in California following high school. While in California, Hopkins and Fitzmier came up with the idea of FNL Denim and even toured fashion design school.
“We realized it was going to be about $100,000 each for us to go learn to create dresses and skirts and high-end stuff, which really isn’t what we wanted to do,” Hopkins said. “We just went for it. We came up with some names and some drawings, just sketching stuff out.”
The two eventually moved back to Wichita, but didn’t give up the dream. They had a successful crowd-sourcing campaign and found a private investor. The biggest hurdle was teaching themselves how to sew.
“If we (were) ever going to do this, we needed to teach ourselves how to sew,” Hopkins said. “The idea was not going to survive unless we did it ourselves.”
Fitzmier’s grandmother taught them the basics. Skipping formal education, the rest they learned on the internet.
“We made a pair of jeans. It took forever and they looked awful, but they were a pair of jeans.” Hopkins said. “We just kept practicing. We just kept learning.”
The two practiced sewing for more than five hours every day, spending their evenings working restaurant jobs. FNL Denim went from basement to basement to basement before finally arriving in downtown Wichita.
“It’s not as hard for us as it is for our families. It’s a balancing act. We would be happy putting in 80 hours a week in here, but you can’t do that with a family,” Hopkins said. “Our family is everything. Our business is not. That’s something we definitely stand for.”