Fashion Philanthropy

Thigh High Jeans strives for positive social change

By Sarah Baker

Not many companies can say their customer base includes Sheryl Crow, JJ Grey and Mofro, Robert Plant, Brandi Carlile and Grace Potter.

Ann Smithwick looks at some blue jeans created by Thigh High Jeans, a sustainable blue jean company that recycles used jeans. Fifty percent of the profit from each pair is donated to a selected local, national or global nonprofit of customer’s choice. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

All of those musicians own pairs of Thigh High Jeans, a Memphis-made operation founded in 2009 by painter Kerry Peeples and artist Ann Smithwick that bills itself as the only sustainable blue jean company on the planet.

“We have jeans on every continent except for Antarctica, which has really been a positive for us,” Smithwick said. “We are so about promoting Memphis and we’d love to see that on a much larger scale, as well.”

Here’s how it works. Thigh High Jeans collects jeans in a dry sack-lined recycle bin at independent coffee shops and small businesses throughout town. Peeples and Smithwick then enhance them with vintage fabric and unique quotes in their Downtown Memphis warehouse and Eads studio to resell to consumers.

Or customers can send in their own pair to be revamped and returned with an inspiring message – messages like Emily Dickinson’s “dwell on possibility” or Abraham Lincoln’s “whatever you are, be a good one.”

“It’s an act of purchase and an act of very much letting go,” Peeples said. “We ask you to tell us a bit about yourself, and when you do that, you’re giving us clues as to things that you like. You can even write down a favorite quote or a favorite writer if you’d like, but then we choose the quote. It’s almost like a fortune cookie.”

Thigh High’s messages are strategically positioned on the left leg of each pair of jeans in white capital letters. The raised embossment of embroidery has an effect similar to Braille, Smithwick said, and becomes a subliminal message that uplifts the wearer as well as the passerby.

“It becomes something that I wear and I think about,” Smithwick said. “We find that our customers as well as us will be sitting there at a coffee shop and you rub your leg a little bit. It kind of becomes a little bit like a little worry stone almost.”

Similar to TOMS Shoes, the goal of Thigh High Jeans is to use jeans as a vehicle for positive social change. Fifty percent of the profit from each pair is donated to one of three local, national or global nonprofits of the customer’s choice: Church Health Center, Feeding America and the Jolkona Foundation.

“It’s a purpose-driven purchase,” Peeples said. “The purpose of it is not only that you’re wearing it for yourself, but you’re sort of a walking billboard for positivity.”

The Thigh High line is available at Life Is Good, A Schwab and Sache Design. In its three years in business, the product line has expanded from blue jeans to computer bags, skirts, shorts, denim rags for construction workers, and even T-shirts that are made from recycled water, Sprite and beer bottles, and post-consumer cotton.

“Our mission is nothing is wasted. If it’s just totally blown out, we even try to salvage what is available to us,” Smithwick said. “There’s nothing that’s fabricated that can’t be reused. Even our tags can be replanted – they’ve got seeds in them.”

To put that environmentally conscious mindset into perspective, for each pair of blue jeans Thigh High Jeans “saves,” it also conserves 1,800 gallons of water. That’s the amount it takes to grow the cotton for one pair of newly fabricated jeans.

Peeples said statistics show there are at least seven denim garments in the average closet, five of which are jeans.

“Women just go out and get new jeans just because it’s a new season,” Peeples said.

Ann Smithwick, left, and Kerry Peeples are co-owners of Thigh High Jeans, a sustainable blue jean company that recycles used jeans. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Thrift stores are getting so gigantic, there’s so much waste there, they’re shipping it to Africa and then stuff ends up getting shipped back and put in some landfill somewhere because there’s just too much of it.

“There are tribes in Africa that the way the women make money for their families is by sewing garments, fabrics, textiles for the community. They’re out of business because Americans are sending all of their clothes over there and they’re wearing all Americanized stuff.”

Thigh High Jeans’ clientele ranges from teenagers to 85-year-old grandfathers, from posh real estate agents to those baby boomers seeking nostalgia of their bell-bottom days. The price, including the donation, is $65.

“We started this business based upon creating an alternative to the crazy $150 price of blue jeans,” Smithwick said. “We knew that that was insane and it was in an economy three years ago that was absolutely depleted. We wanted to create something that would respond to a lot of nerves and that people would relate to.”

Smithwick and Peeples attribute Thigh High Jeans’ growth in large part to Launch Memphis, which helped them put a platform together to present to future investors. They were fortunate this year to have some seed money come their way, but they know that it’s miniscule compared to what Thigh High Jeans is capable of.

“We’ve got to find a way to up our distribution channel so that it reaches a larger audience and can make a greater impact,” Smithwick said, adding that Thigh High Jeans is actively seeking sponsors and investors to take the business and their ideas to the next level.

Thigh High Jeans works with PLAYBACK Clothing and Cotton Inc. out of New York, FedEx Corp. for distribution, and Whole Foods and local businesses as community partners. Smithwick and Peeples, both 50, are frequent guests at universities and Girl Scouts events, speaking on why they “jumped off the tracks to try something different.”

What’s more, they were just honored with an E-chievement Humanitarian award by eTown of Boulder, Colo.

“We’ve gotten recognized a little bit on a broader level, which has been really exciting for us,” Smithwick said.