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VOL. 8 | NO. 34 | Saturday, August 15, 2015

Whiskey-Stained and Market-Bound

Marc Nelson’s Knoxville-made jeans are a hit in specialty stores. Next target: National retailers

JOE MORRIS | The Ledger

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Remember the old Levi’s plant off Magnolia? Marcus Hall does, and he’s taken a family history that involves clothing-factory work, fashion sense and a can-do attitude to stitch and rivet together a denim line that’s scooping up local awards and garnering national attention.

Marcus Hall stands at the corner of Randolph and Depot, not far from where he grew up and attended elementary school, and where he now makes jeans and other clothing being sold as far away as Hawaii.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

The most recent accolades for the 4-year-old Marc Nelson Denim line come from the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, which presented Hall with its 2015 Pinnacle Award in the minority-owned business excellence category in May.

In between cutting and sewing the first pair of jeans and being honored at black tie affairs, Hall has expanded into women’s clothing, added new fabrics and dyes, moved from one-off specialty stores to larger chains in the Southeast, and anchored a revival of the very part of town that was hit hard when Levi Strauss & Co. shuttered operations in 1989.

“I was born and raised in Knoxville,” Hall says. “A lot of my family and our friends worked at that plant. I thought I would work there, but then they began to downsize. I did a few other things over the years, and in 2010, I got the idea of starting a denim line.

“I wanted to bring back something we took for granted when we had it here – a product that was made in our backyard, that we all had a piece of, that was sold throughout the world.”

He moved to Los Angeles to brush up on production skills because there he could see manufacturing plants in action. He learned the in’s and out’s of cutting and sewing, and all the steps from buying fabric to the prep work of washing and stitching.

Naming the line would be easy: His grandfather, L.C. Nelson, was a serious fashion plate in the 1970s, and so his surname was combined with Hall’s first name and the line was born.

Now to find a place to put it.

“When I got back from L.A., I had an e-commerce site for a T-shirt business, and had some local friends who were doing the actual printing of those,” Hall notes. “I got the opportunity to take the space we’re in now, about 2,500 square feet, for $500 a month.

“We cleaned it out, polished it up and moved in some equipment. We got busy, and we began having some events around town to showcase the jeans and other products. Then people started coming here, and we realized that we needed a real, brick-and-mortar store. And so we bought the building, and opened up the retail side here as well.”

An image of Marcus Hall’s grandfather, LC Nelson, hangs on the wall.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

The factory and store are on the corner of East Depot and Randolph avenues, in the old Dick Wright Hardware building on the edge of downtown. It’s an area that’s beginning to regenerate, but even so, there were juicier spots in town he could have considered. Could have, but would not.

“My great-grandfather owned a house on Harriet Tubman Street, just a few blocks down the street,” he says. “I went to Green Elementary. I wanted to stay in the downtown area, and I want to be a part of what brings this area back to life.”

Now the six-employee complex offers fitting and customization on site, and with more machines coming in, customers can get their clothes the same day. All told, Hall says, it takes about three hours to get a pair of jeans made, and people can actually watch the designers and operators at work.

“We’re next to Saw Works [Brewing Company], so people can run next door and get a beer,” he adds. “People have a lot of fun hanging out with us, and visiting the other merchants in the area. I really think it’s going to continue to grow.”

Marc Nelson Whiskey-stained jeans are denim jeans that are soaked in a whiskey barrel for 30 days and softened.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

Not everything has been smooth for Hall’s business. The Internal Revenue Service raided it in June, but it remained open. Hall was not charged.

“If there are taxes owed, we’ll gladly pay them” Hall said in a statement. “Beyond that, it’s business as usual for us. We’re focused on making, marketing and selling American-made products and bringing great apparel manufacturing back to America. The great people who are a part of the company are all focused on that.”

Meanwhile, Hall is picking up more machines when he can find them, which means working a network of other designers as well as shopping online. Employees are multitasking, doing everything from cutting fabric and putting in buttons and rivets to helping customers.

In addition to more machinery, Hall also continues to grow his various clothing lines outward. He’s producing chinos, as well as shirts.

He’s well aware of a rather large constituency on the other side of downtown, so there’s a whole line in orange. Pantone 151-C orange, to be exact, the official color of the University of Tennessee.

There also are polo and oxford shirts, as well as a whiskey-stained denim line that has gained a lot of interest from retail outlets.

The whiskey line in particular was a strong selling point for Sheila Levine, retail manager of Two Old Hippies’ Gulch store in Nashville. The Gulch is a hotspot of condos, new offices and trendy, urban shopping outlets, and Marc Nelson fits right in, Levine says.

Marcus Hall stands with whiskey barrel that is used to stain/wash his whiskey-colored line of jeans.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

“Our owners liked everything he was about,” she says. “The whiskey denims are a great line for us, and I think he’s just right on target.”

Two Old Hippies began in Aspen, Colorado, and set up shop in Nashville after the owners visited the area and saw the explosive growth in the city. Making sure that they have not only trendy, but unique, items is a must, Levine explains.

“We had people come in today who said we were a ‘must see,’ and so they came as soon as they got off their plane,” she says.

“That’s a nice feeling, but it’s because we’re constantly adding things. What [Hall] is doing is getting a great response. We think we have a lot of opportunity with his clothing.”

In 2014, the business rang up sales that included almost 2,000 pairs of jeans; a number Hall says he hopes to double. He also wants to get into 50 specialty stories, and continue a push for more national retailers. Not bad for a guy who didn’t go to fashion school, but learned at his grandfather’s knee the value of looking like a million bucks.

“We’re going to keep putting our products out there, and keep working on our marketing and brand awareness,” Hall says. “We want more stores, and we want more manufacturing here in Knoxville.

“We’re not putting any brakes on,” he adds. “I sometimes wish I had a day off, but fashion is fast. We’ve got the community behind us, and so we’re going to have to keep up with trends and keep moving forward.”

PROPERTY SALES 91 158 16,219
MORTGAGES 98 179 18,735
BUILDING PERMITS 136 349 33,738
BANKRUPTCIES 63 115 10,429