Being A Maker And Launching A Premium Denim Brand

Published: May 15th, 2018
Susie Shaughnessy
Crawford Denim an...
from Manhattan Beach, California, USA
started November 2013
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Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hey … I’m Susie Shaughnessy, owner and designer of Crawford Denim and Vintage Co. The small-batch denim brand is a mix of New + Vintage apparel for Men + Women, rooted in classic Americana style. The new designs are influenced by the vintage collection but made to fit modern silhouettes. Each piece is crafted in California from deadstock or USA made goods.

I’ve been teaming up with some great friends to collaborate on designs in order to increase the reach of the brand. Selling the vintage collection monthly at Long Beach Flea Market has also helped introduce Crawford Denim to a much larger audience. These steps have incrementally increased traffic to the site and sales.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area as the middle child in a large family. Our Dad was a long time high school football coach and our Mom managed the teams while raising the family.

Every student was welcome in our home, making our house a constant hub of activity, sports and art. We learned early in life how rewarding working in service to others is and how to work well as a team. One person’s success is a reflection of the team’s hard work.

Having an alternate source of income will help minimize any lows in sales. It’s the insurance of making rent that allows you to focus on the brand or business that you are trying to grow.

I started my design career at Levi’s, working at some of the last US factories and learned from the true craftsmen how to build the iconic jeans. After years of designing for other American denim brands manufacturing overseas, I wanted to return to producing in the states. I did not want to lose the artform that had generated in California. Working with other small businesses + craftsmen, we can each benefit and help sustain our local economy.

I was looking at the Slow Food Movement at the time of shaping my plan for Crawford Denim. Their movement to eat local foods in support of small, sustainable farms to reduce waste and eliminate pesticides were practices I wanted to employ in the apparel industry. Working locally reduces the need for gas for overseas shipping and using deadstock + vintage fabrics keeps them from landfills. These fabrics not only have great character, but were often created from cotton grown without pesticides or GMOs.

While the head Designer at Old Navy, I started a small jewelry + crafts line with my sisters. It was a good introduction on how to set up an online business and sell in person. I was able to work on my skills without a huge investment for product inventory and develop best practices knowing eventually I would launch Crawford Denim.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

After designing several denim blocks, testing both deadstock and USA made denim; I made 1st samples with a small, local manufacturer who had been referred by my patternmaker. They are unique in that they sew nearly every type of product, sample in house and have low minimums.

Creating the visual story for the brand was the biggest goal. Without a big budget, I asked friends to model and photograph for me.

Having developed a good relationship with them over the years have allowed us to grow together. They still remain devoted to small businesses; keeping their costs reasonable, while still paying fair, livable wages. Using deadstock fabrics utilizes great vintage cottons and rayons that had been shelved, and keeps them out of landfills.


The Men’s product did well immediately. The raw denim for the Straight Selvage and Skinny Jeans are still the most popular styles. There were some production issues with sizing for the Women’s denim, so we tried to solve the problems. After a couple of years of getting to know our female customer better - I’ve changed the denim silhouettes all together. Using a different fit model, we’ve modified the shape of the jeans and created more unique denim styles, evolving beyond the basic five pocket.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

Creating the visual story for the brand was the biggest goal. Without a big budget, I asked friends to model and photograph for me. We went to the Crawford family ranch with motorcycles + ripped around the area, capturing what was meaningful to me: friends, family, quality goods and the quintessential California lifestyle.

Working in trade also allowed my friends to be able to wear the jeans + tops and give me feedback on the fit and fabrics. I was able to make some adjustments before adding the styles online. I created the site through Shopify which is an easy platform that’s highly customizable with secure payment options. Mostly friends were the 1st to purchase online as a show of support. I was fortunate to partner with Seaweed + Gravel, a motorcycle and apparel store in Leucadia, CA. My customer base grew immediately as they are able to try on the product in person. Because of that experience, I offer free return + exchange shipping so buying online is a little easier.

I put a lot of thought into the packaging of the product. Receiving a well packaged + thoughtful piece changes a consumer’s opinion immediately for a brand. The styles come in logo’d muslin bags with postcard from the lookbook along with the order receipt, tied together with denim selvage tape. Whether it is a gift for someone or for yourself, each of the boxes I ship are packaged like a present.

I spent a year developing the styles and working on ensuring all permits were filed properly. I couldn’t afford a lawyer or accountant to file all the necessary forms, so I taught myself how to. Now I’m able to assist other small businesses on how to set up their companies in California.

Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?

Before the algorithm of Instagram changed, I was making a sale with nearly every 100 new followers. Now, it is much harder to attract new followers, stay in the feeds of followers and convert to sales.

Instagram has a few key tools that are useful to businesses. Connecting the account with Facebook allowed me to track the analytics of my followers: when they are scrolling, what types of photos or products resonate with them, even to what days and times of the week are best for maximum penetration of a post. I try to track this information weekly so to better present the brand to my current followers and attract more.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to continue to team with events, friends + shops who help promote the brand. I now work with a group of female makers + designers to try to beat the algorithm. I wanted to focus on developing my female audience and have them understand my products + the value investing in a quality denim jean.

The pod group has worked in helping to grow the female demographic without depleting the male consumer. We each like + comment on one another’s posts within the hour that they are live. This helps override the algorithm + moves your post higher in the queue of the current followers. With more likes, Instagram will even push it to more non-followers as a recommended brand to follow. I will be launching the new women’s denim styles shortly, so I hope to increase the conversion of buyers utilizing this pod group + a friend who is an Instagram influencer.

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Promoting the brand through social media is a new method for leveling the playing field with much larger brands. Most followers are attracted to the idea of discovering a company, having insider knowledge and peaks behind the scenes. I have been resistant to share much of this information, because I want folks to be attracted to the product rather than a personality. But I am learning that by utilizing the Stories Feature on Instagram, I can share more about the inner workings and small batch craft that goes into the designs without the longevity of a post. The story is just a quick snapshot to entice followers without overwhelming the consumer.

Participating in shows, pop ups and fleas has really grown the audience; building the number of consumer’s eyes on the product. Because denim generally sells more in the fall and winter, I try to keep folks involved in the brand with new shirts, tees and vintage during the spring and summer months.

Two major shows I participate in are Desert + Denim in Joshua Tree, CA and the Tennessee Motorcycle and Music Revival, hosted by the Loretta Lynn Family in Hurricane Mills, TN. These two events promote small, USA made vendors and makers. Having built the jeans with motorcycle riders in mind, allows them to try on the jeans and hop on their bike at the shows; illustrating how the gap at the waistband is minimized and the knees are comfortable even bent over long periods of riding.

Becoming a regular vendor at Long Beach Flea Market has also increased the number of local folks being introduced to the brand. The Crawford Denim and Vintage Co. booth is curated to the trends of the month, like a mini store - complete with a dressing room.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

I scaled back last year, trying to manage the changes in the country with fewer people buying high end product at small, local boutiques.

Some of those businesses are no longer in operation or have moved away from USA made product. A percentage of those store’s customers continue to shop my product online. I only make the styles I can afford to. The goal is to keep incrementally growing the customer base and maintain steady, positive sales online + in select shops with more unique and limited edition product.

After years of perfecting the fit of the jeans, I’d like to introduce the brand to more established boutiques with great online businesses in addition to their brick and mortars. Working with fewer but more strategic locations will help establish the brand name and product.

I continue to sew the women’s smallest batches of styles and the customized product, which takes a lot of time. I gratefully have an intern to help during the busiest of times. Over the long term, I’d like to employ another full time person to help with all aspects of the business; design and sewing, customer service + fulfillment, photo shoots and website maintenance. Currently my sister Maggie steps into help, who’s assistance is invaluable!

Since I also work with and consult for other small brands, my time is very limited. I am still trying to balance each work obligation + my personal time, maintaining a healthy lifestyle while meeting deadlines. My goal in having another employee that can share my role will enable us both to accomplish it all.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful advantageous?

Kindness gets you far. Being a brand that works to partner + help other businesses really helps to showcase each one of us all together. We can have our own individual voice within a community, unifying us as makers. We have all pitched in to help one another. One brand or boutique’s success is a reflection of all of our efforts.

Anything that could go wrong, did.

I worked with a larger company within the first year of business, that wanted to promote small California makers. I was nervous about overextending my budget and over taxing my small audience in the hopes of growing my business. Anything that could go wrong, did.

Even though my product was well received, I did not have control over how the larger company displayed it online. The company’s marketing team decided that they didn’t like the project and very purposefully minimized it online. Trying to deal with multiple divisions within their organization as a one-woman brand was unevenly pitted and unrealistic.

I luckily took some precautions within my contract to avoid major financial losses, but I am still trying to recover from those losses. It was a great lesson to listen to my instincts. It was also good to know not to overextend my customer’s or my own bandwidth. Just because they were willing to buy one piece, does not ensure they will buy all of your product month after month.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I use Shopify for the website, Square for selling in person and Paypal + Venmo to invoice personal sales.

I rely mostly on USPS … and have become great friends with my local post office. Shipping online through USPS is super easy and less expensive than any other carrier.

I am just starting to use MailChimp to reach a broad audience of newsletter readers. I try to send out a monthly message, so not to bombard customers but also let them know where we are going to be popping up.

Tumblr is a great vehicle in addition to Instagram for my showcasing the brand’s product through photography and inspirational images. I can tell a full story of what’s developing behind the scenes and influencing my designs. My Tumblr feed has been named one of the top denim trend blogs.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources for your business and why?

I listen religiously to How I Built This. I am a big fan of the Ted Radio Hour, but How I Built This directly relates to all of the ups and downs of being a business owner. It’s a great reminder that being a small business owner takes a lot of time and endurance for all the ups and downs. Being hard working and ready for everything really is the everlasting message in each of their stories. Luck is what you make of it.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Having an alternate source of income will help minimize any lows in sales. It’s the insurance of making rent that allows you to focus on the brand or business that you are trying to grow. It’s not easy, but every entrepreneur has had some source of steady income that can get them through the tough months.

I built the brand around the brand, not around myself. It helps eliminate the personal emotions that can get tied to product … meaning that if folks don’t all love a photo on Instagram, it’s the style or the photo, not how you look in the product.

I hardly ever show my own photo on Instagram or Tumblr. I focus instead on the product + showcase the folks and friends who embody the California lifestyle of the brand. The stories we can tell together through these visuals are most important in articulating the message of Crawford Denim and Vintage Co.

Where can we go to learn more?