Leona Liu figured there had to be a better way to find a pair of jeans that fit.
Like so many others shoppers, the 2012 Elmhurst graduate had grown tired of trying on pair after pair of jeans that seemed to be made with someone else in mind. Liu and her partner, Sam Miller, decided to do something about the problem.
The two founded Red Malt, a custom jeans brand based in Bensenville that promises a tailored fit without the fitting-room hassles. Working with a set of six measurements from the customer, Liu and Miller create a unique pair of jeans in one of a dozen or so styles and fabrics for men and women. They promise to remake or refund any orders if the customer is not satisfied.
“Jeans are the hardest garment to buy,” Liu said. “It’s never a fun experience. But we knew there had to be another way. We want to make people the best-fitting pair of jeans they’ve ever had.”
Liu and Miller, a Denver University grad, met when both were in Shanghai for a study-abroad semester in 2009. They were inspired to launch the brand by their encounters with custom haberdashers in that city’s lively outdoor markets. Upon his return to the United States, Miller tried ordering custom jeans from overseas, with regrettable results. Miller wore one new pair to work, only to have the pants split in a particularly inconvenient location. His walk home was an embarrassing one.
“Everyone had a pretty good laugh at my expense,” Miller remembers. Worse still, he was unable to get a refund from the manufacturer for the faulty trousers.
“We thought, ‘Let’s see if we can do better, if we can improve the quality and improve the customer service.’”
So began a four-year, real-world education in the workings of the garment industry. Liu and Miller learned about sewing and pattern-making, attended trade shows, and solicited advice from industry professionals, all while holding down full-time jobs—Liu is an analyst for a Chicago manufacturer, Miller works in sales in the health care industry. They also got an assist from one of Liu’s former Elmhurst professors, graphic designer Geoff Sciacca, who helped design the brand’s marketing materials and distinctive packaging.
Miller even emailed Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for guidance and received an encouraging response.
“We asked a lot of questions,” Liu said. “People were so helpful, and we have learned so much. It has been like getting our own version of an MBA.”
Last year, Miller and Liu launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their operation, raising $48,000 from 404 backers. They filmed the promotional video for the campaign in the College’s Accelerator ArtSpace.
Their enterprise remains a hands-on, deeply personal one. The pair taught themselves to operate—and repair—the dozen or so machines in their shop, and they pride themselves on their accessibility. Customers can drop by the Red Malt factory to have the co-owners take their measurements. Former Chicago Bulls player Stacey King did just that recently. The jeans Liu and Miller made for the 6-foot-11 King are surely the biggest garments to ever bear a Red Malt label.
The pair hope to offer more styles and to continue to nurture the brand they founded. They also hope to make it their full-time business soon.
“This is our dream job,” Miller says.
“And the best part is hearing from customers that we have made them a great-fitting pair of jeans,” Liu says.