Ground, sanded, torn, baked, washed in acid -- denim undergoes distressing abuse in a Long Beach factory. Out come $200 jeans.

David Johnson hunched over the monster washing machine, dousing his canvas of denim with bleach. He was interrupted by a voice booming over the PA system: "David, please come to the lobby." Johnson did a quick rinse of the jeans and tossed them aside. He figured that he would meet a visitor at the front of International Garment Finishing and be back in 15 minutes. Then he would finish transforming the new jeans into a pair that seemed worn by a lifetime in a mine shaft.

Instead, one thing led to another, and he was gone three hours. By the time he got back to the jeans, they were finished, all right. Splotched white here, spotted dark blue there, speckled randomly like mildew. They looked as if they'd been dragged behind a race car and drizzled with motor oil.

They were trashed.

Many high-end fashion designers might have tossed them. But Johnson is an artist of destruction. His palette is indigo, his tools bleach, pumice stone and wood grinders.

He is among the laundry workers who feed the $11-billion jeans market, in which every season demands a new tweak on pants that never go out of style.

Los Angeles is the design hub for that market. In recent years the taste has been for worn-out-looking jeans. And so a back-pocket industry was born for faking authenticity -- a job for guys like Johnson and his colleagues at the Long Beach factory.

Their task is to re-create the distressed, almost abstract expressionist looks that designers want on their jeans.

Johnson is so serious about his craft that he once wore the same pair of jeans every day without washing them for more than a year, just to see what they would look like.

After getting over his shock at the condition of the jeans he left folded and soaked for too long, Johnson began to see possibilities. The "three-hour muck-up jeans," a working title altered slightly for print, got some sanding, some tearing, some stitching.

The brand managers at the upscale Taverniti label were thrilled. They added the jeans to their Janis line, and renamed them Dark Acid Wash.

But would anyone pay $200 for a mistake?

International Garment Finishing, owned by Richard Kim, is just west of the Long Beach Freeway. The outside looks like any other plant on the street where auto upholstery and polymer molds are churned out.

Beyond the lobby is the "showroom," where jeans by the dozens drape each wall like curtains with zipper flies.

Garment finishing is a niche of a niche of the jeans trade. But like couture in the larger apparel industry, the so-called premium denim market of jeans costing more than $150 drives overall sales. And it has grown rapidly in the last five years, fueled largely by teens and twentysomethings willing to pay up to $400 for that perfect pair of jeans that fits snug and looks custom-made.

The idea is basically to create controlled chaos. Designers bring in wildly distressed jean prototypes -- and it's the job of the workers in the factory to perfectly duplicate that look hundreds or thousands of times for sale around the world. Because each designer's vision is meant to be different from competitors', the factory workers must take great care to get the tiniest details right.

On a recent day, things are going very well, according to the cigarette-puffing Frenchmen who manage the Janis brand for Taverniti.

The 50,000-square-foot plant looks more like a quarry dock than the womb of high-cost fashion. Massive bags of gray pumice stone from Mexico tower beside pallets of volcanic rock from Central California. A stream of pale blue liquid snakes around the concrete floor in some areas.

Dark blue jeans are piled by the hundreds everywhere. Most have been trucked from the sewing factories of downtown Los Angeles' garment district.

Workers are sanding, stapling, stabbing or tearing the jeans just so; the pants will be drenched in chemicals, heaved into massive washers and dryers, perhaps a couple of times during the process. It depends on the style.

Taverniti and International Garment Finishing officials asked that the full recipe for the Janis jeans -- named for the late rock singer Janis Joplin -- be withheld for competitive reasons.

Janis jeans are made from a medium-weight denim, cut and sewn to ride low around the hips. Taverniti's signature is double back pockets.

The process of ruining the jeans into high-fashion masterpieces begins with a resin treatment that helps the denim hold its shape and stand up to the abuse that awaits. Then comes creasing, followed by repeated trips through a 300-degree oven.

The jeans are then rolled to "the grinding room," where two dozen workers attack hems, waist, collars and other edges with woodworking tools.

Drills would cause a clean puncture, which is not how jeans would tear, so just the right frayed and thready look requires grinding, said Victor Ramirez, one of the plant supervisors.

Janis and other styles next go to a shed outside for a secret process that Johnson said gives the firm a competitive edge.

Near the secret trick shed is the "sanding room," where seamstress dummies dangle like sides of beef. Latino workers croon to ranchera music as they painstakingly sand the crotches of jeans. It is a practiced skill to scrape off just the right amount of fabric to resemble sun rays shooting off the fly. In the trade these are called "whiskers" or the "mustache."

Next may come the washes for the finish. Pre-wash, stonewash, acid wash, distress -- these are the modern-day eras in jean finishes. Sometimes the pumice stones are used, other times volcanic rock, depending on the brand. Three pounds of stones are required for each garment, Johnson said. The plant goes through 40,000 pounds of stones weekly.

Johnson's design accident looks darker than most of the jeans the plant produces. The wide splashes of navy blue on the jeans give them an almost oily, cloudy appearance, which sets it apart from the busy look of the other lines of jeans.

But the jeans were a hit with both Taverniti's brand managers and designers. Taverniti added Johnson's accidental creation to nine other pairs modeled at the critical fall runway shows in New York and Paris, at which international buyers pick the merchandise they will sell this spring. The Janis Dark Acid Wash jeans were planned as a limited edition for customers who "don't want to see everyone else wearing the same thing," Johnson said.

Turns out they were the top seller among Taverniti's samples modeled at those shows, and they went into production.

By then, the artist who created them had moved on -- Johnson relocated to a new job in North Carolina. But the buzz about Janis Dark Acid Wash kept growing.

About the Author:

Mikahala and The HoNo Trading Company keeps jeans at the forefront.

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