Some men will do anything not to miss an NFL playoff game. Take Mychael Darwin, designer of the iconic 50th anniversary Jackie Robinson jacket for Major League Baseball, who was shopping on a Sunday afternoon in 2006 with his wife. She couldn’t find a pair of jeans that fit, and rather than miss his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, this quick-thinking husband offered to custom-design her a pair. Deal. She got her great-fitting jeans and he got to see the game—and go on to become a sought-after custom-jeans designer. This fall, his new ready-to-wear line of premium denims hits stores. For Darwin, they aren’t just work pants, they’re works of art.
Does your wife still have those jeans?
Yes, tucked away in a cedar chest. Of course, now she has a whole closet full of my custom jeans.
Tell me about that Jackie Robinson jacket.
It was 1997, and Mrs. Jackie Robinson, who’d seen my leather jackets, called to ask if I’d make one for the anniversary. We made a limited-edition jacket for her, the players, and some other people in baseball. President Clinton saw them and wanted one. We had “designed by Mychael Darwin for President Clinton” sewn underneath the inside pocket.
What made your jackets famous?
I made the first one for the TV show “In Living Color.” I spent my last five-hundred bucks on it. Initially they weren’t interested, but Damon Wayans happened to see it and loved it. From there I began making them for movies, and that’s when things really took off.
And this new line?
It’s a natural extension of the custom jeans. I feel like a true artist making the custom stuff, which is probably why I did those first. But not everybody can afford them, so this is quality denim everybody can wear.
Will you still design custom jeans?
Absolutely. I love the creative freedom of it.
Can customers get as good a fit with your line?
We spent three years perfecting the fit of jeans for both custom and the ready-to-wear line. Plus we have quality fabrics, and different categories of fit.
And they are?
For women, there’s junior, missy, and women’s, which are basically sexy mom jeans. For men, we have classic, baggy, boot-cut motorcycle jeans, and relaxed.
What sets your jeans apart?
I don’t like things that are overdone. I like quality. Even our zippers are custom-made. People say nobody sees that. But the wearer sees it. It’s about art, and beauty, and being authentic.
Where can shoppers find the line?
Specialty boutiques, and high-end department stores like Barney’s, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom. They should hit the stores by November or December and will retail for $175 to $375.
How did you get into fashion?
I was studying architecture at Hampton University in Virginia. I went out with this girl who was wearing a pair of shorts she’d made. I was totally amazed. They looked like they were from a store. I thought, “Oh wow, that’s an interesting art form. Let me see if I can make something like this.”
Did you give up architecture?
Yes. I found that I really loved draping and pattern-making, probably because it’s like architecture. You’ve got to come up with a solution to the problem. If you don’t know how the clothes are put together, the design doesn’t work. So I enrolled at Fullerton College to study clothing design.
What’s the most you’ve charged for jeans?
$10,000. They were for a suit that actually cost $15,000, which I made of leather and hand-woven denim for an NBA team owner. It had laser-cut embroidery with 24-karat buttons.
Did you start your label in L.A.?
Yes, but we moved our operation to La Habra because we wanted to establish Orange County as the center for premium denim jeans.
I heard you designed for the Golden Globes. True?
I was chosen by head costume designer Warden Neil to work on the 2011 show. He liked my reputation in the industry. I made sure the wardrobe for the A-list celebrities and presenters was appropriate and pretty much did whatever he needed.
Any star encounters at the show?
I absolutely love Alicia Keys, and at one point I was just minding my own business, working, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there she was. She was wearing a silk dress and asked if I could get the wrinkles out before she went onstage. But she didn’t have time to take the dress off. The only thing left to do was steam out the wrinkles with her in the dress. So we ended up in the bathroom with me on my knees and my hand under Alicia Keys’ dress steaming out wrinkles. I thought, “If my friends could see me now!”
Mychael Darwin Jeans
511 S. Harbor Blvd. La Habra
by Scott Christian / photograph by Melissa Valladares
Published in October 2011