Interview: The Founders of Tellason

Tony PaTELLA & Pete SearSON are TELLASON, the denim brand that strongly believes “style comes through best on people who don’t work at it”. Based in San Francisco, the home of blue jeans, this duo are keen to keep the industry alive and are certainly doing a good job of it. Tony & Pete have been friends since 1990 and in speaking to them it is clear that it's a friendship that will last a lifetime. Their shared passion for well crafted, durable and authentic products is their driving force but especially for denim…. Along with a mutual love for the famous English punk rock band The Clash! 

The brand was launched in 2009 using denim fabrics made in America's oldest and most famous denim mill, White Oak Cone Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina. After 112 years in business the mill closed in 2017 causing Tellason to seek an alternative source. We caught up with the pair to hear their thoughts on how this changed the brand, their love for Japan, favourite hangouts in London and the all important question of what jeans to pick if you’re new to the brand. 

Image of Pete & Tony together

So guys, you’ve been friends for 30 years, has that helped or hindered your working relationship?

[PETE] For us it has helped our working relationship.  Saying that makes me acknowledge the fact that just because you know someone for a while does not make that professional and / or personal relationship positive.  We all know people who have worked with someone forever or have been in a relationship with a person forever and from the outside, seems toxic and regrettable.  Tony and I happen to run a pretty parallel life, being the same age, growing up in California at a time when life was tactile and both have an evolving appreciation for xyz.

It certainly is a rare thing to find someone you can put up with for that long! It seems like music has been a part of your relationship for all of that time. I’ve heard that you are both fans of The Clash since the age of 12, but what is it about the English Punk Rock band that speaks so deeply to you both?

[PETE] I think it has a lot to do with being 12 in the year 1977.  We are all 12 at one point and at that age, every kid is ready to grab onto things that seem cool to define you and make you feel a little independent.  For music, we had a ton of things that were almost the opposite of The Clash like:  Hall and Oates, Led Zeppelin, everything disco, Captain and Tennille, etc… Then along came certain radio D.J.’s like Rodney Bingenheimer who played music that changed our lives.  Bands like The Clash, but also local California bands such as: Suburban Lawns, Devo, and X.  This style spoke to us. For me, The Clash was also a band that did not pretend to be so cool that it was their way or the highway.  They embraced other sounds and cultures and most importantly, stood up for the underserved, the pushed aside, the underdogs.  I can’t tell you how important this is in my own life.  Rooting for the underdog is my whole calling.  Standing up for what is right and not necessarily popular dominates our mindset.  Show me the guy who throws his cigarette butt in the street with nonchalance and there will be words.  Please let me see a kid or adult bullying someone.  There will be words.  I just ain’t having it.  This drives my wife crazy since she thinks one of these dumb sh*ts will pull a knife on me or something.  Note to the reader, I always approach these situations with great politeness and more times than not my efforts are met with a slice of humility and regret from said bully or litterer.

The Clash vinyl records

[TONY] I grew up in a small college town an hour from San Francisco and Berkeley. By 1977, as 12 year olds, we were tired of the Summer of Love and the hippie sh*t and wanted something of our own -- no more 10 minute songs and dancing around like overcooked pasta.  We were al dente! In those days college radio ruled (especially when it came to new music) and I remember the day I heard The Clash’s first album in 1977.  Luckily, our town had an amazing record store and I was able to buy an import of the album then (as it wasn’t released in the US until 1978) -- I must’ve listened to the album for six hours straight.  We also benefited from the fact that like London, New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco had a great punk scene and most bands that played in San Francisco would also make the rounds at nearby college towns.  I rode my bike to some amazing shows ten minutes from my house from 1977-1983.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a perfect pasta analogy before, we’ll definitely be using that, thank you!

Now, there are 7 styles of Jeans in your collection including the Sheffield, John Graham Mellor, Ladbroke Grove, Elgin and Gustave - most of the names paying tribute to The Clash. Are there talks of a new style coming to us soon?

[PETE] Yes, 7 fits subtly named after our favourite band, except for the Blubaugh, which is named after our friend who completely designed the fit. No new styles in the hopper right now… 

It’s nice to hear that the names are so personal to you both, it is a sentiment which seems to run through the whole of the brand. Despite music, do you have a fond love for film? If so what is your favourite movie of all time?

[PETE] Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This movie encapsulates 100% of my youth growing up in Southern California in the 70's and 80's.  You just have to see it.  Sean Penn's first film.  The music, fashion, stoner and surf culture, mall life.  Just incredible. 

[TONY] Fletch - because literally everything Chevy Chase does is funny.

Image of Pete & Tony

Right, that’s added to our ‘ones to watch’ list then. Regarding the hidden red tab found in the inside of the back pocket with the text “Legal”, where did the idea for this come from? Are there more secrets to be found in the Tellason brand?

[PETE] Ha! It’s really a backhanded compliment to the company who started it all, Levis.  We think they should make the best jeans in the world and sometimes they do.  But, when you suck the breast of big box retailers and they tell you to do x and x represents something that is not true to their brand, well, how about saying thanks but no thanks.  The lesson here is ALWAYS, ALWAYS make decisions that add value and integrity to your brand.  Don’t be afraid to say no to things.  There is a reason that Apple does not make microwaves.  Could you imagine how many Apple microwaves they would sell?  In the end, Apple stays true and remains focused on the product assortment they already have and says no to things outside their target.

[TONY] The LeGAL tab is both a compliment and a poke in the eye. In the 1990s I was a partner in a denim brand in San Francisco and at least ten times in the eight year existence of the brand we received Cease and Desist letters from the legal department at the Haus of Strauss -- apparently our use of a green label hanging from the bottom of a jacket pocket infringed upon their “patent” of such labeling or our back pocket stitch design looked too much like theirs (not even close to being true).  Since the lawyers had to justify their existence and they knew small companies wouldn’t fight it, they sent out these threats to dozens of companies.  Our LeGAL tab is on the inside of the pocket so it is “legal” and won’t have ol’ Löb Strauß turning over in his grave!

Image of 'LeGAL' red tab inside Tellason jean back pocket

Haha, I suppose many denim makers have been forced to think of creative ways to avoid being hit by Mr Strauss’ heavy legal hammer, but this is the most innovative so far! 

After working with the Cone Mills for 10 years, how did the closure affect you? 

[PETE] To be honest, most of the feeling behind this closure was directed to the employees at the plant.  We visited CMWO a handful of years ago and got to meet the people who ran things.  Many of them had been there their entire adult lives and were second and third generations deep with the factory.  Even the drive from our hotel to the factory told a story, passing parks, streets, and parks, all named after the Cone family.  They must have gone the extra mile to make Greensboro proud of their textile life.  If you have not been to the South, the people are some of the kindest folks you will ever meet and this goes from the top dog to the kind person who simply sweeps up the lint generated by the machines making our fabric.  Let’s not forget the sense of pride we should all have in the course of each of our days…

[TONY] As Pete said, the closure of White Oak affected the employees, their families and their community the most.  Knowing what we know about the financial situation at White Oak, we feel very fortunate to have been able to work with them for a decade. When we found out that Tellason was the fourth largest customer of White Oak (the entire 1 million square foot mill, not just the selvedge section), we knew that was not sustainable! 

As a silver lining to the sad closure of this famous mill though, you’ve teamed up with the incredible Japanese Kaihara mills. I understand it was a long process to replicate the same weight, shade, ageing material & indigo content. I imagine that can be quite a stressful task, so was there ever any concern that the Tellason brand would not continue as it first started?

[PETE] Tony is the master here.  Long story short, we made 3 proprietary fabrics at CMWO and it was our goal to always have consistency with shipping reorders for our core denim styles, year after year.  You can have a stack of Tellason jeans at Son of a Stag from us and one pair could be from 2011 and another pair could have been made with fabric from 2016.  We pride ourselves with this consistency and know that a lot of guys out there just want the same thing they just wore out.  We are the perfect company for this type of customer since we do not chase the fashion dragon and bounce from one trend to another.  There are a lot of denim dudes out there that do hunt down the latest and greatest so we are probably not the brand for them.  So, Tony made arrangements to meet with the big wigs at Kaihara and worked things out to get what we had made in Greensboro to be made in Japan.  This was not easy but when you have the depth of knowledge that Tony has about fabric and construction, things get done.  We are very happy with what Kaihara is delivering to us and would not be here without their help. 

[TONY] When I learned that we were the fourth largest customer at White Oak I immediately began making a list of Japanese mills that would be the next maker of our proprietary selvedge. This was years before Cone announced the closure of White Oak. Of the six mills on the list I eliminated three when I discovered that they already were making denim for other small brands. Of the remaining three, Kaihara was foremost on my mind to contact in July of 2018 (we had about a year’s worth of White Oak denim shipped to us in January 2018).  To my delight Kaihara contacted us in May of 2018 (this meant they knew who we were!).  As Pete said, a lot of work ensued to replicate as closely as possible our White Oak fabrics.  We’re very pleased with the results.  As far as being concerned that Tellason wouldn’t be able to continue as it started, that never really entered our thinking because had White Oak not existed when we started Tellason, we would have used Japanese fabric like most other small brands do when they start.  For us the main force behind Tellason was always Made in San Francisco.  The fact that we were able to work with White Oak for a decade was icing on the cake.

Image of Pete & Tony outside the Cone Mills White Oak Plant

You both have a strong love for Japan, visiting regularly either on business or for pleasure. What is it about Japan that pulls you in?

[PETE] This is a huge question and could take up a 3 hour conversation.  Briefly, Japan represents a lot of what we find interesting and meaningful.  Take any slice of life:  food, nature, architecture, balance, harmony.  You get the picture.  The Japanese life just feels like it has a deeper meaning day to day.  It could be the respect they have for their elders.  It could be how they cook a hamburger.  Until you spend time there, you just won’t understand the culture.  The moment we were able, my wife and I have been taking our kids there for our holidays. My favourite place to visit by far, beyond the love of a day in Tokyo, is the Art Islands of Teshima and Naoshima - it really does take the cake!

All these mentions of cake are making me want to go out and get something to eat! Speaking of which, when you have visited London in the past, where was your favourite hang out?

[PETE] I have been to London many times but do not claim to know the City that well.  I must say, my favorite stop during my visits is this little underground bar below the Discount Suits shop.  A 10 minute walk from SoaS.  I don’t even really drink much but there is something so perfect about this spot.  I would also be smart to list Experimental Cocktail Club.  For me, there is no better place to drink in the world.  But of course, I have had a few there with Xavier (owner) and he is a no bullsh*t kind of guy.  He is full on and if you are a wanker in his bar bothering anyone, expect to meet the exit door, very quickly.  He really wants his customers to have an amazing experience that they will remember for the right reasons.  I remember him asking me what I wanted to drink one time.  It was January and I said, Margarita.  He looked at me like I was crazy, then thought about it and said, “perfect”.  He had one too...  Not your usual January drink, wherever you may be.

Haha, it seems that it works to try something a little different sometimes.

What was it about Son of a Stag that encouraged you to choose us as a UK retailer & distributor?

[PETE] I was an international sales manager for a couple of companies prior to us launching Tellason. I love denim and when I visited SoaS for work, I knew that this was the real deal. Those early visits were about the time when Tony and I were formulating Tellason and to be in a shop like this would validate everything we were trying to achieve.  Rudy gave us a chance and here we are.  They are a big part of our tribe and there is no one in the denim world who I respect more.

Image of Pete Searson pictured outside Son of a Stag

And long may that relationship last! Thanks guys.

Sadly it’s time for us to wrap things up, so we’re going to ask you a very personal question! For any newcomers to the brand, can you tell us what your favourite pair of Tellason jeans are & why?

[PETE) For me I am a tall, skinny dude who stays away from our more tapered legs.  I wear the Ankara straight leg fit and even get them a size too big.  I have been known to blow through my jeans very quickly and really hammer them day to day.  I also only wear one pair at a time.  I am not really interested in the whole new jean thing and really enjoy my jeans from the 50% worn in point to the end of the road.  I would say that the 16.5 oz fabric is my favourite.  Not really sure why but I think it has more to do with the sound it makes when I fold it up. 

[TONY] Currently I am wearing our Sheffield straight tapered in 14.75 oz -- I’m loving the mid-rise and copious ballroom (like a Marriott hotel!).

Haha, that’s quite an image you’ve painted! Always a pleasure to talk to you fellas, and thank you for your time! Have a great thanksgiving and we hope for easier roads ahead for you both!

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