CARY — Blue jeans are a wardrobe staple, but most people probably don’t think much about how they’re usually made: often overseas, with indigo dye, chemicals and water.
Three local women are helping to change the way people think about and wear denim, and they’re doing it with their computers.
Last year, Carly Giammona, Veronica Tibbitts and Alana Vaughn formed MEFIVER, a startup company in Cary that uses digital printing in fashion.
Most clothing-manufacturing companies use screen printing or garment washing to create designs on fabric. At MEFIVER, they use software programs such as Adobe PhotoShop and Illustrator to make color combinations and designs that are digitally printed onto denim.
Giammona, 33, said she presented the idea at a fashion conference she attended in Los Angeles while working for Cotton Incorporated, which is based in Cary.
“I come out and say, ‘We’re not garment washing, we’re not doing any of this,’ ” Giammona recalled. “It floored people.”
Giammona, who earned a dual degree in textile technology and art and design from N.C. State University, assembled a team to bring her idea to life. Tibbitts, 24, who earned the same degree from N.C. State, works as the chief design officer, while Vaughn, 28, handles the business side of things.
In 2012, MEFIVER landed a $44,000 grant from NC IDEA, which awards money to startup companies throughout North Carolina.
And with the help of seed money from a private investor, the women hired a design assistant and now work in a space above the garage of Vaughn’s parents’ home.
For now, the company is accepting pre-orders online. But MEFIVER founders have much bigger dreams.
Digital printing in the fashion world is still fairly new. Some companies – mostly high-end couture brands – have been dabbling in the idea for 20 years or so, Giammona said.
The technology used to digitally print onto fabric works much like an ink-jet printer, said Jen Helke, chief financial officer for Cheran Digital Imaging & Consulting. The company in Gaffney, S.C., prints products for MEFIVER and other firms.
The machine sprays reactive dyes onto the denim in exactly the places designed on computers in Cary.
“The computer knows where every pixel is and knows what color every pixel is supposed to be,” Helke said.
She said the process is more environmentally friendly than other methods. “There’s a lot less waste, and there’s no (traditional) dyeing going on.”
But the process, at least for now, is more expensive, partly because the technology can’t produce as much product as quickly as other methods.
MEFIVER jeans range in price from about $199 to $250. Denim jackets range from $259 to $299.
The clothes are costly now, but they could get cheaper if there is plenty of demand for them, Tibbitts said. “Volume will bring the price point down.”
Helke agreed. Prices of digitally printed clothes will come down as companies order bigger machine runs.
Back to N.C. roots
Giammona, Tibbitts and Vaughn all graduated from Apex High School, and they saw the decline of North Carolina’s textile industry as jobs were sent overseas to countries such as China, where labor is cheaper and there are fewer government regulations.
MEFIVER hopes digital printing could breathe new life into the local textile economy.
Digital printing takes specialized equipment and labor, according to the company’s owners, and it makes sense to create the products close to home.
Denim for MEFIVER products comes from Cone Denim Mills in Greensboro. The products are printed at Cheran in South Carolina, and they are sewn together at Fox Apparel in Asheboro.
“Yes, I’m excited that we can create a greener, more beautiful world,” Giammona said of the digital process. “But I’m also excited that we can bring it back to the (United) States.”
Fashion as art
For the MEFIVER owners, the process is about technology and economics, but it’s also about art.
One of MEFIVER’s denim jackets features the Raleigh skyline. The design came from a photograph taken by Tibbitts.
She’s an artist at heart, with experience in drawing, painting and creating sculptures.
The company’s products are made in such a way that the designs aren’t broken up at the seams – that Raleigh skyline wraps around the jacket, as does a Roman design of statues and pillars.
Giammona came up with the idea of putting 3D images on clothes, complete with 3D glasses that bring colors and shapes jumping off the material.
“I thought, ‘People are going to think I’m nuts,’ ” she said. “And it kind of took off.”
The owners try to to put a personal touch on everything. They created a brand, SRGB, which is a play on the digital color space – simulated red, green and blue.
Their signatures can be found underneath the collars of jackets and inside the pockets of jeans.
“I think it’s personal expression,” Tibbitts said of her work to bring art onto denim. “It expresses your personality. ... I never wanted to be a fashion designer. I wanted to be an artist.”
Digital printing could take that art to a new level. The Phoenix Art Museum featured an exhibit of digitally printed fashion in 2013.
Getting into stores
Now the goal is to get MEFIVER’s products into stores, said Vaughn, who earned a master’s degree in business from the University of South Carolina.
The company wants to host local trunk shows and sell its products in boutiques throughout the Triangle, Vaughn said. Eventually, the company might expand to create more digitally printed goods such as shoes and home furnishings.
“I think we all live, breathe, eat, sleep this company,” Giammona said. “It’s pretty much our baby.”
Added Vaughn: “We want to see it grow up.”