Matt Baldwin puts four of his prized possessions on the table. They're all jeans. He's been talking — fast and with much enthusiasm — for a solid 20 minutes, about denim. The fabric's history, the evolution and look and feel of jeans, the poetry in what washing and wearing do to simple indigo — he's covering it all.
He pauses, clutching one of his best-sellers, the Baldwin Henley in raw selvage denim, as he prepares to explain how his infectious love affair with the material is about to reach the next level.
"We're working with a Japanese mill to produce our own textile," he says. He looks, as usual, sharp in what is essentially his uniform: his line's utility pants (rolled), basic black Nikes, leather jacket. "That means you won't be able to get this denim anywhere else in the world. The Japanese produce the most phenomenal denim. They are so meticulous. You can feel it."
Baldwin's passion for high-quality denim shines. And the industry is training its lights on his company. The nation's top style critics have praised the 35-year-old local designer for the tough feat of nailing not only fashion but also workmanship. The accolades have risen to near-supernatural levels. "The high priest of low-key gear," GQ calls Baldwin in naming him one of the year's four Best New Menswear Designers. Or, as Jim Moore, the magazine's longtime creative director, refers to him in a conversation with The Pitch: "fashion hero."
"He's a very serious guy, a gentle soul," Moore says. "But when he talks about denim, he is laser-focused. And I really enjoy being around people who are very passionate about what they do."
On an early September afternoon, inside Baldwin headquarters in Overland Park, a man stops in with flooring samples. It's time to decide on the front-entrance tile at the company's new retail store.
Across the room, Emily Baldwin — Matt's wife and business partner — is on the phone. She's discussing a detail for the launch of the Baldwin collection, which hits 200 Gap stores this week, the result of the GQ honor.
A copy of Maxim sits next to her. Inside, there's a photo of Johnson County–bred Saturday Night Live star Jason Sudeikis in a Baldwin denim jacket — the latest celebrity to wear the brand. She smiles, then shrugs about all the attention. Before a New York press team was assembled this month, she explains, the brand's publicity work consisted solely of her responding to inquiries.
David Hall, manager at the Leawood Baldwin store, remembers when photos surfaced last year of actress Olivia Wilde, Sudeikis' fiancée, wearing the Baldwin line's KC hat.
"All of a sudden, all these girls were buying the hats," Hall says. "Girls hadn't really thought they could wear them before."
The Sudeikis connection dates back a few years. Matt and Emily rushed one of their children to Children's Mercy Hospital; the infant had a high fever. Thankful for the care, Matt got involved with the hospital's board. He then met Sudeikis through the Big Slick Celebrity Poker Tournament and Party, an annual benefit for the hospital, and the two men clicked.
Other celebrities wear Baldwin simply because they dig the brand. Jay-Z seemingly lived in the line's camo trousers last fall, prompting demand that quickly dried up the fabric's initial run.
The organic rise to the big time happened quickly. In 2003, the Baldwins opened Standard Style in Leawood, a men's and women's boutique carrying designer labels. Four years ago, they rolled out the Baldwin line with men's jeans; after a year, the brand was for sale on the hottest store racks in New York City and Los Angeles. The luxury brand, Baldwin Denim and Collection, weaves modern design with function and has expanded into a full line: men's shirts, jackets, trousers, KC hats (the ones you're seeing everywhere), women's apparel, children's jeans. Five U.S. factories crank out the brand.