A Hanukkah party isn’t necessarily the place you’d think you’d meet the founder of a brand that manufactures fine linens laced with erotic graphics, but that just happens to be the context in which I met Vice Merchants founder Jake Katz. Founded “on the firm belief that every sanctuary needs a dose of sexy,” what makes the brand's 400 thread count Egyptian cotton and 300 thread count supima cotton linens so remarkable is that they’re not only manufactured in some of the same factories that make Frette and Pratesi sheets, but each of the designs are truly artfully created. In a nod to how wide-reaching their appeal is, when I posted a photograph to my blog of one of the brand’s sets, it peaked the interest of friends ranging from a Brooklyn-based Jewish mother of two to a 20-something Miami-based man about town.
I spoke with Katz about who he sees as his demographic, how people react when he tells them about Vice Merchants, the brand's design process, what thread count actually says about a product, and more.
The Fashion Spot: When you came up with this concept, who did you have in mind as your demographic?
Jake Katz: I thought this would be a perfect product for sophisticated bachelors, people that like unique artwork and those with a kinky or edgy taste.
tFS: Do you have any idea who actually is buying the product?
JK: Right now, the split is pretty even across gender and pretty even between 23-35 year olds and 55-70 year olds. I was surprised to see that empty nesters were really interested and enthusiastic.
tFS: How do people usually react when you tell them about Vice Merchants?
JK: It makes for an interesting dinner party conversation. Most people are pretty interested, some are adverse, but not as many as you would think.
tFS: What’s the process of coming up with one of your designs? How long does it take and where does the inspiration usually come from?
JK: The process is long and involved. Usually, Ryan Rock, a co-founder and the company designer, the illustrator, and I sit together and brainstorm some concepts. For example, we have already produced designs of lush poppy fields with frolicking beauties, an underwater wonderland of sea creatures, submarines, aquatic life, diving ladies, and mermaids, and a theme of sexy women of the British 1960s Café Racer movement, of course, riding the corresponding café bikes. After we pick a theme, then we all do some heavy research pulling in appropriate images and references. Then Ryan and the illustrator take over on the creative process. They rough out a design repeat with the corresponding elements and the illustrator begins drawing the elements. Then Ryan takes the illustrations, translates them into production software, draws design and support elements, and produces a proper pattern repeat. There is some going back and forth between illustration and pattern repeat to ensure each illustration and element looks beautiful and meets printing constraints. We then scrutinize several variations of the final pattern repeat, pour over the minutia and feel, pick a final, and choose several color themes to send to the mill for sampling. In all, each major illustration takes about 15 hours of effort and the entire design takes about a month to finalize.
There is no shortage of subjects for inspiration for our themed designs. If we like it, feel many other people also like the theme, and can incorporate sexy illustrations, then we make a go for it.
tFS: What are some of biggest challenges with quality control? Any issues with color given how vibrant some of your designs are?
JK: Since we are producing at mills around the world, quality control is always a concern. We are proud of our products and have gone to enormous lengths to ensure top quality. Each mill is a bit different, but here is a general idea. We first partner with a company that has a strong reputation and a deep catalog of products. We very thoroughly specify what we are seeking to produce, down to just about every detail: type of cotton, how it is processed and woven, how it is prepared for printing, type and quality of printing, pre-shrinking and finishing, detailed stitching instructions, and packaging. Then we use internationally established third party QC firms for on-site inspections and lab testing. We lab test our cotton to ensure it is the type we bought and woven in the way we expect. Then we have three on-site inspections for the cotton prior to printing, after printing, and a random sample going over every detail of the finished product. It is intensive, but assures we get the quality we seek to produce.
tFS: Does thread count actually accurately reflect quality?
JK: Thread count is a bit of an inaccurate measure of quality. The important aspects for cotton bedding are cotton density, cotton type, and weave formula. We choose only the highest quality extra-long staple cotton (Egyptian or Supima) and have selected top quality formulas that preserve density and ensure softness and longevity.
tFS:Can you share some tips about how to best go about buying linens?
JK: Sure. First, make sure the sheets are made from top quality cotton – Egyptian or Supima. Avoid really high thread count linens, more often than not, they are made with a weave formula designed to boost the thread count. I think the sweet spot is between 300-600 and have often found proper 600-800 thread count sheets to be too heavy and warm. Choose designs that really inspire you. You should be really happy about going to bed and even happier waking up.
tFS: You must have some naysayers who think Vice Merchants is mildly sexist. What do you say to them?
JK: Well, we are not sexist even in the slightest. Right now, all of our illustrations have been drawn by women. The art is beautifully rendered and a celebration of the human form at play. Our biggest supporters are women and that’s what we are going for. We try to bring smiles and unique experience to our consumers. Our only focus is making quality goods that express something a little different. The point of a home is to have your own space to express yourself in a way you like and that is what we are bringing to market.
tFS: Can you tell us about some possible brand expansion and about new designs you have in the works?
JK: We are really enthusiastic about the 2012 line-up. We have several new themes in the works and are bring forth our first all-male themed line. In addition to new lines, we are ready to start a whole host of additional products including the full bedding suite –shams, duvet, bed skirts, shower curtains, upholstery fabric, as well as some apparel items.