How I did it: Jason Trotzuk

Vancouver designer learns from business failures before launching successful premium denim clothing company
Jason Trotzuk

Business in Vancouver’s “How I Did It” feature asks business leaders to explain in their own words how they achieved a business goal in the face of significant entrepreneurial challenges. In this week’s issue, Jason Trotzuk, founder and creative director of Fidelity Denim, talks about the failures he experienced in previous business ventures before launching his highly successful jeans brand. The company, which is based in Vancouver, has an office and manufacturing operation in L.A.

“I got in when I was 18, 19. I used it as a means to put myself through college by buying old pairs of Levis, and I would take my mom’s sewing machine, tear them apart and reconstruct them and sew patches on them, paint them. I used to take them down to Robson Street and sell them to boutiques down there.

“My first business was called Oil Can Eddy’s. I was finishing college. I made some cool leather jackets, and a girl I knew – Rosanda Skalbania – her dad, Nelson Skalbania, had bought the Norton-BSA motorcycle factory in England. Rosanda said, ‘You should talk to my dad. Maybe you can use the names of these motorbikes on T-shirts and leather jackets.’

“I met with Nelson on New Year’s Day 1993, and he said, ‘Sure.’ It was a handshake deal. I borrowed a couple of thousand dollars from my brother and made a bunch of samples. I got my first agent, and they went out and sold $40,000 worth of T-shirts.

“I quit school and decided to get into this clothing business. It failed miserably. We just closed it down. The number of times I’ve failed is monumental. But I get up the next day, I brush myself off and I get back on that horse.

“In March 1998, I started making board shorts [for surfers] for local retail stores, and in August of that year I decided to form Dish Clothing. By the end of 2000 it was a $10 million company.

“I couldn’t fund the growth, and therefore I had to take on partners. It just didn’t work. It was a tough decision, but I had to go. So then I established Fidelity to get into the premium-denim market, which was really hot at that time.

“The biggest challenge is where you get the product made. I thought China was at a level that they could produce premium- quality goods. I can bring fabrics in from Italy and Japan, so the fabric would be good. But it’s in the finessing of the wash and the finish that was the biggest challenge. There’s this hidden esthetic about just the feel and the way it should fit and perform, and my Chinese factories just didn’t get that.

“I manufacture in L.A. because 20 years ago 75% of the garments sold in North America were made [there]. There’s a huge infrastructure – machines and fabrications. I have 12 [staff] in Vancouver and 12 in L.A. We have 400 to 500 [retailers] globally. We have retailers in the U.S. like Nordstrom, Neiman Markus, Saks Fifth Avenue. We’re doing about 10,000 to 15,000 pieces per month.”

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