To get there you have to go out Jackson Avenue under the James White overpass. Warehouses come into view. Take a left onto Humes and it bends around to become East Depot. It’s gritty and urban and has the feel of manufacturing district. And it is. But it’s more. You realize Knoxville Opera is on your right. Just past Knoxville Opera, the first Marc Nelson Denim retail location sits just in front of the manufacturing facility on Randolph. Saw Works Beer brews and sells its beer next door.
Suddenly in the midst of the Warehouse district you find yourself confronted with opera, fashion and superior local libations. It’s a bit jarring the first time you round that bend onto East Depot Avenue. It’s a cultural explosion that Marcus Hall of Marc Nelson Denim plans to expand and nourish in the district as he opens his first retail store. A district association is forming and this part of the downtown area promises great things in the near future.
Just inside the front door of the former hardware store, you’ll find a portrait of L.C. Nelson. Its placement is not random. L.C. Nelson was Marcus Hall’s grandfather and he taught Marcus the importance of style, telling him, “when you leave the house, even if you don’t have a million bucks, you should dress like a million bucks.” He is the Nelson portion of the name and he and his wife lived just a few blocks from the current location of Marc Nelson Denim. It’s part of the reason for this location for the flagship retail store.
Marcus told me that he considered opening a store in west Knoxville, but on reflection, his connection to Knoxville’s manufacturing history – his brothers and other relatives worked in the now defunct Levi’s factory – and his connection to this part of town prompted him to buy the entire building of which he had leased a portion and open the store on the premises. He pointed out that what he does, which includes constructing a pair of jeans to a customer’s specifications and letting them watch their jeans being made, is not something for a mall or a fancy strip in a high class part of town. He’d like to return the dignity and pride to the manufacturing arts.
Inside the store you’ll find a full range of men’s and women’s jeans, jackets, t-shirts and other apparel. When I stopped by yesterday, I also found Marcus helping David Brooke select the perfect pair of jeans. He took his time and worked with him personally. And the store wasn’t even open. He’s passionate about the neighborhood, the denim and each customer. It’s a level of personalized service one might have a hard time replicated many places in the city, but certainly at most places selling jeans.
He and Andy Jones each helped walk the single customer through the choices and while they performed their duty as salesmen, they took the time for genuine conversation with both him and myself. Marcus is devoted to fashion, but he is also a real person. The first thing he did for me when I pulled up on my bike was grab me a bottle of water – and he had no idea who I was beyond an old guy on a bike.
The cost of their jeans shocked me when the warehouse first opened here. They range from $120 to $220, with a typical pair costing about $175. But he and Andy pointed out that their jeans, not only are American (and locally) made, they’ll last far longer because they are better made. A pair of Levis from Sears costs between $30 and $65 dollars, but you will go through several pair before you would go through your first pair of Marcus Nelson Jeans. And Levis are made in China. They do make one small batch of jeans in the US (from imported materials). The cost of a pair of Levis made in the US? $178.
Their jeans are available in other retail outlets – mostly boutique stores scattered across the region. They are currently found in 32 stores in twelve states and they are expanding all the time. He sees his purchase of the building and the opening of the store as his statement that he is all in. He intends to make it work.
They will also teach you how to purchase a pair of jeans whether you buy from them or not. Pro tip: If they feel comfortable the first time you put them on, they are too large. They will stretch. They also say that washing – and particularly clothes dryers – destroy good denim. Andy was wearing a pair he hasn’t washed in a year. Marcus confessed to wearing one pair for two weeks in Europe. There was more, but I’ll let you hear it from them.
You get your opportunity to meet each of them and more members of their team starting Saturday morning at 10:00 AM when the store opens. They plan to have Saw Works beer, wine, music, food, fun and, of course, lots of fashion. He wants the store to be a fun place and a center of activity – not simply a jeans store. He’s thrown First Friday parties before, but he plans on weekly parties now that he has the retail store open. It starts Saturday and he’ll have parties every Friday night. You are invited.