In one way or another, fashion has always been part of the narrative of Marcus Hall's family history.
Take his grandfather, L.C. Nelson, a former factory worker at Dempster Brothers. A salt-of-the-earth blue-collar man by day, L.C.'s dress outside of work was executive chic. Possessed of his own prismatic vision of 1970s haute couture, he loved to peacock in bright polyester shirts with big collars, perfectly creased polyester slacks with a white belt, and patent leather shoes, polished to a glossy sheen.
Dressed to the nines, he climbed behind the wheel of an enormous blue Cadillac Fleetwood so long he couldn't close the door of the modest family garage.
"My grandfather always told me that when you leave the house, even if you didn't have a million bucks, you should dress like a million bucks," Hall says, relaxing at a desk in his eccentrically appointed warehouse off Magnolia Avenue, a concrete bunker decorated with surrealist paintings, Knox memorabilia, and 1970s furniture.
Hall's mother, Juanzel Nelson, a licensed practical nurse and a pastor at Parkview House of God, was also the family seamstress, hemming, altering, and even sewing whole new wardrobe additions for her four children when money was tight. She taught Marcus to sew when he was 12 years old.
And two of his brothers, Xavier Barton and Monrico, several cousins, and any number of other friends and acquaintances worked for years at the old Cherry Street Levi's plant off Magnolia, a veritable institution for local families until it closed in 1989. "Because my brothers were there, because I always loved clothes, I just assumed I would work there, too," Hall says.
It was no great surprise, then—at least not to those who knew him well—when, in 2011, at the tender age of 41 and after a host of other largely successful business and vocational ventures, Hall took $50,000 in the form of personal savings and a secured loan and started his own denim-based clothing line, Marc Nelson—the last name serving as a tribute to his first fashion hero, the venerable L.C. Nelson.
It was an audacious move, for an unknown and modestly funded African-American kid from the Appalachian South to rise up and challenge the powerful and entrenched hiperati of the Los Angeles-based denim industry. But nearly two years later, his product is featured in 20 outlets, and Hall believes a big summer-to-fall marketing effort may carry the Marc Nelson line to solvency.
But it hasn't been easy, and it won't get any more so as the denim industry faces new tariffs from the European Union on some products, threatening U.S. producers who rely on domestic manufacturing. Yet Hall remains defiantly American-made, defiantly Southern, defiantly Knoxvillian in an industry notorious for eating its fragile young.
"When I first went out to L.A., a lot of people there told me, ‘Do something else. Save your money,'" Hall remembers. "But I kept showing up. I impressed them with my fashion sense, with some of my ideas. Now we've been here a couple years. And when I go to a trade show, people respect me. They're even excited to see me grow."
At nearly every First Friday arts celebration in downtown Knoxville, Hall stages a promotional event—maybe a festive fitting session, or an out-and-out block party with music and wine and multi-media art displays—usually at his warehouse on northeast Randolph Street.
Local attorney Scarlett May met Hall at one such event last September, and was impressed by the fanfare at this otherwise grim industrial tributary of Magnolia. "I was amazed at the energy," she says. "It was jammed with food trucks, DJs, leggy blondes in platform heels, skateboard kids. There must have been over 200 people."
May left her business number, and two weeks later, Hall recruited her expertise in business planning and seeking new investors. An attorney with Ruby Tuesday restaurants, she says she recognized in Hall the same drive and wherewithal she had witnessed in her former boss, Ruby's founder Sandy Beall.
"I was always amazed at Sandy's ability to tell the Ruby's story, so I knew about the passion and drive needed to start a business," May says. "Marcus has that same energy. He's always ready to tell his story, and have a passion about it."
It's the story that began with grandfather L.C. in his pressed polyester, mother Juanzel and her trusty Singer, and all those neighborhood folks punching a time clock at the Cherry Street Levis plant.
It continued when Hall learned to sew, from his mother, at age 12; started reading GQ and modeling in local fashion shows at age 13; took tailoring class his freshman year at Austin-East High School, age 14. "I tried to get fashion tips, see what was going on, followed Ralph Lauren, then Pierre Cardin," he remembers.
"I was watching the huge denim splash of the 1980s, with Calvin Klein, Jordache. Denim suddenly became a true fashion piece. People wore it as more than just casual wear."
A former high-school modeling buddy, Don Osborn, spotted the early signs that Hall's ambitions might one day extend beyond the realm of local department-store fashion events. "People who are really fashionable usually have that creative instinct, to create something out of nothing," Osborn says. "You knew Marcus had that instinct. He had swag, even back then."
Living in a single-parent household—his parents divorced when he was 5—Hall didn't have money for new clothes every season. So he improvised. "I'd go to Goodwill, get an old suit and tweak it—trim collars, change buttons, shorten lengths, turn a bootcut into a straight-leg," he says. "And I'd get noticed. ‘Oh, I like that suit.'
"This is also around the time I realized this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."
But something happened on the path to realizing a dream. Out of high school in 1989, he planned to enter the U.S. Air Force, but backed out at the last minute, "because I fell in love with this chick from the University of Tennessee." He went to barber school instead, and cut hair for more than a decade thereafter.
The relationship, however, was of far shorter duration than his barbering career. "I don't even talk to her anymore," Hall chuckles.
Besides styling hair, Hall opened (and eventually sold) a restaurant on Gay Street, Hero's Deli, over that period. On Valentine's Day of 2002, he and his girlfriend at the time had a daughter, Kharma. Three months later, they moved to California so Hall could pursue an acting and modeling career. "It turned out to be very low-key acting," he says. "I did three low-budget films, a couple commercials. At that point I realized I wasn't going to pay my bills that way.
"I felt the pressure. It was either make a gamble on acting, or move back to Knoxville where I knew I could afford to take care of my child."
In 2005, Hall moved home, procured a contractor's license, and began a successful business renovating houses—something he still does with his clothing line still in its inchoate stages.
Even as many facets of the domestic clothing industry have either shrunk or been shipped offshore, the United States—and in particular California—remains the nexus of the blue-jean industry, according to a recent National Public Radio report. Especially designer blue jeans, about 75 percent of which are made in the Golden State.
The industry has clustered in L.A. over the last two decades or so, according to NPR, even as other manufacturing has ebbed. Los Angeles County currently employs more than 40,000 apparel workers, and is home to 30 jeans manufacturers.
So when Hall's creative and fashion impulses came back to roost about three years ago, there was only one place to go. "Los Angeles is the mecca for denim sourcing," he says. "The middle men, the manufacturers, the dyeing—it's all there. So I went out there and spent four months doing development, deciding which factory I was going to use, deciding which styles, patterns, what washes."
Why designer jeans? Beyond Hall's own loved of fashion, and denim in particular, there is something intrinsic to the nature of the specialized denim trade in America—it's almost akin to a collector's market—that guarantees there will always be a chance for a fierce, hungry young designer with some luck and a streak of invention.
"There's a following, especially for craft-made denim, denim made in lower batches rather than big numbers," Hall says. "It's like going on a treasure hunt, or getting a rare baseball card, as opposed to a mass production item.
"Small producers like Marc Nelson or Raleigh or Naked and Famous, we use more retro machinery, and more of the human touch factor. The rivets and buttons are manually done. We individually brand the jeans ourselves. So no two pairs are alike. Each one has its own personality."
Broadly speaking, designer jeans are distinguishable via a combination of the cut—i.e., well-recognized styles such as boot, straight leg, skinny, and relaxed, which speak to how the jeans fit—and wash—i.e., chemical treatments, sanding, and other processes that lend different styles different variants of color and wear.
Of the $50,000 funding Hall poured into start-up, the lion's share went toward developing and tweaking the styles in his debut.
In the end, his initial line included a relaxed fit, a slim boot, and a skinny, with washes "named after professions that helped build the United States of America"—the Professor, the Coal Miner, the Artist, the Mailman, the Musician—plus an oil-washed T-shirt. His market would include a generally upscale clientele, professionals and academics age 25 to 40, with jeans scheduled to retail at up to $300 a pair.
But production posed a new set of problems. "If you're Joe Blow off the street, most cut-and-sews [factories] have a minimum of at least 1,200 for one style," he says. "I was thinking 100. I was able to negotiate it down to 300 for each cut."
Hall launched that first line in December of 2011. Since then, it's been a whirlwind of work and travel, in between holding the fort down with his contracting business and family time with his daughter, Kharma, now 11.
"I have a PR firm now," Hall says. "That and longevity are both important. Because eventually you get noticed by the fashionistas and the bloggers, which brings you to the attention of the department stores and the boutiques. And it gets you in the major publications, keeps you in the public eye.
"Appearing in any fashion magazine, that's huge. Putting on trunk shows, that's huge. And getting a superstar in your clothing—that's huge."
Hall has already made inroads on several of those counts. He's been hard at it on the trunk-show circuit, wherein a designer appears at a boutique with a couple of models to show off a seasonal collection; he's earned notice from industry trades like Women's Wear Daily and California Apparel News, and he's managed to outfit a small handful of celebrities in his denim, including rapper Ludacris and film star Viggo Mortensen, who appeared on the cover of Esquire in a pair of Marc Nelsons.
The business also requires something called "trending"—Hall makes quarterly trips to L.A. and other international fashion hubs to maintain relationships with designers and factories and keep up with trends and styles. And attending trade shows, also held seasonally in various fashion-centric locations, is vital to acquiring new accounts.
Hall's first trade show, in Las Vegas, was a memorable one. "It's very humbling to show up as a beginner in this dog-eat-dog world," he recalls. "Oh, God. You're in a 10-by-10 booth, and there's Ralph Lauren and Levi's in small apartment buildings with their new lines. It's hard to get noticed.
"So the first day, we had no sales. It was my brother, our model, and me, so we decided to go out and celebrate since we were running out of money. We hit the casinos. We got down to our last $20. We gave it to our model, Brad, and he took it to the dice table. He ended up rolling for over an hour, rolled up $12,000. And the next day, even though we were all hung over, we sold 15 accounts."
Now, standing at around 20 accounts—"The market is always fluctuating a little," he says—Hall is poised for a bigger move. He's putting a salesman on the road, targeting 30 outlets nationwide through September. "At the point we're in 35 stores total, we're probably paying for ourselves," he says.
One of Hall's current accounts is local upscale clothier M.S. McClellan. According to store manager Bob McClellan, he faces a steep climb. But he may be up to the task.
"It's a tough market to get into; denim is very crowded," McClellan says. "But [Hall] is a true salesman, and he believes in his product. He's not just jumping into denim because it's cool. He's got the background, the family heritage."
Hall is not blind to the realities of his situation—that he is a very small fish in a very large ocean. "There are thousands of companies trying to launch a denim line," he says. "It's damn near impossible."
And the waters are only getting rougher, as the European Union announced in April that it would raise tariffs on some denim products from 12 percent to 38 percent, according to NPR, apparently in retaliation for other U.S. trade policies.
For producers who use offshore factories, the tariffs won't be an issue. For those who maintain domestic production, it presents a significant competitive disadvantage.
But Hall remains not only staunchly American-made, but staunchly Tennessean. Eight months ago, he moved production from HCD Denim in Los Angeles to the L.C. King factory in Bristol.
"To bring the story back to Tennessee, that was always part of the plan," he says. "Going back to when I had friends and family at the Levi's plant, there's this awesome feeling seeing a product that was made in your community. And I'm proud to be from East Tennessee.
"I wanted to give something back, and creating jobs is a huge part of that. I eventually want to bring it back to Knoxville, but I think Bristol is a good start."
And despite certain competitive disadvantages of domestic production, there's an upside, too. "We definitely thought it would be a good avenue to explore—a local manufacturer who makes a quality product, made in America," McClellan says. "Made in America is big right now."
Since his first line debuted in 2011, Hall has continued to evolve his product. He's phased out T-shirts and added new washes like the Conductor, the Engineer, the Pilgrim, and the Rugged Cowboy. He also debuted a women's line on May 4, featuring a skinny, the Boyfriend ("It looks like you slept over at your boyfriend's house, didn't have a change, so you put on his jeans"), and the Shortie (a classic pair of cut-off blue-jean shorts, "based on Daisy Duke.")
Some MN jeans feature the hand-crafted "nut buckle" created by local sculptor and iron worker Preston Farabow, a belt buckle welded from nuts swept up from the pits at NASCAR races, and one of a handful of the Nelson line's signature details.
What sets all of Hall's products apart, his friends and business associates say, is his knack for blending traditional and classic stylings with glimmers of chic. Hall, for his part, has his own way of describing his particular creative vision.
"I'd call it ‘conservative grunge,'" he says. "I'm from the South, and I know we're not as wild or flamboyant as people in L.A. And I really like the workforce wear here. ‘Blue-collar elegance,' that's another expression I use for my line."
"He designs things that are classic, and not trendy," says cousin G.J. Hickman, who assists in sales for the Marc Nelson line. "The things he designs are not going to be out of style in six months. You can put them on in two years and still look like you came off the runway."
Osborn, who has intermittently marketed his own T-shirt line, HellifIno, over the last 10 years, agrees that Hall has managed to stay "classic and smart… mixing classic designs with new technology.
"It's all about finding a rhythm," Osborn continues. "You have to figure out what season is good for you, how much of what to buy. You want to be exciting, but you also want to stay classic. You don't want to reinvent the wheel, you want to get on the wheel and run with it. And I think Marcus is on the right track."
And Hall has big plans in the works. His current production schedule calls for about 1,200 blue jeans per year. But that will soon increase to around 6,000, he says.
Given the market, and his limited resources, maybe that's too much. But even if the Marc Nelson line ultimately drowns in a bottomless well of blue denim, at least Hall will have gone down giving his life's passion a fighting chance.
"What's the moral so far? Don't give up? There's always light at the end of the tunnel? I don't know," he says. "It's been the hardest thing I've ever done, but it's been a great experience. I've had a great time."
Corrected: Scarlett May is still an attorney with Ruby Tuesday restaurants.