Dick Gaines is the owner of Wonderland Concepts, the country’s premier provider of denim development services. Wonderland works with the some of the biggest names in denim to develop washes. We had the great privilege of working with Dick and his team for a week to develop washes for our SS15 collection. After a week of hands-on work with the team, we were able to sit down with Dick in a quiet moment to hear his philosophy on doing great work, trends in the denim market, and his love for all things Japanese.
SD: Tell us how you got started in denim development.
DG: OK, so I was working at the local country club golf course doing course maintenance when Mr. Sights (Sights Denim Systems) approached me with the idea of starting a denim laundry here in Henderson. I truly loved the golf course business, but after a little while, I decided to go and work for him. That was in 1985. Back in those days, there really wasn’t anybody doing a lot of wet processing on denim. There wasn’t anybody who was really an expert. It was more hit and miss, with the support of chemical vendors and such. It was a mess!
We were doing a lot of work for OshKosh, and we were doing a lot of acid wash for people like Wrangler. That’s what we were strong at. It was mostly acid wash in those days, and being able to do acid wash consistently and get it clean enough so it wouldn’t turn under UV lights. That was the big challenge. We got through the acid wash days and started concentrating on doing premium jeans and we started out with Levi’s and RRL, and then Rogan and Earnest Sewn. We helped Earnest Sewn get started and we got to be known as a premium laundry. We started understanding why jeans look the way they do, and how important the heritage of jeans was. It’s one of those things where you had to eat and live it in order to understand it and be good at it. It’s not everybody who can be good at it. You have to really understand it.
I was offered a position in the mid-90s doing denim development, and I was excited about it because it was a new challenge, and I worked very hard trying to understand the work. It was like you had to put yourself in the wheel of a washer and try to understand what’s happening and why it’s happening and looking at a 100 year-old vintage jean and understand the layers of color and damage and try to picture how it happened. So I got very good at that. Understanding how miners and cowboys washed their jeans in the stream and hung them on a tree limb to let them air dry, which is a big part of vintage, and how the sun oxidizes jeans and reduces the color. You use technology nowadays like ozone and things like that to be able to replicate vintage. It’s almost like speeding up time. And to be good at it…I don’t understand the recipe of how to be good at it, there’s just a handful of people that are. And I feel very fortunate that I do understand it, and I just continue to learn and get better over time. After all these years in denim development, I’ve seen a lot, I’ve met a lot of people, I’ve seen some beautiful jeans and I’ve actually created some beautiful jeans and helped create great brands. So I thank the Sights family for the opportunity.
And then with the closing of Sights, I went to California and ran a big product development department out there and made a laundry successful when times were really bad. But I’m not a big city boy. I’m just a small-town boy, and LA wasn’t the place for me. My dream always was to go into business for myself. That allows you to pursue your thoughts and dreams for yourself, whereas when you’re working for somebody else you feel like your hands are kind of tied. You’re always getting pulled back.
It’s been a long road and I’m very happy and pleased that a lot of people are supporting what we do. And the people that work for me continue to grow and we make a living at what we love to do.
SD: I’ve never met anybody who’s so passionate about denim and indigo. When did you fall in love with denim?
DG: After you do jeans for as long as I have and understand the heritage you get that indigo in your blood. You get those blue hands and you get attached to it.
But as for being dedicated to it, it’s really just my personality. Whatever I do I want to be the best at, and I strive to be the best at it. Even if it was bagging groceries, I’d be bagging them in a very unique way, and the whole time I would be thinking of ways to make it better. So it’s one of those things again that some people have and some people don’t . It’s just in your genes. I can paint pictures like an artist and build furniture and landscape the same way I can make jeans. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to be able to stop, turn around, and look at what you’ve done. I get a lot of satisfaction out of that labor, and the love and passion for whatever you do.
SD: One thing we felt here all week is the sincere desire not just to develop great washes for your clients, but also for your clients to be successful in the marketplace.
DG: Absolutely. If you’re successful I’m successful. Because even after I get my fees, I don’t get that inner satisfaction until I see that you’re out there selling the product and making a living with something I created, and that means a lot. And it’s not just me, it’s all of us. All the way down to the cleaning lady. I can’t do it without them. I can’ t be the hero without their craftsmanship. So it’s not just me. It’s the whole team, it’s a family. It’s everybody that puts their hands on the jeans through the whole process. They all love jeans and creating, just like I do. They’re all hand-picked, and one thing I don’t have to worry about is morale problems, because we share in it like a family, and we work through it, whether it’s personal or business. It’s hard enough to develop great product that can really separate a brand. To not have labor problems is very fortunate. It lets me focus on the jeans. People tell me you need to write a book on how to raise children, because everybody’s always complimenting us on how our children are. But if they see that you’re passionate and hard-working, that’s how they’ll evolve too. Same thing with the business. They feed off my energy and it’s pretty amazing how that works. I’m not working if I love what I’m doing. That’s why I find myself here 7 days a week! But I can’t imagine doing anything different.
SD: You talked about the industry through several cycles. Where do you see things going next?
DG: There are always trends -- like lots of damage, and then the next season it’ll be cleaner. There are so many brands to choose from. Clean brands, destruction brands, raw brands. And the designers’ job is to keep up with the trends. We’re trying to be a year ahead of the market. I think the mid to dark jean is always going to be the best seller and the reason why is because people want to pull out of their closet their favorite jean. Nowadays the mentality is so high paced, they can’t wait that long to wear their favorite jean in, so you have to produce the jean that looks good and feels good but has a lot of life and a lot of color left in it. So people have a head start on getting to their favorite jean. But I’m not a big fan of a light jean because number one, you can wear it and wear it and wear it, but you’re not going to see a lot of difference and defined whiskers and things like that because there’s not enough indigo or life in the garment to wear that away. So to me, the real denimheads want that mid to dark jean that looks good with any color shirt you wear. You get below that mid-dark range and you start losing some life. Although there is that handful of people that want that one light jean in their wardrobe. I don’t see the trend anymore of wearing light colors in the spring and dark colors in the spring. People want to look good and feel good no matter what season it is. To be able to create a good brand that has a good steady flow of sales, you have to offer more of your brand from raw, to dark to mid-dark to mid, and then have a little bit of light. But I wouldn’t have a very large quantity of light if it were my brand. People don’t want a lot of panel damage and destruction these days. Everything seems to be leaning more clean. Because of the price of jeans, people want a cool jean for the sports bar, but they want it clean enough so they can also put a jacket on it, and wear that same jean to a formal dinner. And a lot of that is because the price of jeans. People can’t have 15 pairs of premium high-end jeans anymore, so you have to make it versatile.
SD: I’ve been curious about when your love affair with Japan started.
DG: You know, I’ve always been really fascinated about the way the Japanese live and how clean and organized and how passionate they are about the little things. It’s the little things. It’s so unique how clean and sharp everything is. Just like their vintage clothing, how they can take something and hand-sew it together so beautifully. Boro-type sewing is something I’m crazy about, and how time consuming that is. I’ve been able to recreate some of their vintage stuff. I do it in my garage at home! Americans are fascinated by Japanese jeans. And the Japanese are fascinated by American heritage when it comes to jeans, and that’s funny because if more people were fascinated by how the Japanese live, not just their jeans, things would be different. It’s just my personality I guess. I try to live that way. I like things very organized clean and simple. It’s not about having a whole bunch of things, it’s about having a few things that are very nice.
SD: What do you wish more people knew about Wonderland Concepts?
DG: I want people to know that when they come here they’ll get the utmost attention. Their product will have the utmost attention. I don’t treat anybody any different from any other brand. I want them to feel comfortable and understand that I’m going to give it everything I have to make their brand successful. We don’t have any closed doors. We don’t have any secrets. And that’s important to make people feel comfortable. I want them to know that when they leave here, it’s not over between us. I will continue to support you for every need I possibly can. I’ve put together and drug around jeans for years – my own and stuff I’ve collected, and I provide that. Which is not one of those things that people have. That means a lot to me. You don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of vintage jeans to create a collection. With our abilities, you don’t need to start with much to create a beautiful jean, and I’m very thankful for that. The only sad thing is that we’re fortunate enough to be very busy, and I hate to tell people no, or to delay them. I really want people to be successful, and for our look and work to be out there.