Jeff Lubell prides himself on being an independent spirit. Rather than finish college, he moved to Salt Lake City with friends to ski for two years before coming to Los Angeles in 1978. A year later, he went to Rhode Island to work in a textile mill and learn about fabrics. He stayed in the textile industry for 25 years. In 2002, Lubell founded True Religion Apparel Inc. with Kym Gold, now his ex-wife. The premium denim company, which got its start selling jeans for $172 each, went public in 2003. In October, the company announced it had formed a committee to explore strategic options, including a sale of the company, after receiving inquiries from potential buyers. As of last week, no offers had been announced. Today, the company, which has about $450 million in annual revenue, has 119 stores in the United States and 28 overseas. Lubell met with the Business Journal at the company’s Vernon headquarters to talk about the inspiration behind the jeans brand, his love of classic rock music and his 1-year-old triplets.
Question: Why did you move to Utah after high school?
Answer: We always skied growing up. Not my family, but all my friends and their families. I started when I was about 15, and I just loved it and really got proficient at it. My friends and I decided school wasn’t working out, we didn’t love it, so we just picked up and left. We ended up in Salt Lake City.
What did you do in the summer when the snow had melted?
In the summers I was working housekeeping. I made beds, you know, whatever it took to survive. And I just hung out with all my friends who had moved there from Brooklyn. There were 25 of us, and a lot of them are still there.
Living in Los Angeles, do you ever miss the snow?
No, I’d rather fly to the snow or drive to the snow. I’ve done a lot of skiing in British Columbia, heli-skiing at Canadian mountain holidays. I’ve done about 2 million vertical feet skiing from a helicopter up there.
Wow. Do you still ski often?
I’ll ski about three weeks a year now.
How did you transition from skiing in Utah to making jeans?
When I moved out here to Southern California, my dad was in the missy half-size dress business. I wanted to get into the business with him, but he said, “Why don’t you go learn textiles first?” I got a job learning about fabrics, and I stayed with that for almost 25 years.
What was the job?
My first job was with Charbert Mills out of Alton, R.I., a circular knit swimwear company. It was a small company, about $3 million. It went up to about $40 million in 18 months based on a cotton poly lycra we invented. They’re still one of the only two swimwear mills left in the United States.
What kind of background did you have with jeans before starting True Religion in 2002?
I represented denim mills throughout my career, and I just always loved jeans from my early childhood. When my jeans got ripped or torn, I would patch them up, and I put Grateful Dead embroidery on the back of jean jackets. I put leather on my jeans and cut them and just did all sorts of funky embellishments.
How did you get started?
Normally when you get into the fashion business and manufacturing, you make a sample line, you go to market, you show your product, you take orders and then you finally produce it. I decided not to go that route. I decided to make 15,000 pairs and then go out and sell them.
Did that work for you?
It put me in the position of do or die, but it worked out for the best. I was like Little Johnny Appleseed. I went out to every single store and sold the jeans myself. I put them on the people who were in the store doing sales, not the owners of the stores. I didn’t market or advertise the brand at that time.
Why are the jeans so expensive?
Most of my men’s and women’s jeans are made in Los Angeles, and it’s very expensive to make them here. So to me it was a cost sheet, plus the margin I wanted, that dictated the wholesale price and inevitably the retail price.
What would you say was the turning point in your career?
I had a brand (Hippie Jeans) before True Religion where I had a partner, Paul Guez. After about a year of working with him, I decided to move on and start True Religion. I never liked partners.
Because I had my own vision. I’m an entrepreneur, a visionary, and I wanted to do things my way without somebody else interfering with the way I wanted to do it.
How do you keep True Religion on trend?
It’s not really staying on trend. I want to stay ahead of the trend, to create the trend. I’ve always been very fortunate to be able to do things the way I want and be very inventive with my details. I’m always looking to push that spectrum, to create something that nobody else has ever done before.
One time I put Swarovski crystals on my women’s jeans, and I was just looking at the sample, going, “God, this looks like QVC. I can’t put this out in the market.” But then my (sales) rep came over and saw the sample and she goes, “OK, give me the sample.” I said, “Janet, come on, I’m not ready yet.” She took it, and within a day I had a 20,000-piece order and the women’s business was exploding with crystals.
Who has had the most influence on you in your life and career?
Yourself? How do you mean?
Meaning, it all came from within. It was my dream. I’m sure along the way there were a lot of people who I respected, but it was really all about being an entrepreneur, wanting to make everything in the U.S.A., keeping jobs at home, supporting my contractors who sew my jeans. It was more than just jeans, it was a message.
What’s the message?
“True Religion” meant there’s many religions in the world, but only one real religion, and that’s people. We’re all people, regardless of your color or your race or your beliefs. We’re all people in this world, and it’s not about war or ego, it should be about getting along to make this a better planet to live on. I hate when I hear about what’s going on in the world today with the fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East, what China and Russia do. It’s like, why can’t we all just get along? I mean, what’s the big deal?
What inspires you?
Music. I wanted to go to Woodstock, but I was too young; I was only 13. It was that whole movement that was going on in the world at that time. Everybody was wearing bell bottoms and hip huggers. I just loved it, couldn’t get enough.
Who’s your favorite artist?
The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin. The Dead used to be, but I kind of outgrew them in a way. But there’s just something about the Allman Brothers’ music. And the Beatles, of course. The Beatles were a big influence on me. Even Elvis Presley. I used to imitate Elvis and dance like him.
Did your parents have an influence on you?
My mom used to make hand-knit sweaters and crochet all these beautiful chenille things. The stuff was always around my house, so I guess that has influenced me to some degree.
Tell me about your family. You have six kids?
My oldest kids are from a previous marriage, and I love them dearly. After I got divorced, I met a beautiful young woman. She was the youngest Miss United States Teen, but that wasn’t what I loved about her. Carrie came from the South, and she had a way about her. She was more beautiful inside than outside, and she’s gorgeous outside.
And she gave birth to triplets?
We actually did in vitro because we really wanted to plan it properly. She’s such a great mother.
What was your reaction when you found out it was triplets?
You know, it’s funny. I was late for the appointment at the doctor’s office. I get there and the nurse is doing the ultrasound. She’s really looking at the monitor, and then she said, “I’ll be right back.” I thought, “Hmm, something’s up.” Our doctor comes in, and he goes, “Well, I’ve got some news for you. You’re not having two kids.” We’re like, “OK, Bob, then what’re we having?” He goes, “You’re having three.” I walked out of the room and went downstairs, and I was like, “OK, three. OK, two girls and a boy. OK, I can deal with that.” It was a very exciting moment.
How is it being an older father?
I’m enjoying every moment of it. With my first marriage, maybe I didn’t enjoy my children as much as I would have liked to. I started my brand and I was traveling all over the world. But I don’t travel that much anymore; I leave it up to my team to travel. I get home around 4:30 and I get like an hour break before it’s time to start bathing and feeding and playing with my children.
What’s your usual routine?
I get up at about 4:30 in the morning. I live out in Malibu, so I’m on the road at about 5:30 to beat traffic coming downtown. Sometimes I’ll get to the factory really early and crank up my stereo to full volume, playing Zeppelin and Who and Stones. Throughout the building people are like, “What’s that noise? I never heard anything like that before.” You know, because I work with a lot of young people.
Do you leave work early, too?
I go home before traffic really picks up, to be home by 4:30. I offer that schedule to all my employees – to get to work at 6:00 or 7:00 and stay till 2:00 or 3:00. If you get your job done, which you should be able to do in an eight-hour day, get out of here. They’re not machines.
Sounds like a nice, flexible work environment.
My culture here at True Religion is taking care of my people and giving them something more than a job. Not only is it good pay and good benefits, it’s like a family. I’d say 98 percent of people who work for me feel that way. There’s that 2 percent who, you know, not every company has 100 percent perfect people.
What kind of boss are you?
I believe in imperfection in perfect things. I believe in hiring a lot of young people who have a different point of view. They’ll explain to me why they want to do something a certain way. Like, I’ll say, “I love this model, I have to use her.” But they’ll say, “Well, she’s a little bigger than we thought, why don’t we try her maybe in six months?” I’ll say, “OK, that makes sense, maybe she can lose some weight, because I really want to use her.”
How involved are you in the minutiae of running the business?
I used to sign every check in the company, and then my CFO said, “Jeff, there’s a lot easier way for you to do this to save four hours out of your day.” I go, “No, no, no.” I’m very old school. I like writing checks and signing them. I don’t like the Internet, I don’t like the iPhone, I don’t like social media, I don’t get the bloggers. I’m very much living in 1971, when those things didn’t exist.
If not those things, what media do you like?
I love Fox Business News. I think it’s very informative. Carrie and I feed the kids, and after they go to sleep we start watching Fox News the rest of the night. We don’t watch “Dancing With the Stars” or “American Idol.” It’s all about what’s going on in the world today. If it wasn’t for Fox, I don’t think that the American people would know, really, what’s going on in the world. Because this president hasn’t been very – what’s the best word to use – open and honest. But I’m not a politician.
What do you do to relax?
I’m not a very social person. Because I’m public, everyone knows everything about me. So when I go to Malibu, it’s like a retreat. It’s just about me and my kids and Carrie and my dogs. I live a very quiet life, and I enjoy that part a lot. I don’t go out to parties, I don’t go to clubs. I very rarely go to dinner, unless it’s Nobu in Malibu.
Do you see yourself retiring someday?
Oh sure, one day, if the board doesn’t fire me first. I love what I do. I love most of the people I work with. It’s been a great road. I’m very fortunate and I’m very thankful. I keep my feet on the ground; it’s not about ego. I’m no better than anybody else.
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