Spotlight: Carrie Eddmenson

For the Imogene + Willie co-founder, it’s all in the family.

Image: Jeff Vallee

Webster’s definition of family doesn’t begin, as you might expect, with mention of bloodlines, ancestry or generations. Instead, it asserts that a family is “a group of people united by certain convictions.”

It is certain, then, that there’s a family thriving right this second at 2601 12th Avenue South in Nashville, Tennessee.

But no family — not even the one Webster’s defines — can thrive without roots. And this one’s roots are planted in Henderson, Kentucky, where Carrie Eddmenson was born.

At the age of four, after watching in awe as her great-uncle Buddy played the fiddle during family breakfast, Carrie Sights (she wasn’t an Eddmenson just yet) got her first violin. She took to it immediately, and would eventually come to play first violin in symphony orchestras during her high school years.

At age ten, while visiting a friend, she met Matt Eddmenson, another Henderson local. Matt would be a constant friend — a “big buddy,” in her words — throughout her youth.

At twelve, Carrie watched her parents start their lives anew after her father’s career in banking and politics came to an end. With a clean slate before him, he’d walk his dog every day to a vacant factory owned by his father. There he set up a desk, and sat, and thought. And planned.

A discussion with his brother about new, innovative denim washes (this was the 80s, so think acid and stone wash) drove him to turn the factory into a wash house. The fledgling company, called Sights Denim Systems, hired 800 people in eight weeks. Soon they were 1500 strong, and gaining the likes of Levi’s, Girbaud and Lucky Brand as clients. It was here, still at age twelve, that Carrie started her first job.

When she graduated high school, Carrie didn’t get a car or some cash folded into a card. She got a store. Or, more accurately, she got the promise of a store, in the form of an old WPA building that sat across the street from Sights Denim. She spent the summer stripping away remnants of its former lives: out went relics from its days as a country garage; gone was the beauty shop flooring; tossed were the tanning salon lights. The store opened that same summer, and it sold nothing but jeans made across the street, t-shirts designed in-house by Carrie, baseball caps and used CDs. She still has one of every tee she ever made.

By summer’s end, college beckoned. In Carrie’s dorm room was a fax machine that fed her daily business reports from the store, which held her attention more than any homework assignment ever did. Two years later, she was out of school and back where she wanted to be: in Henderson, working for the family business. It was 1996.

She started on the bottom rung, packing FedEx boxes on the clock before learning to sand, damage and wash denim. She apprenticed under her brother, who managed new collections for the company’s premium denim clients. She watched, she worked, she learned.

When Sights Denim shifted some of its workload overseas, an exact replica of the Kentucky factory was constructed in Istanbul, Turkey. Carrie left to help finish the new space in 2000, for what was supposed to be a three-month stint. Instead, she stayed for nearly four years.

There she hammered nails, painted walls and helped replicate the workflow she knew back home. Working in product development, her mindset shifted from a creative one to one of nuts-and-bolts business. And she was good at it. For the girl who ditched college in favor of a working life, those years in Turkey were her master class.

Not long after she’d returned to Kentucky, fate played its hand. Matt Eddmenson — Carrie’s childhood buddy, now 30 and just back from a spell in Chicago — came into the factory for a visit. He was eager to put his art and design background to use at Sights Denim. They talked, chatted and catching up like old friends do. When he left two hours later, Carrie’s sister turned to her and said, “You are going to marry Matt Eddmenson.” She was right — Carrie Sights became Carrie Eddmenson in 2006.

And so a new family was born — one with denim in its blood, what with the 30-plus years of experience the newlyweds had between them. And as with many new families, the urge to put down roots was strong. They had the knowhow to start off on their own, but with Sights Denim still in business, the timing felt wrong.

“In those last few years [of working for Sights Denim] Matt and I were very attuned to fit,” Carrie (now Eddmenson) recalls, “because we wanted to start a brand of our own so badly. We just analyzed for all those years and basically identified every single thing we did or did not like about a jean on a woman.” When Sights Denim did eventually close, they didn’t just want to strike out on their own — they had to.

They chose to head south, about 150 miles into Tennessee, to set their new life in motion. When envisioning a home for their soon-to-be-created brand, “we just knew it was going to be in a gas station. We decided that Nashville was the town. We pulled up here one day and we were like, ‘This is it.’”

“This” was 2601 12th Avenue South. In its former life, the address housed Granny White Service Station, a corner gas hub on a mostly sleepy stretch of road a few miles south of Broadway’s famed honky-tonks.

Much like her graduation gift of a retail store, the space needed reinventing — only this time, the vision for the space was a shared one. “This is so scary, but you know when you sort of envision yourself in a situation?” she asks. “Between Matt and me, this place…it all came out exactly the way we dreamt it.”

With the store renovated, the new family brand — dubbed Imogene + Willie, after Carrie’s grandparents — had a home. And it had indeed been reinvented, from weathered wood door to twinkle-lit backyard. It is today a fully realized Americana dream, with its timeworn fixtures and signs (including the original from Granny White), hundreds of fluttering paper denim patterns suspended from the rafters, clothes hung in tidy rows, and a faded American flag draped behind the counter.

“We were so adamant that it have an atmosphere that represented where we came from,” says Eddmenson. “So much of what you see in here is from our family’s company.” She runs her hand over the toffee leather couch beneath her. “This was my dad’s couch in his old office. It’s where Matt asked my dad if he could marry me.” Her gaze shifts across the room to the long wooden counter heaped high with brown-paper-wrapped pairs of jeans. The sales counter is the workbench that belonged to my granddaddy Willie. It’s his actual workbench. And that flag in the corner is from the house where Matt was when he found out that I moved back from Turkey — which is the same house where we met when we were ten years old.”

Along with the heaps of personal keepsakes that made the trip to Nashville, two particularly ace fixture of Eddmenson’s life in Henderson came along, too: Nestor and Gloria Maranan, a pattern maker and a master sewer — and fellow husband and wife pair — from the Sights Denim team. Their workstations are just to the right of her dad’s leather sofa, which is the first thing you see upon entering the store. During business hours, there is always sewing, tailoring and tweaking in the works.

And so the Eddmenson two became four, and Imogene + Willie opened to the public in July of 2009. In the years since, Eddmenson’s main challenge has been managing the business’ incredible success and growth. Their jeans — available in only a few painstakingly crafted fits — are tailored in-store to fit each buyer (hemmed to your liking, nipped in at the waist if you need it, and so forth). After years of perfecting these pairs, however, that tailoring is often unnecessary — the jeans simply fit, right off the shelf. They are unadorned, allowing one’s personal style to easily come through. And in a time when a “heritage” is often contrived by marketers, these actually are made in America of the highest quality material by people whose only business is denim. And they’ve turned first-time buyers into evangelists.

Rachel Halvorson, a local interior designer and friend of the Eddmensons, explains: “Up until now, I’ve been trying to fit my body into a standard jean, just like everybody else — and you start to feel like it’s your body that needs to be different. But with these jeans, you have that moment. You put them on and it’s like, ‘These are my jeans.’”

With growing demand came the need for more help. The team grew slowly, with each new addition brought in less for a specific talent, and more because they just felt like the right fit.

“Matt and I have never started a company before, so we are literally learning every step of the way,” says Eddmenson. “It was important to us to choose people who might not be proficient in one certain area, but who could lean everything — every job in the company — and then find their place. And I think that’s what’s happening right now. Everyone is falling into place.”

It’s truly hard to tell who among the staff has the longest tenure. Several of the fifteen employees have been with Imogene + Willie for less than a year, but they all interact with an enviable ease. They sing along to the radio at work. They hang out after work. They have dinner together. They go canoeing on weekends. And they tend to share clothes: one afternoon at the store, the same pair of jeans got swapped between three different people.

The relationships between employees aren’t the only ones flourishing within the store’s walls. “We are serious about building relationships with our customers,” says Eddmenson, “because the whole premise of the business is about family. Almost to a fault, because sometimes we forget to sell blue jeans because we’re too busy getting to know people!”

“We knew that relationships had to be the pillar of our business because often, when clothes are your livelihood, you start to become bitter about consumption,” she continues. “It’s just so much stuff. Like, why do you need so much stuff? We knew that this business had to be built on a foundation of relationship and on a lifestyle.”

Eddmenson’s friend Stephanie Auerbach, also a recent Nashville transplant, has watched that ethos leave its mark upon Eddmenson herself. “Carrie’s personal style has evolved. It wasn’t like she opened a store and went, ‘Poof, I’m amazing!’ She had this idea for her company, but she applied it to her own life, too. She would rather have one amazing item in her closet than ten mediocre ones. You can really see that in her style, and she’s just inspiring,” says Auerbach.

“It’s ‘simple is better’ with Carrie,” adds Kari Kragness, a former Imogene + Willie employee who, with Eddmenson’s guidance and blessing, recently started her own business. “We kid her because she’ll wear the same baggy trousers and a tank for five days straight. But the thing is, she’ll look great every time.”

Eddmenson concedes, “I am most comfortable in clothes when I have the freedom to be a little bit masculine because it shows confidence, and in the end that is super sensual, super sexy and super feminine.”

“It’s the filter for everything we do here, whether it be decorating, designing, working, talking, writing, whatever. We put it through the filter of old and new, masculine and feminine,” she adds. “My goal is for all women to be okay with dressing that way.”

It’s true that Eddmenson is perhaps the brand’s best advertisement. She’s effortlessly put-together, whether in an oversized work shirt and skinny jeans, or a pair of destroyed khakis and a thrown-on camisole. “How does the saying go about you wearing the dress, and not the other way around?” asks Halvorson. “That’s what it is with Carrie. It’s so easy.”

Eddmenson has a knack for making it look easy, even when it’s not — and that goes for the whole of her business life. She, like many modern-day businesswomen, is a perpetual multitasker. She talks with the small swarms of people who tend to buzz around her, perches on something to type on her laptop, then re-perches elsewhere to make a call with one hand while assessing a new garment with the other.

She seems to always be perched: on the corner of a table, on the couch’s arm, on the cowskin-rug-covered floor. It’s a sign of never fully relaxing — when perched, you are always ready to move. But where many busy women can project a frenzied air in the midst of a humming business day, Eddmenson is a calm center. She doesn’t lose her cool, much like a mother skillfully managing a houseful of kids. What seems impossible, she somehow pulls off.

“With me, at this point in my life, I don’t have any limits,” says Eddmenson. “I think it’s because we wanted children for so long, and when we were not able to have them — which we still someday might — we replaced that yearning with this. So, this is literally our baby. Most women I know who have children also work. And I always wonder how they do both, but what I’ve realized is this is not just our work. This is our heart and soul and our child and our every breath.”

A family has been created at 2601 12th Avenue South. Like any family, it’s full of personalities, it can be trying at times, and it never stops running — not even when the workday is over and the lights go out. Because when your work and your passions and your family are one and the same, the lights don’t go out.

“I think the reason it’s okay to not turn it on and off,” Eddmenson says with a smile, “is because I’ve loved every single second of it.”

Originally published on Anthropologie’s A Magazine on August 1, 2012.