The almost black sheen of Bart Sight’s fingernails aren’t the mark of a closet Goth. The discoloration also has nothing to do with his inability to work with a hammer.
“Some think I’m so clumsy that I’ve hit every one of my nails with a hammer,” he says. “I’ve actually had people ask me that before.”
No, Sight’s fingernails are black because of indigo dye, revealing of someone who spends a lot of time with denim – in his case, a lifetime.
From starting a company in Kentucky with his dad in the mid-1980s that stone-washed jeans for major manufacturers to his current dream role as the head of Levi’s skunkworks’-like Eureka Innovation Lab, Bart is one of the fortunate few among us who has spent an entire career doing what he’s loved.
So we wanted to talk to him about the sacrifices he’s made for a career that has taken him from small-town Kentucky to India, Turkey and California. And why this particular textile has consumed him.
Henderson, Kentucky’s population these days is just under 30,000. The town has remained close-knit, and its businesses family-run. Bart’s family business was textiles and he began working at his grandfather’s industrial laundry company while still in junior high school.
He graduated high school at a time when cool kids were beginning to customize their jeans, bending and washing pliability and personality into the rigid fabric. Together with his father, Bart set up a shop using some of the family business’s industrial laundry machines and a truckload of pumice stone they had bought.
Within a year, they had 600 employees and contracts with major companies – including Levi’s – to create stonewashed jeans. Just out of high school, Sights had somehow landed on his life’s purpose – a pursuit that blended both science and art. Jeans, more than any other item of clothing, felt like a part of someone’s creative expression as well as a second skin.
“People have used jeans as a canvas for generations, and people have worn them and lived in them,” he says. “And then that jean becomes not just a piece of apparel, but a documentation of their life experience. That’s the thing with jeans. People don’t want to get rid of them. They’re still in the back of the closet because they have that connection emotionally.”
He traveled to Italy, learning from creative geniuses of the industry, like Adriano Goldschmied and François and Marithé Girbaud. Sights Denim Systems grew to include his three sisters and their husbands. But the denim business is subjected to the turmoil of global markets as well, and by 2008, the family made the difficult decision to close it down. He sold jeans out of a van for a bit to pay the bills when an offer came from a former partner in India to come work for him. Having never lived anywhere outside of Henderson, Sights moved to Bangalore, leaving two young children at home.
“It wasn’t the ideal situation … but it was a lifeline to go to India,” he says. “We had to make ends meet.”
In 2010, the call came from Levi’s, with whom his family business had worked for more than 25 years. Would Bart like to move to Turkey to set up a “kitchen” similar to the kind he and his family operated in Kentucky. The decision was an easy one. Years ago, the family business set up a joint venture with a company in Turkey, one of the denim centers of the world, and he was well acquainted with the place.
“It wasn’t like moving back to Kentucky,” he says. “But we used to call it Ken-Turkey, because we had a close relationship with the culture and the country.”
As his career progressed, Bart tried his best to maintain the communal atmosphere he felt stoked imagination and the innovative work he was doing. Just because the people in his lab weren’t blood relatives, doesn’t mean they didn’t deserve to be treated like them.
“You’re going to fail 90 percent of the time,” he says. “Human nature is such that if you fail, you better be close to somebody who can pick you up.”
A year ago, Bart and his team created a process of distressing and customizing jeans that promises to upend the industry. F.L.X. – short for future-led execution – digitizes denim finishing that thus far has been done laboriously by hand, through unsustainable chemical processes, and resulted in miles and miles of wasted denim. The key? Lasers! You can see a video of the process here.
“We always dream about paradigm shifts,” he says. “People who get off on innovation and creation, you dream about it. You read Steve Jobs’ book and you try to imagine the thought process of true paradigm shifts. I dreamed about it. But … there’s so many false starts. You think you’re in a paradigm shift many times, but you’re really not. This one is, and it’s the most fun I’ve had in my entire life.”