Boutique Apparel Company Brings Focus On Fashion To Ybor City

A local men's lifestyle apparel company aims to expand the fashion industry's presence in Tampa with its own Ybor City flagship store. 

"We want to be to Tampa what Levis is to San Francisco,'' says Founder Roberto Torres of Black & Denim Apparel Company.

For Torres, who left a career in accounting and finance to found the small business in March 2008, a storefront in Ybor City offers the apparel company the opportunity to grow roots in the community where it expanded from a startup in a coworking space to a celebrated brand with national reach.

The boutique, which is the first retail store for the five-year old men's clothier, is tucked inside a brick-walled building at 1910 E. 7th Ave.

In a whitewashed, high-ceilinged space no larger than a dorm room, a single cash register sits atop a cracked white Singer sewing table and a clustered assortment of antique sewing machines perch on the sill of a large picture window.

Mannequins in Black & Denim graphic tees stand among them, facing the vivid Viva Ybor! mural across the busy main drag.

Signature graphic T-shirts, soft denim jeans and other essential samplings from the Black & Denim catalog are displayed on an antique armoire.

"The whole store has a bit of a 'vintage Ybor feel.' Like a dry goods store that would have opened here decades ago,'' Torres says over a bowl of soup at Istanblu, the Mediterranean restaurant near the store on 7th Avenue. “That feel really fits our brand.''

Made In The U.S.A.

Torres' eyes light up as he begins describing the Buffalo leather samples (for making wallets or belts) that are on their way to his office. Sourcing materials "is more of a madness than a science,'' he says.

Black & Denim's team searches for "old materials, like pre-washed, raw denim. We want a new T-shirt to feel like you've worn it a hundred times,'' Torres explains.

The company, which has a showroom in New York and a warehouse in Florida, sources most of its textiles, leathers and fabrics from the United States. For items like chambray ties, a type of soft denim material, Black & Denim must source from outside the U.S.

"It's kind of sad,'' Torres says, "because a lot of those merchants were here (in the U.S.) at one point, but they eventually left.''
Black & Denim's apparel has been sold in around 70 boutique stores, and the company has partnerships with major clients like Steinmart and Disney. But while the small business expands, Torres’ sights are also set on bringing a focus on the fashion industry to Tampa.

"The more people buy, the more it will help to create local competition and drive prices to a reasonable point. It sounds ridiculous, but we want to help develop more affordable, American-made clothes.''
Setting Up Shop In Ybor City

While focused on building the brand over the past five years, Black & Denim "didn't have a foothold in the community,'' Torres explains. "But we've joined the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, we're involved in local committees. We're creating a bigger local presence.''

Small businesses, Torres says, all share the same problem: "getting people through the door, determining prices and location and traffic.'' The store will provide Torres and his staff with the opportunity to learn more about their customer base.

"People say, 'this is the whole store? It’s so small!' Torres says with a laugh, "but this is a project. We're trying to improve a concept.''

The lifestyle apparel company has the opportunity to expand about 1,000 square feet into unused retail space at the flagship location.

"We hope to open another store in Channelside in 2014, and if we open a third, it would be at the airport (Tampa International Airport),'' Torres says.
Regular store hours are Monday-Saturday noon to 7 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.

Justine Benstead is a freelance writer who spends her days walking her dog Chloe in her South Tampa neighborhood, drinking far too much coffee, tweeting and taking photos with her trusty Nikon. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.