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Headshot of Sam Miller.

Sam Miller

Founder, Red Malt Denim

Sam Miller got more than he bargained for when he embarked upon his semester-long study abroad in Beijing. Little did he know, his experience would plant the seed for a start-up, and jeans would become his life. Like many Americans, he loved wearing jeans, but they never fit quite right. At least, not until the idea for a made-to-measure, custom-fit jeans business sparked while in China. After interning in a sports equipment company and intensively studying Mandarin, Sam returned to the U.S., pitched the concept to his business partner, Leona, who he met on a subsequent study abroad semester in Shanghai, and together, they put the wheels in motion. After four years of product development and $47,000 raised through Kickstarter, Red Malt Denim is open for business. Read on to learn how Sam leveraged his experience in Beijing to launch his career as an entrepreneur.

IES Abroad: Why did you decide to study abroad and what drew you to Beijing?

Sam Miller: I chose to study abroad in China because I had never visited a country that far away from the U.S. – much less live there. I wanted the study abroad experience to be something that would open my eyes to other concepts of daily life. Up until that point, my only exposure to Chinese culture was through local Chinese restaurants and my Mandarin language class. The city of Beijing naturally drew me because of its rich historical and cultural heritage. It was a place that I would be able to constantly practice Mandarin Chinese, as there were relatively few English-speaking people living there. 

IES Abroad: What are some of the most influential memories from your time in Beijing?

SM: I’ll never forget my first taxi ride in Beijing at midnight. As we drove from the airport to the dormitory, I could see thousands of people roaming around small shops with giant neon Chinese letters across the tops. In hindsight, I realized that I had subconsciously built a picture of what I expected China would be like. That concept was shattered my first night in China. I was there to learn and experience something new, and I don’t think I could have picked a better country to start with. 

IES Abroad: You recently launched a start-up, Red Malt Denim, which was inspired by your study abroad in Beijing. Tell us more about how the idea came about and your journey from idea to launch.

SM: In China’s larger cities, it’s common to find clothing shops that will make you made-to-measure clothing. Back in the U.S., I had never heard of this before, beyond tailoring a suit. At the time, I thought this was a very intriguing idea, as I was in-between sizes and jeans never quite fit the way I’d liked them to. When I came back to the U.S., I relocated to Chicago and pitched the concept of a U.S.-based, made-to-measure jeans company to my friend, Leona. She was on board with the idea, and we started sketching out the groundwork for our company. We did not initially plan to manufacture ourselves; however, after several meetings with potential suppliers, we quickly decided that we wanted to keep production in-house. We spent the next four years building the technology and production systems that currently enable us to make our products.

IES Abroad: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in the business?

SM: One of our main challenges within this industry is that our target customer base expects to buy tailored suits and dress shirts, but not necessarily jeans. When you think about common clothing complaints, jeans are one of the more frequent garments that people have issues with. The industry is moving forward with a more customized wardrobe, but it’s still a fairly new idea to most. Another challenge has been finding qualified seamstresses that live in Chicago. Jeans are a very complicated garment to manufacture and require a high degree of skill. The sewn apparel labor market is mostly based in Los Angeles or New York. Regardless, we’re very proud to be making our products in Chicago – the city has become part of our identity.

IES Abroad: What is your vision for Red Malt?

SM: Our goal is to be a leader in casual, made-to-measure clothing. We use propriety technology to design and create the best fit for each individual customer. Our philosophy is that we want our customers to be 100% happy with their jeans and want to wear them all the time. We actively ask for feedback from our customers and offer a very robust “fit” guarantee.

IES Abroad: Were there lessons learned or skills acquired in Beijing that are valuable in your work today?

SM: Yes. In Beijing, I had the opportunity to intern at a U.S. sports equipment company, which manufactured all of their products in China. I learned about the complexity and challenges involved with importing and exporting goods across international borders. This knowledge played a large role in how we developed our e-commerce checkout system for Red Malt. We built it so that international customers can prepay taxes and duties during checkout. This allows the customer to know the fully delivered costs up front and also avoid an extra trip out to their local post office.  

IES Abroad: What advice do you have for students today thinking about studying abroad?  

SM: Go for as long as you can. You may not get another opportunity to live life in another country. A study abroad program is a great way to experience another culture with minimal commitments. Plus, it’s one extra thing that will distinguish you from other candidates when pursuing a career after college.