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ageist profile: james hankins, 52

Years later, he still doesn’t know why the guards waved him through into the artists’ area at the Pomona Music Festival without any accreditation. But there Jimmy Hankins was — with a trunkful of brand-new jeans handmade with American denim. They were his jeans, Asbury Park Denim, a brand he had started a few months before when he found himself close to rock bottom. When the first musicians began coming out of their trailers, Hankins struck up conversation. Then he asked them if they wanted a pair of jeans.

“At that moment, there is no one who has been on a tour bus for three or four weeks straight that doesn’t want a $200 pair of fresh new jeans,” he says now. “That was my magic moment right there. That’s where I knew where my edge was coming from.”

Not a year before, Hankins thought he had lost it. The real estate developer lost close to $3 million — all of his wealth — when federal prosecutors took down a brokerage firm he had invested the money in, for fraud. He lay on the floor of his house in Phoenix, Arizona for a few days before making a trip to see his sister in Asbury Park, near where he had grown up. In the fading New Jersey town, Hankins saw his own fate mirrored. But he saw something else as well: promise.

The idea of starting a jeans company came quickly. It was 2010 and America was still in the dregs of an economic downturn. He wanted to make something quintessentially American and something that a background in the fashion industry had prepped him for. Asbury Park Clothing Company was born. But not before he went back to Arizona and took some radical steps.

“My mentality was that if I do this thing, what do I have to worry about losing?” he says. “Well, the house. So I thought, ‘Then let’s get rid of it!’ ”

Call it a preemptive strike. It was a risky move that most 20 year olds wouldn’t make, let alone someone nearing 50 who was teetering on the edge of insolvency. So he sold it and moved to Los Angeles to learn how to make jeans. But from his time in the industry, Hankins knew how to sell and how to source material. He found denim mills in North Carolina that still used old looms, and paid as much attention to the pattern-making as he did to the most minute detail — including rivets inspired by Asbury Park manhole covers.

His initial venture to the music festival yielded his first musician clients. Then more turned up. Pretty soon, New Jersey boy Jon Bon Jovi was wearing his jeans on stage as were the Eagles of Death Metal, the band fronted by Jesse Hughes. He estimates his jeans are now on the legs of more than 100 artists and influencers and in stores across the U.S. And when he looks back on it, he can identify the moment that give him the courage to pull it off.

“Everything came to a grinding halt, and all I thought was important was almost wiped out,” he says. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ And then I thought, ‘Well, I can do anything I want!’ ”

ageist sound advice

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Okay, call us selfish, but we really wanted the founder of a jeans brand to tell us how to buy the right pair of jeans. So here goes.

“Leg openings are incredibly crucial. If you’re still in the same style jeans that you bought 10 years ago, your leg opening is about 16-17 inches. Today if I were to go out and buy, I’d say go out and wear 15-16 inches. Wear it for a day or two. You want to get to the point where it doesn’t remind you it’s on. Fit isn’t whether you can get it on or not, fit is how it makes you feel.” 

“Take it slowly — don’t follow the pendulum swings of trends. Just step outside of your comfort zone and put something on that’s going to be a little bit more forward and wear it for a couple of days around your house. And your body starts to feel it and enjoy it. And buy a nice pair of boots too!”