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How a U.S.-Made Athleticwear Brand Raised $100K on Kickstarter

Is this the next American Apparel?
Photo: Victor Athletics

Photo: Victor Athletics

Raising money to launch a clothing line isn't easy. Sample production, product development, distribution, hiring — all of those things are quite costly and often prohibit those without family money or personal savings from getting into the business. Enter Kickstarter.

While fashion is not the most popular or successful category on the crowdfunding site, quite a few people have managed to fund their apparel businesses with it — 2,642 to be exact. But only 72 have raised more than $100,000. The latest to enter that category is Victor Athletics. As of Wednesday morning, it had exceeded its $100,000 goal by over $14,000, with about 12 hours to go. The brand's success, the look of the product and the pitch — high-quality, affordable, vintage-inspired athleticwear manufactured in struggling U.S. factories — made us want to know more.                                                                

Victor Athletics's goal amount was a bit higher than most fashion projects on the site because its founders are trying to launch a full collection. (Many people use Kickstarter to launch a single product, like an amazing sweat-resistant button-down shirt or a game-changing pair of underwear.) According to co-founder Abby Sutton, it was the lowest amount she and her fellow co-founders — Sam Wessner, Christman Hersha and her husband Chris Sutton — knew they would be able to work with. Those who back the brand on Kickstarter are guaranteed rewards; in this case, one or more of the brand's products, depending on their contribution level. The rewards, Sutton says, will make up the minimum order to give the factories. "Anything less than that we felt wouldn’t be substantial enough to show the factories that we were really serious about pushing this forward."

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Photo: Victor Athletics

Photo: Victor Athletics

The idea for an American-made athleticwear line came about three years ago, when Sutton and her husband launched Noble Denim, a small-batch, high-end denim line. Chris Sutton had taught himself to sew, and that's when they started working with a small factory in rural Tennessee with a workforce that had diminished from 150 workers to five over the past 20 years as clients moved their manufacturing operations overseas. Wanting to make a bigger impact on that factory, as well as other struggling factories in the midwest, they decided to launch something more accessible than $250 denim; something they feel they'd be able to sell larger quantities of more quickly: activewear. And we're not talking about high-tech yoga pants or moisture-wicking tank tops — this is classic cotton sweatshirts, t-shirts and joggers with a vintage feel, designed for both men and women.

"Mentally, people find it easier to buy a sweatshirt; people see them as less complicated," Sutton explains. These classic garments are also products that American factories know how to make. "We were trying to find a product that those factories used to make that was associated with their heyday, so vintage sportswear made sense as it signaled bringing it back." And like the founders themselves, the products just look cool, and they spent a lot of time making them look that way, honing the texture and color and incorporating '60s and '70s details to get a vintage effect. "We hope our clothes become the go-tos in your closet, the stuff you want to throw on all the time." It's like an early-stage, better quality American Apparel, without the controversial PR.

Sutton says they were initially hesitant about using Kickstarter, but decided to do it because they wanted early customers to feel involved in the change they are trying to make in American apparel manufacturing, and that tactic seems to have worked, given their success. "We’ve heard email after email from backers who resonated with our story because they had some personal connection to the impact of outsourcing— their uncle’s factory, their hometown’s industry," Sutton explains. "And then, for those who haven’t experienced the impact personally, I think they feel informed and empowered on how their choices can change the trend." She also thinks the fact that they had already established themselves with Noble Denim made potential backers more likely to trust them.

Going forward, Victor Athletics plans to sell everything direct-to-consumer (a la Warby Parker and Everlane) to keep prices down. A sweatshirt made of premium organic cotton that might cost $125 at retail will cost $65, for example. The label plans to introduce new colors and products frequently — a short-sleeve sweatshirt for women is coming soon — and will be at New York's Pop Up Flea next month. Collaborations with other brands will also be part of its marketing strategy, and Sutton says they aren't ruling out expansion into categories other than activewear if the demand is there.

Given that the brand has already resonated with over 1,000 backers before any product has been seen or felt — and its founders' palpable motivation to get big enough to make a difference in American manufacturing — the demand could definitely come.