While most of us were scrambling for last-minute internships (or practicing keg stands) senior year, Eastern Michigan University economics major Wes Stoody was busy launching his cause-driven eyewear line Article One. He was motivated to help children who suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness and death, especially after discovering that a year's worth of supplements cost less than a dollar.
"I was inspired by people like Blake Mycoskie from Toms," says Stoody, who, at the time, had zero experience in the optical industry. "I was just naive enough to be like, 'yeah, I'm gonna start an eyewear brand.'" So for every pair of Article One glasses or sunglasses sold, $2 is donated to Helen Keller International. "At this point we've been able to donate enough to get vitamin A supplements to 12,000 kids," he says.
Stoody found an eyewear designer and produced his first run out of a factory in China his senior year in 2012 and then ran the business from Chicago for the next two years. He funded Article One with help from friends, family, his savings and what he earned while "bussing tables" and "working at bars." While continually improving and innovating his product, Stoody moved production to Turkey and, last year, a family-owned factory in Northern Italy. "I feel like we found our home," he says.
While in Chicago, Stoody lived in a gentrifying neighborhood that was experiencing an influx of cool bars and restaurants and a really good energy, which reminded the young entrepreneur of his hometown. "I kept thinking, 'I want to be a part of this in Flint,'" he explains. "So when I had the opportunity to move back, I leapt at it."
While Flint, Michigan has been in the news the past year because of the water crisis, the once-bustling Rust Belt city has been depressed since the late '80s after the closure of General Motors plants and decline of the American auto industry. Flint is ranked as one of America's most dangerous cities and, in January, President Obama declared a State of Emergency due to lead poisoning exposure from the water crisis. But that's not suppressing the city's creative spirit.
"Flint has obviously had its massive problems, but one of the amazing aspects of Flint is the diverse culture that exists here," Stoody explains. "For a city of 100,000 people, it's just so tight-knit. You get to hear about all these amazing things happening in this neighborhood and everyone wants to support anything positive coming out of this city."
Investors have been slowly opening their wallets to support creative startups in an effort to reinvigorate the city, too. Stoody partnered with a local investment firm two years ago to help grow Article One (and retire his bartending skills). "[The investors] have become enlightened by the fact that a creative entrepreneur community is going to be good for us moving forward," he explains. "Obviously when neighborhood or a city begins to redevelop, one of the first movers is always creative — whether it's artists or fashion designers — and then the second movers are usually entertainment: restaurants, bars. It's great that a lot of investors have realized that in Flint, so they're beginning to invest in the community."
While the fashion community in Flint isn't as established as neighboring Detroit, the creative scene is definitely buzzy. Stoody points to fellow entrepreneurs: streetwear label Goodboy and custom boot maker Sutorial, both of which manufacture in Flint, plus a local brewery, Tenacity — always a harbinger of change. "I had an amazing time building our company here in Flint [because of] the support coming from everyone else here," Stoody says. "If someone is having a launch party or needs some help funding something, everyone rallies around them to help get that project off the ground."
With the additional investment over the past two years, Article One has developed into a full-fledged eyewear business, offering cool, modern takes on classic shapes, with lively color-play and an inspired mix of materials. The glasses retail for around $250, with $2 going to help fight vitamin A deficiency. Although, Article One's mission has evolved since those scrappier days of yore. "The brand itself matured and the direction of the brand changed to be: You are buying beautiful handcrafted product and then the donation is just a bonus on top of that," Stoody explains. But, it's hard to take the inherent idealism and cause-driven dedication away from the founder.
Article One just launched The Flint Collection, a capsule line of three models (in two color-ways each). One hundred percent of profits from the sale of each pair will benefit the Flint Child Health & Development Fund. Keeping with the community spirit, the campaign features local "role models," including eight-year-old "Little Miss Flint," Mari Copeny and Goodboy Creative Director Carl McMurray (all in the gallery above). "The best ways to fight lead poisoning moving forward over the long term is through healthcare, better education and more nutritious foods," Stoody explains. "And those were already problems that we had here in Flint."
The Flint Collection will also be the first Article One collection to be offered direct-to-consumer, available on ArticleOneEyewear.com and the Spring app. Interestingly, in a world full of Warby Parkers, the brand traditionally doesn't sell its glasses direct-to-consumer. Article One glasses and sunglasses are currently only sold through indie boutiques like East of the Mississippi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and opticians, many of them in cool, hipster-y locales: Smith's Opticians in Austin, Texas and Myoptic Optometry in Portland, Oregon among them. Stoody's philosophy on the business strategy is just as heartfelt as his causes — if not a bit old school for such a young entrepreneur.
"We give credit where credit is due to the craftsmen in the local optical shop that you go to get your prescription, to get your glasses fitted and to get educated on what's the best shade and what's the best quality of eyewear for you," he explains. "And we value the expertise of those opticians, so we don't want to discount their value and we always want to support the optical shops throughout the country."
And, if you're wondering if Stoody has ever run into his original inspiration, Blake Mycoskie of TOMS, the answer is yes. "I met him at an event and just said, 'hey Blake, I just wanted to let you know, you inspired me to start my own business,' which I'm sure he's gotten many times," Stoody says. "He says, 'thank you' and we talked about eyewear. Because we're in the same industry now."