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Brands Angle For Slice of Custom Apparel Biz

Published May 17, 2010


BURNABY, British Columbia—Custom apparel may not be the flashiest category in the industry, but it is a growing one and without a clear leader many companies are clamoring to capture a bigger piece of the pie.

The low barrier to entry—all one really needs is digital printing technology—has enticed companies of all sizes to sniff out opportunity in the estimated $150 to $200 million market.

“Five years ago there were probably three or four companies doing 80 percent of the business. Now 10 or 12 are doing 80 percent,” said Scott Parr, vice president of sales for Sugoi.

Brands like Sugoi, Voler, Champion Systems, Louis Garneau, Verge, Primal Wear, Canari, Giordana, Castelli and Hincapie have all planted a stake in custom, be it from the large volume events side or by producing small runs for regional club teams, amateur racer teams or everyday cyclists. Pearl Izumi is gradually re-entering the custom category after leaving a decade ago.

So, what’s the big draw? A global trend toward customization could be one indicator as evidenced by the emergence of programs like Nike ID or Trek’s Project One.

“Consumers are really looking to personalize what it is they use and how they express themselves on a daily basis especially as it relates to their passions,” Parr said.

Dorel Industries is so sure of custom’s potential that it’s invested significantly in a new production facility and state-of-the-art, high-speed equipment to support anticipated growth at Sugoi.

Dorel executives have said they expect Sugoi to triple its custom business in the next five years. Custom currently makes up between a quarter and one-third of Sugoi’s revenue.

As with its inline apparel, Sugoi’s custom apparel has historically been positioned more at the high-end rather than the lower pricepoint, high-volume business.

Sugoi hopes to extend its reach to a broader audience and recently signed on to provide custom jerseys for Canada’s Ride to Conquer Cancer.

“There are so many big events that process so many cyclists a year and that’s only a small part of our business. It’s all opportunity for us. We just need to figure out how to go get it and that’s what we’re doing,” Parr said.

Denver, Colorado-based Primal Wear is sure to take notice of Sugoi’s efforts. In the past couple years, Primal Wear’s custom business has grown 40 percent per year, said owner Dave Edwards, and now represents half of the company’s overall revenue.

Part of the reason for that success has been exposure gained by attending industry events, and aggressively pursuing key accounts. In the past several years, Primal has landed clients like the Triple Bypass and Ragbrai.

Primal Wear has also shifted its attention more to custom and away from licensed apparel, paring down its list of 50 properties to about seven music and military licenses.

But, as many apparel companies know, the custom world is not easy to navigate.

“There is no doubt about it, it’s incredibly more challenging than anything we’ve ever done. The possibilities for mistakes and reruns or problems in general are huge. Therefore it’s something that has to be watched over very, very carefully,” Edwards said.

Turnaround times are key in the custom business and the industry standard is a condensed eight weeks.

Print quality, delivery and designing, patterning and producing high-quality apparel that meets the customer’s exact specifications are all tasks that require great attention to detail.

For some, the best way to handle the unique demands of custom work is to produce apparel domestically instead of in third-party offshore factories.

All of Sugoi’s custom apparel comes out of its Vancouver factory.

Castelli, whose custom apparel accounts for 15 to 20 percent of its U.S. business, employs designers at its Portland, Oregon, offices and manufactures custom apparel at a third-party factory in Spokane, Washington, with most of the raw materials imported from Italy.

Being located only 350 miles away from the factory versus four time zones away goes a long way in ensuring quality.

“I think if we have teams work directly from designs to production art to domestic production—that’s a huge win for us. We’re not waiting for product to ship in 30 days on a boat or air in. We believe in domestic production No.1. And No. 2, it’s definitely an advantage,” said Rich Desmond, manager of Castelli’s team division.

Another way Castelli aims to differentiate itself is focusing on the product offering and quality instead of trying to out-process other suppliers by touting faster delivery times, lower minimums or wider color choices, a common occurrence in the competitive custom business.

“Our goal is to make the barrier to entry maybe a little higher. If you want to get into this business sure you have to have a solid process, but you have to have a solid brand as well. It’s noisy, but if we do our job well maybe that noise will quiet down over the next couple of years,” Desmond said.

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