Can Stock Mfg. Co. do for clothes what farmers markets did for produce?
For decades, the only garments to come out of the 19,000-square-foot military-clothing factory at the corner of Lake and Pulaski in Garfield Park were sewn in muted shades of olive drab, gunmetal gray and navy blue. But in July, there came a whole different look: piles of brightly colored shirts, pocket squares and ties meant for Bucktown hipsters, not Pentagon bureaucrats.
Behind the colorful clothes are entrepreneur Jim Snediker, factory owner Areill Ives and three other co-founders of Stock Manufacturing. The quintet is betting their locally made duds will strike a vein of civic pride. Every piece of Stock clothing comes tagged “Proudly made in Chicago” — and backed by Snediker’s personal quality promise. “I guarantee,” he says. “You’re getting a damn good piece of clothing, and you’re getting it at an affordable price.”
Snediker and his mates say they can keep the price down by doing a work-around on middlemen and retailers. Like small-time vegetable growers peddling heirloom tomatoes at farmers markets because Whole Foods’ wholesale margins are too tight, Stock sells its shirts, ties and pocket squares almost exclusively on its website, StockMfg.co, in two-week flash sales. Production of new items begins only if a predetermined number are reserved before a countdown clock runs out.
“We want to be known as the place where people go to collaborate to make really high-end, innovative clothing and are able to sell it to our customers at an accessible price point because we don’t need to sell to retail,” says Snediker. Newbie designers trade patterns for a chance to see their designs produced, lending the company fashion cred. Stock then lets website visitors pick which proposed designs it should produce next. Says Snediker: “It’s kinda similar to Kickstarter.”
Or to Threadless, the fashion retailer that started in Chicago in 2000 with the idea that designers would post ideas for T-shirts on its website, and consumers would vote on which got produced. The model virtually guarantees demand, minimizing the unsold inventory Threadless gets stuck with. Threadless, a unit of West-Loop based SkinnyCorp, has since branched into other garments and soft goods.
Threadless makes some of its garments in the United States and others overseas, where labor costs are far cheaper. Few clothiers have dared take on the domestic production challenge. Canadian Dov Charney started American Apparel in 1989 and now sells more than $600 million per year of wardrobe staples made in its downtown Los Angeles plant. But the company has struggled mightily just to stay in business — in 2012 it lost $37 million, thanks in part to the cost of running its factory.
But Charney focuses on garments he can sell for less than $30. Snediker and his partners think they can make a profit with higher prices. They’re selling premium-quality ties for $45, shirts for $95 — on par with what you’d pay Macy’s for a Ralph Lauren dress shirt.
Who’d pay that much for a brand they’ve never heard of? Maybe stylish Chicagoans with an eye for quality and a heart full of hometown loyalty.
Snediker evangelizes about helping manufacturing flourish in Chicago. Stock’s name is meant to evoke the stockyards, once a bastion of the city’s econoomy.
“I like ‘Proudly made in Chicago’ even better than ‘Made in America,’ ” says Tom Kuczmarski, a veteran professor of product and service innovation at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and co-founder of the Chicago Innovation Awards. “It relates more to the locality issue and pride of city.”
In the first month since Stock’s soft launch, Snediker says, sales were 20 percent higher than anticipated. But the brand still has a ways to go before proving itself. Snediker intends to raise funds that will go toward some old-fashioned marketing: He’s offering an exclusive line of pocket squares at Bloomingdale’s. The plan is to let Bloomie’s keep all the profit in exchange for giving its customers their first look at Stock’s quality work.
Fortunately, if this doesn’t fly, the factory at Lake and Pulaski is still producing those uniforms for the military.
Photos by Sara Mays
Top: Stock founders, from left: Areill Ives, Jason Morgan, Tim Tierney, Jim Snediker and Mike Morarity.