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Wit and Wages Help Ethical Activewear Startup Stand Out

Launching a brand amid a global pandemic isn’t on many people’s to-do lists. But for first-time entrepreneur Tommy Flaim, 2020 was the moment to bite the bullet.

The 26-year-old founder of Fox & Robin saw an opening in the market for an activewear label with simple styling and a value-driven mission. Inspired by ethical Nashville-based footwear brand Nisolo and sustainable outdoor apparel stalwart Patagonia, Flaim left his job in finance to delve into the world of apparel sourcing in 2018.

Turned off by brands on the market that took themselves too seriously, Flaim wanted to create a label that spoke to his simple sartorial sensibility while doing good behind the scenes. The product description for one pair of shorts, for example, says the garment is “good for making friends with pups,” while another instructs customers to “wear while rewatching episodes of ‘The Office.'” The brand took shape around basic performance and athleisure apparel for men, like compression shorts and T-shirts, and will grow to include a women’s line.

The coronavirus crisis, however, has pushed back Fox & Robin’s July launch date. With factories shuttered and workers forced to observe lockdowns during the critical weeks the company would have needed to prepare for its launch, Flaim said he’s now looking at a December debut, just as shoppers are gathering holiday gifts. Next month, Fox & Robin will launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first round of production.

Product for the upstart line of men’s shorts and shirts will be manufactured at factories in China and Southeast Asia, which Flaim turned to for the region’s expertise in activewear. While he had hoped to explore nearshoring opportunities, he quickly ran into roadblocks when it came to minimum order quantities and proximity to material sources—the factors that have similarly curbed other companies from keeping product closer to home.

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Starting from scratch has meant that Flaim could carve out his brand ethos with ethical and environmental standards from the outset. He decided early that Fox & Robin would not work with manufacturers that passed off any of their labor to unknown third parties.

“I think a lot of the humanitarian issues stem from subcontracted factories,” he said. “It is tough to restrict subcontracting because it allows for fast turnarounds and cheaper prices,” he said. “But how do you know if all of your factories are ethical if you don’t know who they are?”

In addition to sourcing only from factories that don’t subcontract, Flaim, who wants the brand to be rooted in transparency, will ensure Fox & Robin discloses the wages of its lowest-paid workers—an act that he believes sets his brand apart from competitors in the activewear space.

“Finding factories that are ethical and transparent and are willing to disclose their workers’ wages up front has been super tough,” he said.

Fox & Robin's Wave Runner compression shorts, which retail for $48.
Fox & Robin’s Wave Runner compression shorts, which retail for $48. Fox & Robin

The company will also donate 2 percent of all its proceeds directly to underserved schools and to environmental non-profits and national parks.

Though the brand has yet to deliver a single pair of shorts to a shopper’s doorstep, Flaim has been proactive in submitting the brand for Pending B Corp status, a distinction given to early-stage companies looking to signal their values to potential investors, board advisers, employees and clients.

Fox & Robin has gone through B Labs’ impact assessment program, providing its best estimates on a number of criteria to meet the legal requirements for certification, and has paid $500 to distinguish their B Corp status as pending.

While the direct-to-consumer explosion in recent seasons has created a new world of retail options for shoppers looking for just about anything, it has also resulted in a challenging environment for brands looking to stand out from the pack.

Mark Cohen, a professor at Columbia Business School and former CEO of Sears Canada, told Sourcing Journal that brands that enter the scene without working capital or industry experience could face rough headwinds in the age of COVID-19. Still, he believes e-commerce will continue to grow at an accelerated rate, even if investors are more cautious now than ever before.

Flaim admitted he was somewhat disenchanted with the idea of remaining totally DTC for a number of reasons. “I’ve been super underwhelmed with influencer marketing and customer acquisition costs,” he said.

While he plans to continue using social media channels to amplify Fox & Robin’s message, Flaim has plans to explore brick-and-mortar channels, like yoga and workout studios, specialty boutiques and athletic stores.

There’s also the possibility that shoppers starved for human interaction and an afternoon out of the house will be ready to get back to physical stores after the virus abates. According to data from Intelligence Node, 45 percent of shoppers are ready to return to the stores as soon as they open. Others, however, aren’t in a rush to expose themselves to the risks of brick and mortar.

For Flaim, whose wares will make their debut during the holiday season, the timing may prove optimal.

“I think when people are able to feel and touch and try on the product, our conversion rates will be so much higher,” he said.