The pandemic has toppled many American brands and retailers as its steady spread has continued into the summer months. But supply chain disruptions and subdued consumer spending haven’t unilaterally decimated the apparel industry.
In fact, some brands have found a way to thrive through the chaos, and they’re doing so through a mix of well-positioned product and control over their value chains. Now more than ever, streamlined operations are a boon to businesses, and simple styling might be key to reaching shoppers who are well into their fourth month of lockdowns.
As the spring season began to take on an air of doom and gloom, City of Angels brand and manufacturer LA Relaxed found itself, unexpectedly, in the catbird seat.
The small label has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with health-conscious grocery chain Whole Foods since it launched in 2015 with its range of organic and sustainable staples.
In a moment when many shoppers are only dragging themselves out of the house to pick up food and other necessary provisions, the strategy has proved prescient. Designer Claire Hoppe told Sourcing Journal that the company feels fortunate to have the brick-and-mortar exposure, as many brands’ physical footprints are shrinking. “For the longest time, people couldn’t go anywhere except the grocery store, so we had a huge influx of new customers,” she said.
Comfort and convenience have become the two primary factors driving wardrobe decisions, and LA Relaxed specializes in polished-yet-comfortable basics. Like many others, the company has also taken to making face covers, selling them alongside their apparel offerings.
The brand’s burgeoning direct-to-consumer business was just starting to pick up when the pandemic hit, Hoppe said. Since the retail lockdown, interest has intensified, in many cases stemming from consumers who discovered the label in store. “Both channels have been growing,” Hoppe said, describing a recent meeting in which Whole Foods execs presented the best numbers the brand had seen since its inception. “We saw things double overnight.”
Hoppe believes LA Relaxed’s current successes stem from its focus on of-the-moment styling, sustainable materials, and ethical, local manufacturing.
The LA Relaxed team includes about 20 employees, including the design and executive team as well as sewers, trimmers and quality control specialists, who all work out of the same factory location in Downtown Los Angeles.
“We still make everything not only in Los Angeles, but in our own vertical factory,” Hoppe said, where the company pays its workers for each garment they produce. “Human rights are just as much a part of sustainability as fabrics or reducing waste.”
Knits are sourced from local, sustainability-focused mills that craft fabrics from organic cotton, hemp linen, modal and Tencel Lyocell. “Wovens are a bit tougher because most woven production has moved overseas,” Hoppe added. “We work with local importers and converters who can verify their supply chain.”
As the brand’s primary creative force, Hoppe spends much of her time researching new fabrications. “If we spend a bit more to buy a fabric that’s sustainable, the mill has more incentive to come up with new formulations and blends,” she said, “which is critical for us.”
While these materials are more expensive to use, Hoppe said part of the brand’s value proposition is maintaining an accessible price point. In order to enact industry-wide change, ethical brands much reach more shoppers.
“I think there’s a growing segment of people who really care and do their research and have no problem paying more for a product that’s ethically made,” she said. “But I do think there’s a huge part of the population who, based on their financial status, really can’t make those decisions—they don’t even have the luxury or the time to think about it.”
It’s ultimately up to brands to take “a bit of a margin hit” in the service of broadening their reach, she said.
The sustainable and organic fibers used in LA Relaxed garments carry benefits beyond their softness, she added. For example, the Lyocell fibers used to make some of the brand’s jumpsuits are breathable enough to help with thermoregulation, and are naturally antibacterial. The brand has worked with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s LA Protects program in the creation of PPE with these specialized materials, she said.
Shoppers have gravitated to LA Relaxed’s range of men’s and women’s basics and separates, like T-shirts, biker shorts, easy-wearing dresses and Lyocell denim and linen jumpsuits that have an “instant outfit” appeal.
“That’s part of our whole ethos—being relaxed isn’t just about lounging around in sweats,” she added. “It’s about being comfortable with who you are and how you interact with the world around you—you want to look and feel good, so you can operate on a daily basis.”
While many businesses have had to take a step back to reassess their strategies and lick this season’s wounds, LA Relaxed is pushing forward. “It’s been nice to see that we can grow and continue to work on our new developments and finding new fabrics for fall,” Hoppe said. In addition to working on an organic cotton garment dye collection with a local dye house, the label will also continue to donate masks to local hospitals in Los Angeles along with medical centers in New York and Boston.
And as a continued trade war with China and lingering concerns about the coronavirus permeate the industry, stateside manufacturing has become a buzzy topic of conversation. Half of LA Relaxed’s business is based in wholesale manufacturing for other American brands, Hoppe said, and the company has fielded a startling influx of questions in recent months.
“We’ve had so many inquiries that we’ve had to tell people we can’t accommodate them,” she said. “Especially now, we have reduced hours, staggered shifts and people are distancing—so we can’t ramp things up.”
The brand interest stems from a desire to produce closer to home, lessen lead times and create a more nimble, reactive supply chain. “Anytime you’re manufacturing you run into roadblocks, issues and problems,” Hoppe said. “But when it’s right here in your building, you can react immediately, instead of taking weeks or months.”
Producing in smaller batches also allows the company to test out its products’ market performance, and assess whether they meet a demonstrated need. “If they do, we can quickly produce more,” she said. “If they don’t, and they aren’t the right thing for our customer, or we find an issue with the products themselves, we haven’t wasted money on fabric or making tons of garments.”
While domestic manufacturing has undoubtedly taken on a romantic appeal in recent seasons, Hoppe said that many execs are still subject to sticker shock when they’re informed of how much it would cost to move their operations.
“That’s a part of our education process,” she said. “If you want to make something ethically, it’s going to cost more. You have to pay reasonably, you have to give people breaks, you have to check all the boxes, and that can be a hard pill to swallow for a lot of brands.”
While LA Relaxed would like to expand to accommodate more partners, the company is waiting until things are safer for workers, Hoppe said.
“We are probably poised for growth, but it will be in a slow and measured way,” she said. “We’re riding it out and seeing over the next year where it goes.”