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New Brand? No Problem. These Startup Platforms Get DTCs Off the Ground

The changing apparel landscape, in which traditional retailers are faltering left and right while shoppers continue to spend more dollars online, has created a challenging and intimidating environment for young brands to break into the field. But now, innovative upstarts are taking initiative to help emerging labels manage services such as manufacturing, financing, design and distribution while they find their audience.

Cala, which bills itself as a “fashion house technology” for creators to design and launch digital fashion brands regardless of their level of formal design training, most recently helped athleisure direct-to-consumer brand VacationClub break into the fashion market earlier this month.

And the Kassa Trade Organization, or Kassa Trade, was founded in earlier this year with the specific goal of helping out smaller brands that were looking for more transparent and reliable manufacturing alternatives outside of China.

While the two companies have different goals and strategies, they both ultimately provide back-end infrastructure necessary for brands to scale without breaking the bank.

James Maslow, an actor and entrepreneur most recognized for his run on Nickelodeon’s “Big Time Rush,” launched VacationClub through the Cala platform, inspired by the feeling of endless happiness that comes from taking the  perfect vacation.

But Maslow was able to launch the brand with the help of PC Chandra, Cala’s brand president for VacationClub. Maslow credits Chandra, an alum of Diane von Furstenberg and Ralph Lauren, for guiding decisions from selecting materials to mocking up design options and advising on marketing materials.

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The platform’s ability to foster speed to market and small-run manufacturing were two of the main reasons Maslow selected Cala as the brand’s design and manufacturing partner.

“I meet daily with PC and we look at sales, product, and email response data,” Maslow told Sourcing Journal. “We operate like any other digital and direct-to-consumer brand; we let the consumer data lead the way. For future drops, I plan to listen to the data while also continuing to draw inspiration from my personal life and travels. Cala’s unique small-batch production makes it extremely easy for us to test new product concepts.”

This small-run production allows VacationClub to produce an exact amount of inventory, opposed to the typical status quo of carrying out large-batch orders for the sake of lowering the production cost per item.

With a global network of suppliers and manufacturers in more than 10 countries, Cala can strategically select where clothing should be produced at any given time, which has been beneficial to Maslow, given VacationClub’s launch during the pandemic.

“Essentially, I was able to launch a fashion house from my house, all inside one single platform, over the course of just a few months,” Maslow said. “It’s incredible that Cala was able to bring the collection to market on time when most of the fashion world was suffering delays. Without them, this launch could have taken over a year.”

The first VacationClub drop launched with an exclusive first-access event on Aug. 17, available only to fans who signed up for the early notification on the VacationClub shop, selling out of more than 40 percent of the inventory in the first day.

“The Romantic, Explorer and Surfer collections are heavily inspired by my own personal journeys and trips. VacationClub is meant to be more than just a clothing line, it’s an Adventure Kit—a uniform for inspiring an everyday escape or weeks-long expedition,” said Maslow. “When people wear my clothing, I want them to feel the excitement that traveling provides, especially since we are enduring a time when travel is not as accessible. While the idea for the collection was my own, it was heavily inspired by those who have accompanied me on journeys: my girlfriend, friends and family.”

The three collections consist of hoodies, sweatpants, T-shirts, masks and hats, ranging in price from $10 to $60.

Cala and Kassa Trade Help Apparel Brands Scale Manufacturing, Design
Maslow and girlfriend Caitlin Spears are seen here wearing a hoodie and sweats from VacationClub’s Romantic line.

Cala has more than 30 influencers slated to introduce collections, with the average client having an estimated 3 million followers, suggesting that the young brands have a high ceiling for potential consumers to choose from.

Kassa Trade wants to be apparel’s manufacturing department

While Cala is seeking to serve as a fashion house for more brands to launch, Kassa Trade is looking to lower costs for small retailers, boutiques, mom-and-pop shops and individual designers who often deal with unreasonably high wholesale prices, which can add up to 20 percent on a bulk purchase, according to Phil Dawit, the organization’s managing principal and co-founder.

“We work directly with manufacturers in Peru who have free trade agreements with the U.S., so on one end, we’ve already knocked off one end of the pricing to bring the goods in,” Dawit said. “In addition, we partner with the manufacturer so that the manufacturer is taking in the lion’s share of profits—we only take a small portion. The wholesaler typically will charge whatever the added fee is to import from China on top of the 20 percent, and put that on to the retailer. We’re giving the retailer as close as we can to the at-cost manufacturing price as possible.”

Kassa Trade operates the entire end-to-end manufacturing process, starting with the design and development phase, where retailers can send the team specs, tech packs or physical garments. From there, the Kassa Trade team makes prototypes based on their requirements before sending them to the retailer for review. After receiving the feedback, Kassa will make corrections to the samples until they have final approval.

The company sources the materials and then sends them to the Peru manufacturing plant to produce the apparel, before overseeing the quality assurance process and finally shipping the garments upon finishing. On average, production lead time takes 75 to 120 days.

Dawit pointed out that the company’s processes are designed to ultimately improve on the sampling process he had experienced with Alibaba, which he described as difficult due to the lack of communication while awaiting a sample, including interaction exclusively through email.

“We can have the samples done within a week depending on how complex the item is,” Dawit said.

Retailers that have worked with Kassa Trade can also refill their previous orders via text message. These sellers can simply text a photo of the item they need reordered, along with the hashtag #refill, and the Kassa team will begin the manufacturing process the next business day.

“When people usually reorder, they’ll usually call their wholesaler and they’ll go through the payment process again,” Dawit said. “If they work with a company overseas they’re likely wiring money, and when you wire money, you have no control and you don’t get it back if something goes wrong. We wanted to provide a sense of security for the consumer, so if they have a refill they want to do and they’ve already purchased their goods, the text will send us an alert that the order needs to be refilled.”

Like Cala, Kassa is leveraging influencer marketing with a program for any social personalities looking to capitalize off their audience. Through the program, social media influencers can create their own clothing line to sell directly to their audience. The process is all handled by Kassa Trade, with no upfront cost to the client.

“We put together a website for them and we do a pre-sale. We don’t manufacture unless we hit the pre-sale number, because if they can’t hit the pre-sale number then it is going to indicate to us that working with them is creating a clothing line is not going to be a successful campaign,” Dawit said. “But if they do hit that number, then we know they’ll be able to sell the goods, so we’ll put up the product for them and then they just need to market it.”

For larger influencers who will have a lot of orders projected to ship throughout the U.S., Kassa partners with an American distribution center to manage fulfillment.

Co-founded by Dawit and childhood friend Bowei Oki, the U.S.-based Kassa Trade Organization is growing into a global operation beyond its manufacturing partner in Peru. The company also operates a distribution hub in Bahrain in partnership with a local distributor in the country to trade goods throughout the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and also partners with a distributor in Russia.