Scott MacKenzie has two key pieces of advice for middle-aged guys with a little money burning a hole in their pocket and a burning desire to start up a new apparel line: make sure it’s not their sole source of income, and have a kid who understands social media.
The 62-year-old from New Hampshire was ripe for an entrepreneurial spark on one of the last ski runs before Covid-19 shut down slopes at Park City, Utah and ski resorts everywhere in March of 2020. Sporting a merino wool sweater his parents gave to him as a teenager, MacKenzie got into a conversation on a lift with a fellow skier, who commented how much he liked the old ski sweaters and wondered why they didn’t make them like that anymore.
“That conversation got me hooked,” MacKenzie said. “I was really tired of fleeces and plastics and polyester. They lose their shape, they smell and I emptied out everything from my closet that wasn’t cotton, denim or wool… The true ski sweater was made out of wool all along.”
MacKenzie said the trend nowadays is to wear a thin base layer against the skin, another layer of fleece, or perhaps a Patagonia vest, topped by a parka or outside shell.
“Puffy vests are probably easier to care for and way less expensive, but at the same time they don’t have the properties of wool,” MacKenzie said. “When you’re skiing, you get cold and need to get warmed up. It also helps keep you dry, and if you just let the wool sweater dry out, it repels a lot of odors. With polyester or fleece, after a workout, its smells get activated and that doesn’t happen with wool.”
Besides the quality of the fabric, MacKenzie found himself rapt by the bold colors and designs of ski sweaters of the 1970s, and with society shut down for the foreseeable future, the microelectronics engineer by day had found himself a raison d’etre.
Before venturing out as a fashion entrepreneur and getting his Delaine & Co. ski sweater startup off the ground, MacKenzie made one vow that ultimately frustrated the speed and ease with which he was able to get his products to market, but one that he doesn’t regret.
“I truly wanted to keep the work in the United States and get supply from the U.S.,” MacKenzie said. “You have better quality control on wool, how it is processed. It’s really tangible here in the U.S. where the wool is coming from. There’s sustainable ranches, mostly in California. You know exactly who that ranch is and you’re able to follow that all the way through dyeing.”
Having started and sold two microelectronics businesses, MacKenzie also saw logistical benefits to keeping his sweaters American-made.
“I used to deal with suppliers overseas and hated the late-night emails and overnight calls,” MacKenzie said. “Made in the U.S., I can just use overnight shipping with UPS.”
MacKenzie had a friend who produced wool tennis sweaters, but his facility didn’t have the capacity for what MacKenzie needed, and another smaller outfit on the East Coast couldn’t apply the multiple zippers he wanted.
So, MacKenzie ventured out, and his vow to be a patriotic fashion mogul, as well as a steward of sustainability, was put to the test.
His best hope for success was with the startup garment manufacturer Evolution in St. Louis, which opened in February 2020 in a 130,000-square-foot facility that boasted 30 state-of-the-art Stoll 3D flat-bed knitting machines.
“It’s the fiber size that’s important. The larger the fiber of the yarn, the coarser it’s going to be,” MacKenzie said. “This is skin-soft, 21-micron merino wool. They have to be able to be tightly knit at 12-gage, so they have a little elasticity. They’re comfortable—that’s the primary.”
Evolution proved not to be the best fit for what MacKenzie envisioned.
Whether the problem was specifications regarding the knitting, or a lack of workers or properly trained staff, delays cost MacKenzie time, money and patience.
“My experience with a couple of vendors were not very good,” MacKenzie said. “I had my first orders in the first of the year [in 2021], due in by mid-September for ski season and I ended up getting my last order from them in March of 2022. I didn’t even have a full stock for Christmas. It was kind of a disaster.”
John Elmuccio, a co-founder of Evolution, recalled that MacKenzie came in green to the apparel industry, but conceded his manufacturing company could have done better job serving complicated clients like the skiwear founder.
“Scott’s was a brand new brand and he really didn’t have a lot of experience in the business, so we really had to try to hold his hand through the process, and the yarn-bender he chose to use was a problem,” Elmuccio said. “But, to take responsibility on our side, he was one of the clients of ours as we were growing and the amount of orders we took in at that time was, in retrospect, greater than our ability to get orders out on a timely basis.”
It was also at a time when worker shortages abounded everywhere.
“As you can imagine, during the pandemic, we weren’t able to hire at all,” Elmuccio said. “We went from five people to 40-something people over several months, and I think during the time we were working with Scott, it was an issue.”
In any case, many of these difficulties could have been avoided had MacKenzie capitulated on his Made in the USA convictions and had his product manufactured in Asia.
“With the first two vendors there were workmanship issues, training issues, whereas overseas there are plenty of mills that could have handled the technology,” MacKenzie said. “And also the cost. If I have a sweater that all-in cost me $100 and overseas I probably could have gotten for $62.50.”
Fortunately, for MacKenzie, his customers are not all that “price sensitive,” and eventually he was able to find a sustainable wool ranch in California, YYK, a premier zipper maker in Georgia and a production facility in El Monte, Calif. that finally satisfied all of his needs. Opened in 1991 by the Taiwanese immigrant parents of Wei and Illona Wang, the Los Angeles-area plant Andari is now run by the brother and sister tandem, who continue to specialize in making knit sweaters in one of the largest facilities in America using a wide range of Stoll and Shima Seiki computerized flat-bed knitting machines.
“We have a lot more experience than some newer companies that opened maybe a few years ago,” Ilona Wang said. “Scott, when he first tried to do his product, did a couple of factories that were newer and had less experience managing production. I think that’s how they ran into troubles and couldn’t deliver for him.”
Even if a designer can handle as much as triple the labor cost to produce domestically, just finding workers in the U.S. trained in using the necessary machinery is no easy feat.
“Fortunately, we’re in the Los Angeles area and sometimes we’re able to find maybe new immigrants with previous work experience, so they can basically start immediately, but it’s been a challenge,” Ilona Wang said. “Wei and I had a conversation recently how a lot of our employees have been with us 20 and some almost 30 years, but they’re getting older and we have to think about how to train newer, younger people.”
Andari’s 32 years in business dwarfs Evolution’s mere three, but the 75 years of combined apparel industry experience between Elmuccio and his business partner Jon Lewis, and a city with a long history of textile manufacturing has helped to steady the process.
“St. Louis used to be the second-largest manufacturer in the U.S. It has a huge past of apparel history and we’re able to draw from people who had families, an immigrant population to draw from, as well as bringing in higher skilled people from outside the state to help build our team,” Elmuccio said, adding that Evolution has been able to tap consultants from Germany’s Stoll, who are able to train new staff, including immigrants from places like Turkey, on how to operate each of the machines. “We’re just going to keep moving forward, do a better job with the customers we have, keep improving, keep building our workforce and, hopefully, growing on to our next facility.”
For MacKenzie, sticking to his commitment to manufacture domestically proved to be worth the headaches.
“Making [my sweaters] in America has been great—it’s just taken me a little while to find the mill,” MacKenzie said. “When I entered into this industry, I knew it was going to take me an extra two years and $200,000 just to learn the business. And that’s almost right on target.”
And for Evolution’s Elmuccio, whose client list continues to expand to automotive and footwear brands and more, his company’s early challenges with a client like MacKenzie proved to be invaluable lessons.
“I think it’s true [that clients have unrealistic expectations] because they’re used to dealing with Asia, but I think we’ve gotten smarter on our end in terms of expectations,” Elmuccio said. “We’ve been more selective in the clients we’ve taken on and the products we want to make that best suit our sensibilities and capabilities. Early on we just said ‘yes’ to everything and, in retrospect, we learned a lot in that time… We should really show off the technologies we have, and as a result, service our clients better.”
Heading into 2023, Delaine & Co.—derived from the French word for wool—is growing in popularity at ski lodges the world over, buoyed by endorsements from Olympic gold medalists Phil and Steve Mahre and Deb Armstrong. The company, which offers just a handful of styles each for men and women, is designing the official ski uniforms for Dartmouth University and is selling them exclusively to alumni, as well as a custom design for a large resort in Colorado.
So what would MacKenzie have done differently?
“I probably would have spent more time vetting suppliers, but sometimes you just don’t know until you go through the production process how they’ll handle it,” he said. “From a business standpoint, you just have to be patient. As a new brand, especially higher in price, people don’t just click to buy. They might look at your website three or four times over the course of a month.”
Having enough fall-back income and a support system, probably younger and preferably family, ready to help with social media are key to an initial foray into fashion entrepreneurship.
“My first year I was a little shaky. We’re not even really halfway through the ski season and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” MacKenzie said. “If you have experience [in fashion] that’s one thing, but if not, make sure you’re OK having it just be a hobby. That, and you have to have a very understanding wife… and a daughter that really understands social media.”
All in all, the experience of running a fledgling fashion brand beats MacKenzie’s former day job.
“It’s a lot more fun than dealing with electrical engineers all day,” he said. “The customer base for Delaine & Co. is a blast. Everybody who buys the sweaters, on the slopes, they’re by nature, fun people and I totally enjoy that.”