Small Outdoor Brands Are Reinventing How We Buy Gear

Adventure-wear brands are trying something new: letting customers decide what goes to market

The crowdfunded Maritime shirt jacket from Taylor Stitch. (Inga Hendrickson)
taylor stitch

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” declared Apple cofounder Steve Jobs in 1998. Jobs, famous for eschewing market research, dictated tech trends from his glossy Cupertino, California, headquarters. But while that approach may work for new gizmos, outdoor-apparel brands including Gustin, Taylor Stitch, Timberland, and Western Rise are asking customers to choose, and in some cases even design, the stuff they sell. It’s crowdfunding on a product-by-product basis.

Say you want a T-shirt. The brand presents you with an array of designs on its website. Pick one, preorder it, and hope that enough customers share your taste to also pony up the cash in advance. The options that don’t attract enough orders don’t make it into production. The ones that do ship six to ten weeks after initial orders are placed. “This is a new and innovative approach for us, and it’s a great way to get ahead of trends,” says Jay Steere, Timberland’s senior director of innovation, who spearheaded a crowdfunding project to design a new line of hiking boots last spring. 

Fashion brands like Catwalk Genius and FashionStake first started experimenting with the model about six years ago, soliciting votes and funding from their most committed customers. Over the past year, about a half-dozen outdoor companies followed suit. In the end, you get the exact item you want, and the manufacturer saves money by making only what customers have already placed an order for. What’s more, that savings gets passed on: Gustin is able to charge just $74 for its denim instead of $269, the price when it hewed to a traditional retail model. 

So far the approach is popular mostly with nimble new brands trying to engage young buyers, but it poses a challenge: earning customer trust. One way to do that is to sell ready-made items alongside crowdfunded designs. That’s how it works at Western Rise, a lifestyle-apparel company in Telluride, Colorado. “This model lets us offer a variety of styles and fabrics that we might not otherwise be willing to gamble on,” says cofounder Kelly Watters. “Crowdfunding is in its early stages, but we’ll see it evolve. It’s here to stay.”

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