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Build Your Business: Shop Talk
Repping Rad ClothingFrustrated with the lack of clothing options she desired, this decorator successfully took matters into her own hands.
In 2014, Mel Lay founded Gladstone, Oregon-based SandiLake Clothing to satisfy an unmet demand. She saw a trend in “statement clothing” for children, as well as matching sets for kids and adults. What she couldn’t imagine was a sparkly princess look reflecting her personal style.
Though Lay didn’t necessarily want her attire to match that of her children, she did want other options for them — and finding tees without sparkles and princesses proved difficult.
“I wanted [clothing] to match my tomboy/grunge style, and it was hard to find,” she says. “Your kids are a reflection of you, and I couldn’t put mine in light-up shoes and dresses every day. It would have been living a lie.”
SandiLake’s unisex/monochrome vibe reverberates through the company’s entire children’s line, a development that began as a matter of necessity Lay says she had to start simple and was on a budget. Unisex T-shirts allowed simple purchasing with fewer products to stock.
There’s also another benefit: “Hand-me-down” items are more versatile when passed from one child to the next, she says.
Lay’s biggest concern initially was how to actually decorate the shirts. Screen printing was a new venture for her, but today, she’s glad she took the chance.
“I could’ve had anyone make our product, but I saved a lot by becoming the maker myself,” she says. “And now I am so proud of our print shop.”
With embellishment issues rendered null and void, other challenges arose, such as copyright issues. “Within our first year of selling online, Target had already started selling our product,” she says. Indeed, two of Lay’s friends sent her photos in 2015 of a shirt being sold by the mega retailer that looked nearly identical to her original design. She says third-party designers admitted to finding it on Pinterest and copying it.
Even though the issue soon was resolved, SandiLake Clothing and its story went viral on social media, and Lay even talked to anchors on NBC’s “Today” about what happened. “Target took our tanks out of their stores and we started protecting our intellectual property,” she says. “Sometimes, you have to learn lessons the hard way, but we really lucked out with the support from our followers.”
With the exception of new designs, Lay says her original business model still is intact. SandiLake still makes its own products, keeps garments basic with monochromatic colors, and focuses on moms and their kids.
However, the company’s operational approach has changed. What began as an Etsy store with products being printed in a garage has evolved into a company with its own website, storefront and two employees. New products, such as leggings, rompers, bibs and an entire adult line, have been added. SandiLake’s flagship product — the T-shirt — also continues to evolve.
“We are one of the founders of the new T-shirt company, Allmade Apparel, making better tees with an incredible story,” she says. “These tees are made from recycled water bottles and organic cotton. For us, evolving has meant learning how our shirts are made and making sure every step of that process is not just ethical, but the best we can make it.”
The company currently has a four-color manual screen-printing press and a
direct-to-garment printer. If an order requires a process that SandiLake can’t accommodate, Lay outsources it to a local small business to keep everything in the community.
“We take pride in supporting local shops,” she says. “Our business model is ‘made as ordered,’ so instead of having a stock of decorated T-shirts, we keep blanks in stock and print each shirt after it’s ordered.”
A Labor of Love
In the “mom-shop community,” competition is steep, so brand recognition is key. Lay says her shop is set apart for multiple reasons. First, SandiLake Clothing stays true to its style, vibe and vision.
“I consider it ‘selling out’ if you make shirts just because you know they will sell well,” she says. “You have to be passionate about what you are making and selling in order to have long-term success.”
The other key factor is customer sevice, and Lay says her staff tries to create a fun experience for customers. “We aren’t perfect, but we know everyone just wants to rock a high-quality tee,” she says. “We try to get that done, while tossing some stickers, fun pins or tiny skateboards into each order.”
Lay describes SandiLake Clothing as a labor of love. Now that the company has made its mark, the focus is on new avenues for selling, staying relevant and telling its story. Maintaining customer connections is key to achieving those goals, and social media has helped build a solid foundation while enabling collaboration with new companies.
“Instagram and Facebook are free tools to show off our products and be real,” she says. “It has been our greatest asset since Day 1.”
Lay says an appearance on “Shark Tank” was another valuable addition to the company’s story. “I honestly still can’t believe we were on [the show],” she says. “Since our episode aired, sales have never been the same. It gave us this beautiful validity that we are legit to customers.”
Lay didn’t take the deal the panel of investors offered, and today she runs her shop the way she sees fit. Her advice for others in the decorated-apparel industry is to work hard, and tell their stories on social media to create a connection between their companies and customers.
Future plans for SandiLake Clothing include increasing its wholesale presence to get T-shirts in the hands of more families. “Look out for us in some big stores in the future,” she says. “It has always been my dream and we are ready to make it happen.”
Jennifer Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jennifer at email@example.com.
SandiLake Clothing At A Glance
Company Name: SandiLake Clothing
Address: 445 Portland Ave., Gladstone, OR 97027
No. of Employees: 2
Decorating Methods Offered: Screen printing, direct-to-garment printing
Company Website: sandilakeclothing.com
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