How an Unlikely Clothing Brand Is Sewing Up an Untapped Market
Ask most fashion designers to create a line of clothes for the “Midwest lifestyle,” and it’s likely that they’ll come back with a flannel shirt and a pair of sweatpants with a special pocket for a can of Skoal. But that’s not the image St. Louis native Jimmy Sansone was after when he began conceptualizing a wardrobe that would make sense for the way he lived his life. “The Midwest has a duality,” he explains. “Life happens in the city and the country. I can be downtown now, and 20 minutes later I can be in a duck blind with friends.”
The problem was, the investment banker couldn’t find clothes that bridged the gap between those two worlds. Work attire wouldn’t stand up to games of touch football, and outdoor gear wasn’t suited for the office. So Sansone, who says he comes from a family where dressing well was always a priority, mocked up what he wanted in a wardrobe. Working with a designer friend in Los Angeles, Sansone came up with a closetful of bespoke shirts and pants that he could wear on the job, but that had a little stretch and stitching and trim strong enough that he wouldn’t have to change before visiting a friend’s farm. When he started wearing his new duds around town, people noticed, and it occurred to him that he could turn his Midwest-inspired gear into a business.
“As I dug in, I saw the opportunity,” the 28-year-old says. “There are more than 23 million young adults in the Midwest. I realized they were probably looking for the same things I was.”
Now his apparel line, The Normal Brand, sells its $46 long-sleeved T-shirts, $92 button-down dress shirts and other men’s and women’s wear online and at 75 retailers in 20 states, with more and more outlets added each week. Sansone launched the brand in early 2015 with expectations of bringing in about $70,000 but ended up generating roughly $500,000 in sales. This year, he estimates The Normal Brand will bring in more than $2 million in revenue.
Sansone knew he was onto something within weeks of launching the brand. While building anticipation for his first fall line, which was still months away, he sold logo hats online. Within two days, the production run was sold out. When he introduced his line at a trade show in Chicago, he signed on dozens of retailers. His fall 2015 collection, which expanded to include pullovers, henleys, button-down shirts, hats, T-shirts and sweatshirts, regularly sells out online.
While Sansone and his friends bootstrapped the early stages of the company, in October The Normal Brand received a $50,000 Arch Grant from St. Louis to help expand, and Sansone says he’s looking for investors in 2016 to help the company scale up for its spring and fall lines.
But even as his business takes off, Sansone insists that The Normal Brand is much more than a popular logo. (Its stylized bear emblem -- an homage to the bear on the Missouri state flag -- has shown up on hats worn by NFL players and actor Jon Hamm.) Quality, according to Sansone, is the factor that defines his clothes.
“We field-test everything we make,” he says. “The lengths we go to are almost comical. We touch things over and over again to make sure they have the right feel. This started as a personal venture, and I knew if it was not good enough for me to wear, I wasn’t going to sell it.”
At the same time, Sansone wants to make sure he is responsive to his customers. Early on, he ordered a run of hats that were mistakenly made with a burnt-orange bear logo instead of the company’s usual khaki. Sansone was irate, but he gave away the “mistake hats” and even wore one himself. People started asking about them, so he began selling them online. They’ve become one of The Normal Brand’s fastest-selling items. “It’s been so popular, we can barely keep it in stock,” he says. “It’s a constant reminder to listen to our customers in spite of ourselves.”
That’s something Sansone takes personally. He emails customers after each sale and sometimes even sends handwritten thank-you notes. “Our fans thank us for creating a brand that makes them feel proud of where they’re from, and I want to thank them,” he says.
That pride isn’t limited to the Midwest, though. So far, The Normal Brand counts customers in 49 states, Sansone says. “We’ve seen people from all over respond to our Midwest value set.”