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Innovation + Job News

Great Lakes Clothing Company grows "life at the lake" brand

A successful Kickstarter that netted Great Lakes Clothing Company more than $20,000 will allow the custom clothing company to move into a new collaborative work space on March 1. The company will share space near the North Minneapolis riverfront with several other Minnesota companies—including Marked Leather, Mill City Fineries, and the U.S.-made artisanal clothing and product distributor William Rogue & Co.
“We’re committed to the idea of native businesses sticking together, sharing resources and space,” says cofounder Spencer Barrett, hinting at the prospect of future apparel and branding partnerships with Great Lakes’ co-tenants. The move will roughly quadruple Great Lakes’ floor space, from 600 to about 2,400 square feet,
For now, cofounders Barrett and David Burke plan to use the expanded space to grow their inventory and make way for new hires to manage inventory, sales and the company’s expanding online presence.
Great Lakes has already shipped its branded T-shirts, crew sweaters, polos and accessories — including koozies — to 47 states, building buzz largely through word of mouth, a no-frills video marketing campaign orchestrated by Barrett, and a “brand ambassador” program that recruits college students to sport its clothing on campuses across the Midwest.
Customer service doesn’t hurt either. The co-founders include a handwritten thank-you note with every online order and send a follow-up email about a week after each customer’s order arrives.
According to the co-founders, Great Lakes’ brand centers around “life at the lake,” a laid-back, nostalgic vibe that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent a warm day near a body of water in Minnesota. The brand’s mascot is an understated loon, a Northern archetype that needs no introduction.
“We found a huge gap in the apparel market,” explains Burke. “No one in Minnesota, or anywhere in the Midwest for that matter, was taking advantage of our unique Northern lifestyle and fusing those ideals into a brand. We strive to create fun, useful and well-made products inspired by life at the lake.”
“We were inspired by shared memories of time spent around the water” in the Twin Cities and up north, adds Barrett. “It’s a common experience shared not just by people in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Minnesota, but by anyone who lives near fresh water.”
Another Great Lakes differentiator: Unlike many of their competitors, including similarly sized startups, Burke and Barrett are committed to a totally American-made supply chain. The pair will oversee all design work at their new Minneapolis studio, even as the company grows.
Great Lakes currently relies on a North Carolina manufacturer to supply the bulk of their unfinished shirts — “that’s where most of the American textile industry operates these days,” explains Barrett — with partners in the Twin Cities handling embroidering, printing and other final touches.
Though the online sales model is working well for now, Burke and Barrett are hoping to diversify in the months ahead. A last-minute decision to put on a popup store during the holiday season paid off big time, “blowing past our already pretty ambitious projections for November,” says Burke.
The co-founders are already exploring additional popup opportunities at outdoor events — including a “winter golf” tournament on Lake Minnetonka in mid-February — and, possibly, local brewery taprooms.
But “the dream,” says Burke, “is a flagship store that gets right to the core of the Great Lakes brand,” with an expansive retail area up front and a fulfillment center in the back.
“The popup experience has really reinforced the importance of personal connections for us,” says Burke, noting that in-store conversion rates are about five times higher than online. “We want to be as friendly and hospitable to the customer as we can.”
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