Forget “the perfect hoodie.” I’ve found my soul mate in a new muscle T.
I’ve had an intense summer.
I am the mother of a three year old and an 18-month old. My house is tantrum and Frozen central. Pando is in that final push to profitability and while that sounds good, we’re in that phase of growing pain where we have more opportunities than cash in the bank and have had to make hard decisions, while not losing momentum. It’s first-time CEO Hunger Games.
It’s been a summer when I need to channel my inner bad ass in order to plow through everything I need to get done. And my uniform in doing that all summer has mostly been cowboy boots and muscle T’s.
There is something magical about a muscle T. It's not a tank top. Tank tops hang out at the beach; muscle Ts get down to business. It’s masculine while also being feminine. It's sexy without being overtly so. (Think “Legend of Billy Jean.”) It is the ultimate embodiment of rolling your sleeves up to get shit done. You’ve rolled them up so far -- in fact-- that there are no sleeves left.
Peter Thiel (disclosure: a Pando investor) wrote in his recent book, "Zero to One," about the role of the startup T-shirt and hoodie uniform in inspiring young, male 20-something founders who didn’t want to play by classic business rules. While it seems a thoughtless wardrobe choice-- he describes the act of emblazoning your chest with your logo as embodying the daily mission of your startup. And the hoodie? It’s a rejection of the suit and with it the legacy sales-over-product culture of the Valley’s early decades.
If you ask me, the muscle T is the same thing for women founders in this era of the Valley. The ones I know and admire aren’t the pantsuit wearing masculine icons like Carly Fiorina, nor are they they Carrie Bradshaw-turned-Julia Allison image of designer dresses, stilettos, eyelash extensions, and carefully manicured nails. Nor are they they seemingly every hair in place and no toy left on the stairs unattainable perfection of Sheryl Sandberg. They are raw. Messy. Authentic. Lives in chaos, but somehow that chaos is our definition of having it all. Chaos is how you know you are pushing yourself. It's how you know you are at the edge.
It’s a similar kind of sentiment that resonated with me about Bonobos’s Ayr line. It catered to a woman who wanted to look pulled together throughout work, play, chasing kids and general insanity. The idea was you need about a dozen great pieces you can mix and match with cheap basics on a moment’s notice in the morning and not look back.
Here’s another way of phrasing it: Muscle T’s aren’t for the woman willing to accept she has made it, because she is still making it.
I can’t claim credit for that last line: I paraphrased it from a company called umano. Or as I call it: The maker of the ultimate muscle T for the bad ass woman on the go.
I discovered umano two weeks ago not through a press release in my inbox but Bloomingdale’s highly read “denim days” newsletter, which featured an image of a bad ass girl wearing a bad ass muscle T. The drape looked perfect, it was a black matte fabric, and had a pocket detail of a roughly drawn skull. “New T-Shirts by umano” the email said with such confidence that I assumed “umano” was a hipster Brooklyn T-shirt upstart that everyone had heard of but me. I pictured men in skinny jeans and ironic handlebar mustaches pressing the shirts in a place named after Dumbo or Goofy or some other Disney icon.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, that Bloomingdale’s email was the result of a hardscrabble, bootstrapped, three-year journey on the part of this small Athens, Georgia-based labor of love.
Forget Farhad Manjoo’s “perfect hoodie.” This muscle T was like a window into my soul. And not just because of the lack of sleeves.
* * * *Umano was started by two brothers, Alex and Jonathan Torrey, aged 27 and 30. Jonathan runs the business, sources fabrics and works with manufacturers, and Alex does “the fun stuff” of designing the line.
Oddly enough for a line of $50 T-shirts, Umano started with a belief that education was the biggest determiner in pulling kids out of poverty-- something the brothers learned from their school teacher parents. They wanted to do something measurable and achievable-- giving more kids in poor areas backpacks filled with school supplies.
That morphed into the idea of elevating kids drawings-- made with those same supplies-- as works of art. And where better to display them than in fashion. The idea was ripped off from TOMS and Warby Parker-- buy a Tshirt, and Umano gives a kid a backpack of school supplies.
Umano shirts not only feature a kid’s art work, but your shirt comes with a tag showing the picture of the artist and a bit about his or her life. As I write this, I’m wearing a white V-neck with a friendly monster named “Eddie”, drawn by a little boy named Ramon. He wants to be a doctor when he grows up. My three year old Eli immediately noticed it this morning, pointing to my pocket and saying, “Mama, what’s that?”
“It’s a monster,” I said. “A little boy named Ramon drew it.”
“Is that the eyes? And the nose?” he said, exploring it excitedly. “Can I touch it mama? Can I wear your shirt?” The shirt not only empowered Ramon, wherever he is in the world, it showed Eli that kids art could be more than refrigerator filler. As a mother of two young kids who spent two years traveling through emerging markets everything about this pulls at my heart strings.
Once the brothers settled on T shirts, they spent years obsessing over every detail. They spent four months on a factory floor in Turkey weighing yarns in the process of making their own custom fabric. Their core collection of seven Tshirt silhouettes took more than a year to design, produce, and shoot in an edgy lookbook, that shows off their unique hybrid Southern/New York aesthetic.
Umano is completely bootstrapped, with staff drawn from interns from University of Georgia and the brothers’ parent’s living room long acting as the company’s “warehouse.” The Torreys have no experience in fashion and don’t know a single VC. They got into Bloomingdales after pitching “a friend of a friend of a friend who knew someone who might work at Bloomingdale’s not even as a buyer,” says Alex. “We were just very persistent.”
Even in that first meeting with Bloomingdales.com, Alex and Jonathan went on and on for forty five minutes about their story and the company’s mission. They were so focussed on telling the story, in fact, that they forgot to actually show off their shirts. “Um, do you guys have any samples?” the buyers finally asked. “We didn’t have a background in retail or design or manufacturing or anything,” Alex says.
The first order for Bloomingdales.com was small, about eighty units. When they sold out, the first reorder was for hundreds more. By August, umano had wedged its way into nine Bloomingdale’s stores. Two weeks after that, Bloomingdales reordered double the number of shirts and expanded the reach to 15 stores.
Sell-through rates-- an industry term that means percentage of inventory sold in a given time-- were north of 15% in their first full week in stores, several times higher than the average Tshirt brand. In Bloomingdale’s SoHo store the sell through was above 30%, according to the brothers.
Still the brothers have one big, growing problem: Unlike a hot mobile app that can simply spin up more AWS to meet demand, umano is shipping actual atoms in the form of shirts and if this growth is going to be sustained they are gonna need cash. Still, in a world where VCs see promises of brand and a grand idea, the brothers have refreshing real results to speak to.
It doesn’t hurt that they are smack in the middle of ecommerce trends that are (kinda) working: A heavy emphasis on brand, multi-channel selling with a big department store anchor, and a give one-get one social mission. It’s a mash-up of Warby Parker meets Bonobos meets Nasty Gal. And, OK, yes, those companies have required a shit load of capital, have the luxury of being in mega markets like New York and LA and even still have hit snags from time to time. But as one of the many Americans who is collectively spending some $20 billion annually in constant quest of the perfect T shirt, trust me when I say this brand is on to something.
* * * *I ordered three umano shirts, and the V-neck T and tank top are not for every body type. The fabric hugs around the waist-- and despite losing some 70 pounds since I was nine months pregnant -- I had to wear a slimming tank top underneath them to feel confident. But the muscle T is truly a magical cut that's flattering for everyone. It’s slim but hangs over the midsection in such a way that all flaws (and previous pregnancies) are forgiven and forgotten. It manages to look polished and tough at once. You can wear it with a pencil skirt and blazer or ripped jeans.
Overall the color palette is an urban black, white and grey, the necklines are higher than most shirts and the fit manages to be tomboyish and sexy at the same time. It’s an aesthetic that it took the brothers three years to grapple their way towards. In the early years of umano, Alex would take Tshirt prototypes around with him everywhere asking women to try them on and give him feedback and copiously taking notes. Not a sewer or patternmaker himself, he “designs” the shirts by pinching and tucking on a mannequin, which a pattern maker turns into reality. He knows what he wants when he sees it. It’s iterative, like a lot of software and he’s more the designer than engineer.
And then there’s the pocket design-- the heart of the brand. Like TOMS and Warby, the mission in inexorably tied to what umano does. The whole schtick of the shirts is pocket art drawn by kids, designed by umano but with the integrity of the drawing absolutely left in tact. They combine a trip to give out backpacks with a trip to get drawings. And while education is certainly empowering, so is seeing Westerners plunk down $50 at Bloomingdales for a t-shirt with a kid’s drawing on it. The hardest part is picking the images, because they get so many great ones.
Alex says the giving trips are the best part of his job and the true North of the company. He and his brother will always personally do them, he says. Anyone who has traveled through emerging markets, villages, slums, and megacities knows why. The open trusting hearts of kids who flock out of nowhere and come racing over to say hi-- no matter where you are from, no matter where they are from is staggering.
What resonated most as Torrey describes the trips was the strength and the speed of the personal connections kids can make with outsiders. “There are always one or two kids you connect with, they are showing you their drawings and it’s not uncommon for them to just run up and hug you,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Man, were we here for two years?’” He describes these trips-- frequently to far flung rural outposts-- as physically exhausting but spiritually motivating. “We don’t have proprietary anything but our secret weapon is as cutthroat and competitive as the fashion industry is, these giving trips keep us focused and grounded,” Alex says.
As he described them, I remembered a day I spent touring favelas in Rio when I was writing my second book. A little girl came from nowhere and unassumingly walked over and held my hand. She walked with me for blocks, a shy snaggle-toothed smile and easy trusting manner. This was before I was a mom, and I was much more hard-edged. But I couldn’t help welling up. I wanted to wrap her in my arms and take her away from the violence of her home, but at the same time, that wouldn’t respect her obvious internal strength that so many Americans could never truly understand. This story is remarkable only in how universal it is. I’ve experienced the same in war torn parts of Rwanda, Colombia, and Nigeria.
Simply put: The open hearts of children gives you hope that fucked up geopolitical divisions and biases can change with another generation.
Such a mission isn’t just a gimmick. In a survey of 6,000 consumers, Bloomingdales found that 74 percent of respondents said a brand’s “social responsibility” is “very” or “somewhat” important and are significantly more likely to shop a brand if it’s involved with a charity. That’s the most pronounced with the coveted 19-24 year old age group. It may be the best thing about millennials.
The ultimate incarnation of this thing Alex describes-- that anyone who has hung out with kids in emerging markets has experienced-- is a child’s drawing. It doesn’t require learning or language or cultural understanding or even some innate talent. All it requires is a crayon and paper or a similar equivalent and, well, a kid’s imagination. “It took us forever to put it into words, but there is a raw confidence in a kids drawings,” Alex says. “They’ll hold it up with pride and say, ‘This is the best hippopotamus,’ even if it’s unrecognizable.”
We’ve seen so many brands that speak to a specific “girl” come and go. Just like Bonobos with pants, umano will have to veer well outside of T-shirts and pockets to build a great company. Selfishly, I’d love to see them expand with a children’s line or explore a premium denim partnership-- that’s arguably the most iconic pocket in all of fashion.
But that’s hard for umano to even think about now-- the crush of orders from the successful Bloomingdale’s launch is already bringing up very real “nice to have” issues of scale, meeting demand, and funding inventory. Amid all the other things the Torrey brothers need to focus on right now, it’s dawning on them they probably need to raise some money.