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Posted Date: 12/11/2009

Alternative Apparel

By Masha Zager

As its name suggests, Alternative Apparel has a viewpoint slightly outside the mainstream. Its unconventionality may stem from its origins as a printing company - it transitioned into apparel manufacturing when founder Greg Alterman decided he needed better T-shirts to print his designs on. After completely rethinking the T-shirt, Alterman developed the soft, comfortable, beautifully fitted shirts the company is now known for.
 
Today, Alternative Apparel is a consumer lifestyle clothing brand that produces not only T-shirts and hats but also sweaters, dresses, pants and jackets suitable for wearing almost anywhere. "Our goal is to outfit the people who love the brand, head to toe," says president Evan Toporek. And a lot of people love the brand, especially urban twenty-somethings (and their babies and toddlers). Like that first T-shirt, all of Alternative Apparel's clothing is intended to give wearers a physical and mental sense of ease. "It gives you the confidence to be comfortable in who you are," Toporek explains. "The real you comes out."

Innovation in design
The team of "mad scientists" in Alternative Apparel's Los Angeles design lab is still at work creating new designs. Toporek says management encourages the group to play with fabrications, silhouettes, and finishes, and to plunge into thrift shops and music venues in search of ideas. This prolific team generates five times as many designs as the company can possibly use. "There's no lack of ideas coming through there," Toporek says.
 
One of the team's greatest successes is "burnout fabric," made from a cotton and polyester blend from which the cotton has been burned away, yielding unpredictable patterns. After working with factories in Los Angeles to perfect the fabric, in 2006 the company introduced a shirt made from it. The shirt quickly became the brand's icon. "Every product is unique," says Toporek. "It feels and looks like a shirt you've worn for 30 years."
 
The design team has also developed other proprietary fabrics, including pima cotton, silk modal blends, slub fabrics and even a linen soft enough to make T-shirts from; usually, the designers develop silhouettes only after working with a new fabric and seeing how it drapes. One thing the designers don't do - despite the company's origins in printing - is to put any marks on the outside of the garments. Toporek says the brand's customers don't want to be billboards; they prefer to promote themselves rather than the brand.

Same-day shipping for retailers

Alternative Apparel's business processes are as innovative as its design. The company pioneered the quick-turn inventory model in retail, adapting a model that is widely used in the printing industry. It maintains inventories of all its current styles, allowing retailers to try out new styles and replenish them as needed with same-day shipments (or within a week if there are specific requirements). "They don't have to think four months out and place weekly orders," Toporek says. By stocking inventory, Alternative Apparel reduces the inventory risk for its retailer customers - a benefit they value greatly.
 
Succeeding with the quick-turn inventory model requires close communication with customers and highly sophisticated forecasting. Inevitably, some merchandise ends up being discounted, but Toporek says the company is below industry norms for overstock. Alternative Apparel also controls overstock by quickly ending production of styles that are no longer fashion-forward. Toporek says, "Our customers trust that we have our finger on the pulse of fashion. When we discontinue an item and replace it, they will move forward with us."
 
Ever since its start in 1995, Alternative Apparel has been on a fast track, and it has experienced at least 30 percent growth in each of the past five years. Toporek attributes this rapid growth to the company's strategy of offering consumers high-fashion, versatile clothing at reasonable prices, and offering retail customers high resale margins with low risk. Outstanding customer service and a clearly defined brand are important parts of the mix, too.
 
Though its growth rate has dipped this year, the company is still growing. With a healthy cash balance, it has used the slowdown as an opportunity to automate systems, invest in marketing, train and promote employees, and prepare for the launch of its own retail business by bringing on new staff with relevant skills.
 
The largest IT investment has been in Lawson's ERP solution, which is slated to go live in spring 2010. Toporek says the ERP system will bring the company to a new level of efficiency and flexibility. Vendor portals will provide real-time information for re-ordering supplies, the warehouse will be fully automated, and custom profiles for key accounts will ensure that orders are delivered more quickly and accurately. Several other technology initiatives are also in the works, including a digital asset management system that will align catalog printing more closely with distributors' needs and an employee evaluation system that will help develop and grow the workforce.

Eco can be chic
Alternative Apparel and its young, sophisticated customers see eye to eye on the subject of social responsibility. In addition to participating in traditional goodwill activities, such as raising money to benefit children with AIDS and cancer, the company has set rigorous labor and environmental standards for its factories worldwide (two-thirds of them are outside the United States) and has introduced an "Alternative Earth" line that includes organic and recycled fabrics finished with low-water dyeing processes. Supplier compliance and eco-friendly products are audited annually by third parties.
 
The company has also launched a "Think | Earth" campaign to promote environmental action. To capitalize on its celebrity following (there are no paid endorsements, but the design division's Los Angeles location creates visibility in the entertainment industry), Alternative Apparel has begun producing a semi-annual Think | Earth magazine in which celebrities highlight the environmental organizations they support. The magazines are distributed at these organizations' events and shipped with Alternative Earth products.
 
The Think | Earth magazine is very different from the reams of print typically generated about Hollywood celebrities. "We don't ask them who they're dating or what trouble they've gotten into," Toporek says. "We just give them this forum they can use to promote something the public may not know about."

Masha Zager is a New York-based Apparel contributing writer who specializes in business and technology.
 
 
QUICK TAKES
Foresight: Alternative Apparel founder Greg Alterman began selling t-shirts from the trunk of his car when he was a 19-year-old college student. Even then, he insisted that T-shirts would one day rule the fashion world - though his ideas didn't gain much traction at the time.
Fast Growth: Based on 550 percent growth in its first six years, Alternative Apparel was recognized by Inc. 500 as one of the fastest growing private companies in 2001.
Smart Supply Chain: With its strategic management of inventory from production to sale, Alternative Apparel turns its inventory over four times per year while still being able to offer same-day shipping to customers. 

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