Todd-Shelton-profileTodd Shelton has his hands full.  Two years ago this month, the Tennessee-born menswear designer decided to move manufacturing of his classic, already-American-made lineup of shirts, knits, jeans and pants in-house. 

In February 2012, “we moved the brand into an industrial warehouse in East Rutherford, [New Jersey,] bought our first machine, and hired our first production employee,” Shelton wrote on his blog.

Integrating manufacturing, design and retail – as Shelton is doing – is no small feat, and the menswear industry isn’t exactly overflowing with examples from which to learn.

Shelton, pictured above, identifies Los Angeles-based American Apparel as one of the few businesses that is doing something similar – soup-to-nuts designing, manufacturing, and direct-to-consumer retail.  (Unlike AA, at the moment, Shelton sells direct-to-consumer over the Internet only, rather than through retail stores.)

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It is a massive undertaking, and one that presents a unique set of challenges.

One surprise – until you stop to think about it for a moment – is that prices are rising as Shelton brings manufacturing in-house.

“I know some people think that if you bring manufacturing in-house, you’re going to lower your costs,” said Shelton. “That’s simply not the case.  If it were, other clothing brands would own their factories.”

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He decided the benefits of manufacturing under his own roof – to control quality and to provide better flexibility with product design – were worth it.  Quality, Shelton says, has skyrocketed, and control offers a new ability to customize fits, which “has opened up a new world for our customer.”

That additional control and quality comes with a cost, and getting the retail prices to a sustainable – that is profitable – level has taken some finessing.  His jeans, which used to sell for between $120 and $160, are now priced between $150 and $200.  T-shirts today start at $65 while before they began at $45.  Shelton says these new prices for these product categories, the first that Shelton brought in-house, are stable.

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The jeans are priced comparably to others of similar quality with the made-in-America label. Todd Shelton provided a pair, as well as a t-shirt, to Modern Fellows for free, and they fit well and feel great.  Having been lured by the softness and feel of elastane-tinged jeans for the past several years – which are the best they will ever be the first time you wear them – Todd Shelton’s basic unsanded selvedge dark jeans get better with age.

One reason the jeans fit so well was because I knew exactly what size and fit to order thanks to an innovative “fit kit” the company is testing. Todd Shelton will send out a package of unfinished mock-ups of jeans so that customers can test several different fits and sizes (and then return the fit kit via a prepaid shipping label).

Transitioning manufacturing has been an iterative process.  Shirts and pants are just now being brought in-house, and Shelton’s team is assessing a sustainable pricing model for both products.  Shirts are currently priced at $125 and pants at $195.  Shelton said he expects shirts to settle closer to the $160 to $175 range, and is trying to keep pants at $200, but that it may take until mid-2014 to come to a definitive decision.

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One of the reasons Shelton’s adventure is so interesting is that he is pursuing it almost completely contrary to how many brands behave in the digital age.  The playbook followed by many startups these days is to work up a slick consumer interface, take snazzy pictures and pour loads of energy into social media and promotion at the outset, occasionally at the expense of product development, customer service or long term vision.

Shelton isn’t exactly unknown – he has been featured by the likes of Dappered as early as 2011 and Grant Harris of Image Granted – but his brand is certainly less well known than it could be, in large part because he has had his head down for the past several years working through the complexities of a vertical supply chain.  Until last year, he mostly kept in touch via thoughtful, long-form posts on the company’s self-hosted blog, which provided insights into his progress.

Now that his New Jersey factory is up and running, new attention to the marketing side of things is evident. His website recently underwent a facelift.  In May 2013, the company participated in Northern Grade Nashville and began tweeting.

His approach – build something important, concentrate on stellar customer service, and prioritize prettying up the marketing later – seems honest, and like something men should be eager to buy into. It also seems, increasingly, polished. For evidence, take a look at the knockout photographs of the company’s space and team that pepper this article, which Shelton provided to Modern Fellows.

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He admits that he was too ambitious when he began the business, having developed five categories covering most of the core garments a guy needed daily.  The upside, he says, is that now each category – jeans, shirts, pants, t-shirts and tops – has been in development for ten years, and he is able to execute swiftly in each of these core categories going forward.

For 2014, his plan is to release new fabrics, colors, and treatments in each of the established categories, as well as to add a new line of casual tops.

“My father always had supreme confidence.  When we traveled to big cities, I would see a skyscraper and I’d ask, ‘Dad, could you build that building?’  The answer was always ‘Absolutely.’   He instilled in me a mindset I could accomplish anything.”

Photos courtesy of Todd Shelton.

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