Anyone can give a gift card or walk into Macy’s and pull a pair of pants the rack. This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, you can make a Christmas or birthday gift special and unique while supporting small businesses by finding one that has a great story behind it.
Here at Modern Fellows, my goal is to get to know amazing and innovative direct-to-consumer brands that are helping men and women dress sharp in the digital age.
My favorite part of this effort is getting to talk with the innovative and passionate entrepreneurs about how they deliver value, meet an unmet need and cut through all of the digital noise that overwhelms consumers.
Give a story along with your gift
The nice thing about buying from innovative entrepreneurs like the ones detailed below and throughout this site is that you can actually get to know the creative people behind the gifts you buy.
More often than not, when you reach out to staff members at these smaller, scrappy brands, you will find them enthusiastic and knowledgeable not only about their product line but the history of the company and industry. In some cases, the contact forms and telephone lines route directly to the CEO.
You may discover brands that are supporting American workers by making clothing produced in the United States, adhering to transparency, sustainability and environmental goals as a registered B Corporation like the sock startup Bombas, or using environmentally sustainable materials and methods to produce clothing like Allbirds, prAna and Pact Clothing.
Supporting small businesses and innovative ventures is a noble cause, but the point is also to put some meaning and sincerity behind the gift you are giving. It’s not just another sweater when you can tell the recipient about the person who sold it to you, where it was manufactured and why you were excited about buying it.
Instead of running half-crazed through the mall or flinging a Starbucks gift card at your family member or friend, here are thoughtful options for unique gifts for men and women that enable you to tell the great story of the entrepreneurs behind the brand.
From stylish made-in-LA dresses to colorful socks from Alabama, keep reading for great alternatives to gift cards or navigating the local department store, along with a nod to the entrepreneurs behind the products.
Many of the brands below host sales or offer coupon codes for first time purchases. Check out a running list of men’s clothing sales and deals online in this dedicated post.
I first wrote this post way back in November 2012, and last updated it in light of the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2020.
Keep someone cozy with Rumpl’s performance blankets
CEO Wylie Robinson founded Oregon-based blanket and gear startup Rumpl in 2014 to utilize the kind of performance materials in parkas and sleeping bags to everyday blankets. Give a gift sure to keep someone cozy and warm this holiday season with a Rumpl blanket.
Get to know how Rumpl is adapting to the COVID19 crisis and coming together with like-minded brands to support good causes in this interview with Wylie.
Prepare for future travel with a new road-trip bag from Nomad Lane
Vanessa Jeswani and Kish Vasnani founded Nomad Lane with the goal of making versatile bags that can transition from the office to the bar to the plane (or car).
Nomad Lane’s signature “Bento Bag” can serve as a briefcase, duffel, weekender and under-seat personal item on an airplane. The company advertised the Bento as “the most thoughtful travel bag ever” in a very successful Indiegogo campaign.
Learn more Nomad Lane in my interview with Vanessa.
Impress a coffee drinker with super-charged tea from Teaspressa
Entrepreneur Allison DeVane founded Teaspressa in Phoenix, Arizona in 2015 to sell tea that is uniquely formulated to have the characteristics and caffeine content of coffee. Allison’s patented teamaking process produces a full-bodied tea that drinks like espresso without the jitters or crash.
Try Teaspressa’s signature teas like Manhattan Black, Green Gold and Charles Gray.
Upgrade a work-from-home wardrobe with Ministry of Supply’s workleisure wear
MIT classmates Aman Advani and Gihan Amarasiriwardena cobbled together a business plan to transform business attire using stretchy performance fabrics for added comfort, resulting in Ministry of Supply.
Today, Ministry of Supply sells an array of performance professional and business casual clothing for women and men meant to be stylish and comfortable.
Get to know more about the company, which makes stretchy workleisure shirts, suits, slacks, dresses, blouses, tees, tanks and outerwear in my interview with co-founder and CEO Aman Advani.
Send a stylish hat via Flamekeepers Hat Club
Marc Williamson founded Flamekeepers Hat Club as a modern alternative to traditional hatters and haberdashers. Based in Harlem, FHC provides a range classy hats to modern gentlemen, which are also available online.
Check out FlameKeepers Hat Club for a wide range of boater, fedora, open crown, Panama, wide brim and top hats as well as newsboy, Kangol, donegal tweed ivy, and smart-looking cashmere baseball caps.
Get incredibly soft, Made-in-America socks from Zkano, a second-generation Alabama manufacturer
Gina Locklear has manufacturing in her soul. The daughter of a textile manufacturer, she established her own sock company, Zkanos, in Fort Payne, Alabama, even as the U.S. textile industry dwindled around her.
Zkano released a new combed organic cotton collection that features a higher thread count and thus finer and softer sock. (It’s the same principle as the thread count in sheets.) Personally, I’m a fan of the sturdy crew socks for men that, along with everything else on her site, is made-in-America (in Alabama to be precise).
Snag eye-catching, Italian-made shoes for men at “unheard of prices” from Ace Marks
Ace Marks Founder Paul Farago grew up around shoe factories. The thing I love about Paul and his team is the meticulous attention to detail. The company is one of very few Direct-to-Consumer brands that makes their shoes entirely in Italy using Italian leathers and Italian components. (Ace Marks also makes good looking leather sneakers.) They also created their own proprietary “Ace Last” that follows U.S. Brannock Standard sizing and aims to reduce pressure points around the ball and heel of the foot.
“Our last is one of the main reasons that our shoes tend to fit better and feel more comfortable than other brands, and customers are less likely to exchange or return our shoes due to size and fit problems,” Paul told me.
Ace Marks maintains generous free shipping and return policies, as well as a partnership with Career Gear, a nonprofit organization. Ace Marks will buy back your old shoes via a credit towards a new pair, and will donate those previously-loved pairs of shoes to help men get back on their feet and re-enter the workforce.
Support artisans via fashion and accessories platform VIDA
Umaimah Mendhro founded VIDA as a global platform that unites creatives and manufacturers to offer unique clothing and accessories on-demand and at mass-scale.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, VIDA had already launched over 2.5 million unique clothing items including handbags, cashmere silk scarves and boatneck boyfriend tee-shirts as well as accessories like iphone cases, yoga mats and large accent candles. The company has produced collaborations with a interesting partners including MoMA, the deYoung Museum, StitchFix, Steve Madden, Cher and Iris Apfel.
In June, VIDA launched a Black Lives Matter collection, showcasing five Black artisans whose art adorns products available for purchase.
I spoke with Umaimah, who began to produce reusable face masks for kids and adults during the pandemic, about the challenges she has faced during COVID-19. She told me that, “this is an unprecedented time and small businesses in general are faced with a plethora of new obstacles — everything from shipping delays, working remote teams, and keeping limited on-the-ground team members safe with new health and safety protocols. We are all navigating these changes the best we can and hope customers understand that.”
Treat someone to comfortable, affordable-luxury leather sneakers, flats, mules or drivers
Minnesota-based Oliver Cabell makes buttery-soft, affordable-luxury leather sneakers and super-comfortable driving shoes for men along with good-looking flats, mules and low-top leather sneakers for women.
Scott Gabrielson founded Oliver Cabell in July 2016 with the goal of disrupting the premium footwear space with handmade footwear for men and women.
Oliver Cabell marries the use of luxury materials from Italy and Spain with a focus on supply chain transparency and offering affordable luxury shoes at a fair price.
I love Oliver Cabell’s zero-branding philosophy and Scott’s goal to use old school shoemaking techniques and premium materials “and then reveal it all, from factories to costs.” He told me that 90% of Oliver Cabell’s shoes are made by cobblers using simple tools.
Refresh an athleisure wardrobe with American-made activewear from K-DEER
Kristine Deer founded K-DEER in 2012 after hating what she wore to teach her Barkan hot yoga glasses. K-DEER’s bright and attractive lines of women’s leggings, skorts, shorts, outerwear, sports bras, tee shirts and more make a great gift option to refresh an athleisure wardrobe: They are made in the USA at factories in New Jersey and New York City’s Garment Center and are a thoughtful option for someone who might not splurge for themselves.
A friend of mine adores K-DEER’s signature stripe leggings, which were recommended by her Pilates instructor.
Add some flair to a guy’s wardrobe with Richmond-based fashion startup Ledbury
I love Ledbury. Co-founders Paul Watson and Paul Trible effortless combine southern flair with British tailoring to produce subtly-unique and often-colorful professional wear, business casual attire and weekend-wear.
Ledbury is among my favorite menswear brands, an excellent option for colorful men’s dress shirts, and one of the best places to buy neckties. Discover why Ledbury has such a loyal customer base in this interview with co-founder Paul Trible.
Give the gift of glamour with Black Halo’s American-made dresses
Laurel Berman founded Black Halo in 2002. Her company designs and manufactures a range of sleek dresses, jumpsuits, tops, skirts and pants for women in Los Angeles. Take a peek at Black Halo’s iconic Jackie-O dress.
Get a guy ready for going back to the office with a new made-to-measure suit from Black Lapel
An investment banker during the Great Recession, Warren Liao decided to get out and pursue his passion, founding custom clothing label Black Lapel with business partner Derek Tian in 2008.
While it would take a spectacular amount of stealth to secure the precise set of measurements needed for Black Lapel to construct a proper suit, a gift certificate is a safe bet to get someone ready for going back to the office in 2021.
Learn more about how Black Lapel is managing significant headwinds during COVID-19 and see why they are one of my absolute favorite online custom tailors.
Gift dependable work, and work-from-home wear for women from startup M. M. Lafleur
Sarah Lafleur teamed up with co-founders Narie Foster and Miyako Nakamura to launch M. M. Lafleur in 2013. The founders showed flexibility, testing out different clothing concepts, including delivering “Bento Boxes” of clothing to women who signed up online, as well as delivery channels, including Brick-and-Mortar 2.0-inspired popup shops and physical stores.
The innovative womenswear e-commerce startup seems to have hit its stride as an omnichannel retailer, combining its sleek online presence with M. M. Lafleur showrooms in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York City’s Bryant Park, San Francisco and Washington, DC to expand awareness and sales of its unfussy, modern takes on classic workwear for women who have #betterthingstodo.
Encourage a guy to try a little concealer
This is a great stocking stuffer if you approach it the right way:
Devir Kahan and Jon Shanahan founded Stryx, a men’s skincare and cosmetics company, to help men look and feel their best everyday.
Stryx offers specially-designed and formulated products for men, including a concealer tool and tinted moisturizer help men cover blemishes, dark undereye circles, razor burn, and more.
Jon told me how Stryx has re-positioned its messaging in response to the coronavirus crisis, and is benefiting from everyone wanting to look their best on Zoom calls.
(This one should be pretty easy to pick up, as CVS has rolled out Stryx nationwide in their stores.)
Help someone discover new “brown girl approved” beauty brands via Marjani Beauty
Kimberley Smith founded DC-based Marjani Beauty to cater to Women of Color. She aims to create an online retail experience to make beauty products accessible no matter a woman’s shade, hair texture, age, nationality or location.
Marjani partners with beauty and lifestyle brands “that highlight and celebrate our diversity and develop products specific to our needs.” The company helps to connect “brown girl approved” brands with consumers around the world.
Gift soft, durable t-shirts from fashion disrupter ASKET
Sweden-based ASKET “exists to challenge the fickle nature of the fashion industry… and to show the incumbents that the fashion industry can operate in wholly different ways,” Co-Founder August Bard-Bringeus told me in an interview.
August suggests that, “no wardrobe is complete without a quality white T-shirt, one that lasts 5 years, not 5 washes and that “our classic T is my personal favourite.”
Give a comfortable flannel shirt from Ratio Clothing that is suitable for work and play.
Eric Powell was working at Deloitte when he first had the itch to start his own custom clothing business. “It is really frustrating to walk into a store like a J Crew, see something you like, try on every size and realize that nothing works,” he told me.
In 2011, he opened his own online business, Colorado-based Ratio Clothing, which focuses on custom-tailored shirts, including casual and dual-use items that are appropriate for the boardroom and barroom. Ratio’s online ordering system is straightforward and simple. If you know your guy’s neck, sleeve and suit size, you can get him a great shirt, like this purple and blue tattersall. If it’s too late to get Christmas or birthday delivery, get a gift card anytime up to the big day.
Score Vintage-inspired jewelry for men and women from an Ohio artist
Columbus, Ohio-based artist Jamie Riley established White Truffle Studio and BOHINDI to fill a gap in the wedding market, but many of her creations are appropriate for everyday wear. Her cufflinks range from the whimsical (peppermint candy spirals) to the oddly innovative (personalized QR Code), but my favorites are her vintage-inspired models, such as her surfer-inspired palm trees. For women, her disc and pearl necklace is understated, unique and, at $60, affordable.
Nab Delicious Prohibition-era Rye from Iowa
In Iowa, Frank Schroeder continued to produce rye secretly from his farm near Odebolt during prohibition. Fast forward some eighty years, and Scott Bush and Keith Kerkhoff, “two small–town guys with a shared family bootlegging history,” resuscitated the recipe, built a distillery from scratch, and now run an annual “Rock and Rye” festival in town. They also make one heck of a rye.
Where to discover hand-made gifts from independent entrepreneurs
The brands and entrepreneurs above are just the tip of the iceberg.
When I first wrote this post way back in 2012, I flagged the story of Greg Walton, a school bus driver by day who started sewing because he wanted to learn how to make his own suits and shirts, but turned to ties under the tutelage of a trusted sewing instructor. About four years prior, he began to make ties for himself and a friend’s shop. He developed a business from there, launching Louis Walton in January 2012.
Greg designed all of his own patterns and constructed each tie by hand. His ties, including an understated blue Japanese cotton pattern, could be special ordered in precise widths and lengths, and hovered around $100. They were “a labor of love, and that love shines in his work.”
Sadly, Greg’s website is no longer active but similar stories, and products, abound.
Curated e-commerce platforms to find handmade gifts and clothing and independent brands
There are several amazing platforms to discover unique gifts with an amazing story behind it:
- Etsy: Brooklyn-based e-commerce platform Etsy does a terrific job emphasizing the stories behind independent artisans and entrepreneurs on everything from jewelry to clothing to housewares. I put together a short list of interesting Etsy shops for men.
- Inclusive Trade: Based in London, Inclusive Trade is a super-impressive micro e-commerce platform that enables consumers to #shopbyimpact and support entrepreneurs who are making a difference in their communities. Founders Rupa and Emma have sent a series of uplifting emails to their community amid the COVID-19 pandemic, providing encouragement to “keep calm, stay safe and lets help each other remain positive through the day!”
- Huckberry is an amazing online store to find men’s clothing. Andy Forch and Rich Greiner founded the online-only department store in 2010 and stocked it with an outstanding selection of extremely well-curated menswear, accessories, homewares and textiles.
- Jane: Located in the Silicon Slopes of Lehi, Utah, Megan and Mike McEwan founded the online clothing marketplace Jane after Mike lost his job. The scrappy online marketplace features a range of cute and largely affordable clothing and accessories for women (and a few selections for me and kids) as well as homewares from a range of small business sellers.
- Nordstrom is, without a doubt, my favorite brick-and-mortar department store option owing to a rare combination of responsive customer service, intuitive e-commerce technology and filtering capabilities and quick shipping. Nordstrom stocks a really impressive selection of small, young and independent brands for women and men.
- VIDA (see above)
- Amazon: Even the biggest e-commerce platforms feature interesting, young brands. Amazon curates innovative new brands through Amazon Launchpad, and offers dozens if not hundreds of impressive brands for men and women on its site.
Finally: Don’t Dismiss the mall. Just look harder.
Amazing stories and experiences are not limited to young companies and entrepreneurs. Stories are everywhere, even occasionally at the mall.
- Brooks Brothers manufactures some of its neckwear in the United States and has a rich history, even if it has fallen on hard times of late.
- Club Monaco (now owned by Ralph Lauren) has a great style and fit and is a terrific alternative to the chaos at J. Crew.
This year, it’s more important than ever to #shopsmall
Whether the company started two years or two centuries ago, the idea is to shop with purpose, seeking meaningful gifts and stories that will make giving and receiving more meaningful.
This holiday, given the number of entrepreneurs out there doing great things (and struggling to survive), it would be great to say, “I discovered this unique gift from an entrepreneur who quit his 9-to-5 job to follow his passion” as opposed to “I got it at the mall, and the gift receipt is in the box.”
About JakeJake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and/or fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.
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3 thoughts on “Looking for a Unique Gift? Choose One with a Small Business Story Behind It.”
Great suggestions, and yes, a story is the best gift. Especially for men who can buy themselves whatever they want. I’ve run into this with my father in recent years. Why get him some tie from a department store when you can find one with a story behind it?
Actually that rye would work too…
Love reading the stories behind each designer. Thank you for supporting small businesses!