Anyone can give a gift card or walk into Macy’s and pull a pair of pants the rack. Instead of running half-crazed through the mall or flinging a Starbucks gift card at your family member, make a Christmas or birthday gift special and unique 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 know impressive brands like Black Lapel, whose founders have made it easier for men to obtain affordable made-to-measure suits and shirts that were once the purview of the well-to-do; Away Travel, whose founders are disrupting the luggage industry and making fantastic suitcases.

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 or, like the sock startup Bombas, adhering to transparency, sustainability and environmental goals as a registered B Corporation.

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 dress shirt and tie 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.

With that in mind, here are 7 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 dress shirts from North Carolina to socks direct 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.

I first wrote this post way back in November 2012, and last updated it in December 2019.

Zkano: Incredibly soft, Made-in-America socks from a second-generation Alabama manufacturer for men and women

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 Tucker diagonal dot crew socks for men that, along with everything else on her site, is made-in-America (and made in Alabama).

Ratio-Clothing-Review-flannel-3

Ratio Clothing: A North Carolina-made shirt for men, 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 shirts are made at a North Carolina factory, and the 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.

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.

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.

Black Lapel: A smoking new made-to-measure suit for men from ex-Wall Street entrepreneurs

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.

Delicious Prohibition-era Rye from Iowa (for men and women)

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.

Hand-made gifts from independent entrepreneurs

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.

There are several amazing platforms to discover unique gifts with an amazing story behind it:

  1. 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. Here at Modern Fellows, we’ve put together a short list of interesting entrepreneurs on Etsy.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

For example:

  1. Nordstrom is an amazing omnichannel retailer who features a number of young and stylish brands for men and women in its stores and online.
  2. Brooks Brothers manufactures some of its neckwear and suiting in the United States and has a rich history.
  3. Club Monaco (now owned by Ralph Lauren) has a great style and fit and is a terrific alternative to the chaos at J. Crew.

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, 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 Jake

Jake 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.

Other cool stuff:

* The Essential List: These 52 innovative menswear startup brands will transform your wardrobe
* Discover more than 30 thoughtful gift ideas for men from unique shirts to colorful socks
* Shop Modern Fellows' list of recommended menswear brands.
* Search 12 Thoughtful Gift Ideas for the Modern Dad for Fathers' Day, Christmas or his birthday
* Browse our list of essential men's style books.
* Discover the best places to buy men's socks online.
* Check out these gorgeous, affordable watches with numbers
* Find Alternatives to Warby Parker that also let you try on prescription eyeglasses at home.
* Explore 10 options for amazing chinos from these menswear startup alternatives to Brooks Brothers.
* Get $50 off your first suit at Black Lapel, one of our favorite online custom tailors.
* Score $20 off your first shirt at Proper Cloth, one of our favorite online custom shirtmakers.


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