Meeting entrepreneurs is often inspirational, especially when they fly cheerfully in the face of conventional wisdom. Gina Locklear launched Zkano socks in 2009 in Fort Payne, Alabama after much of the South’s once-booming textile and apparel production moved off-shore. Zkano’s story suggests opportunities remain for American manufacturing in an age of global competition.
Modern Fellows approached Gina to talk about her story, both because she cranks out some stylish socks that can be dressed up or down and for the relevance of her story to the broader discussion about whether American textile and apparel manufacturers can compete in the 21st Century global marketplace. Below, Gina talks about her road to starting Zkano, the importance of customer feedback and the challenges of sourcing organic and sustainable materials.
What made you want to start a sock company – in the United States – in the 21st Century?
Sock making is a family tradition for me. My mom and dad started a knitting mill in Ft. Payne, Alabama more than 20 years ago. Over the years, I was always around the business – learning about it and seeing my parents start something from absolutely nothing and make it into a success.
I knew I wanted to be a part of our family business in some way, but I wanted to do so in a way that represented who I am, which is where the focus on organic cotton and fashion-forward socks came from. I was doing residential real estate before this, but I’d always known that I wanted to do something with socks. It just took a little while to put all of the pieces together in a way that it made sense for me.
Some of Zkano’s socks rise higher than modern calf-length socks. What has the reaction from men been to Zkano’s styles and fit?
Zkano’s first men’s collection was released a little over a year ago. We received some feedback that the socks weren’t staying up, which was totally unacceptable.
We did a couple of things: We put a different type of nylon in [our newer releases], and lengthened them so they came up over the calf. Now they stay up all day and are perfect for wearing inside boots, but I have noticed that some of the younger guys are a little freaked out about the new length. These days, most men’s socks hit around the mid-calf region, and that is a big part of the hesitation.
This spring we will release some new Jack socks. We’re going to incorporate some of the fiber technology that we had put in the taller socks into these new socks, so they should have the same hugging fit that the taller socks do without the additional length.
As a small company, how do you get the word out?
We rely almost exclusively on word of mouth. We had a PR person in the past, but we didn’t have a lot of success with it on our small budget.
Since day one, we have been reaching out to bloggers – practically begging them to let us send them samples. (Ed. note: Gina provided a pair of socks to Modern Fellows at no cost, which will be the subject of a future post.) I think that helps tremendously.
This year, we’ve been kind of lucky with a lot of great things coming our way: We were mentioned on Daily Candy, in two national publications and a few Alabama publications. Sales have been going great thanks mostly to those kinds of mentions.
We also do a number of community shows and markets. There is a very popular farmers’ market in Birmingham that we frequent. We participated in the Green Festival NYC show last year. All of these things are building blocks. We find that, down the road, something always comes of that media piece that mentioned us or the show that we participated in. It’s about planting seeds.
Zkano sells direct-to-consumers, but is also available via a handful of other retailers like Raleigh-based Lumina Clothing. What is your retail strategy going forward?
We are looking to expand our presence in retail stores. Our biggest retail customer is Whole Foods Market. We’re in 17 of their stores in the southeast. We’re looking to grow our presence there over the next 5 years.
Our socks are also available in a number of small, independent boutiques – approximately 40 stores across the United States and Canada. We’re in some cool stores in Miami and Naples in Florida. I never would have thought that socks could do so well in such a hot environment but it’s been a very pleasant surprise.
I feel like we are well-placed to compete. In general, if you look at men’s dress socks, they are 20, 30, even 40 dollars and they’re regular cotton, not organic. As far as Zkano, I feel like we are extremely competitive with our pricing.
Who are some of your favorite style entrepreneurs?
There are so many amazing companies and clothing lines. It’s a little hobby to proselytize American-made clothing brands that I like. I adore Imogene and Willie in Nashville. Their story is similar to ours, and are a down home sort of company like we are, but they do denim instead of socks.
There has clearly been increased focus on socks in recent years, with men thinking about them as an opportunity to subtly inject a little color or personality into their outfits. What accounts for the renaissance?
A few things. Socks have been a big trend in fashion over the past year or so. It seems as though I can’t look through a magazine without seeing socks paired with an outfit. I also think that in a tough economy, socks are an affordable addition to update any outfit, as well as great gift items.
People are calling us for custom orders, though right now we aren’t set up to manufacture for private labels and cannot accommodate those requests.
Reflecting back over the past few years, what are some of your takeaways from the business?
It was hard to start up the business and it’s still hard today. We are so small, and we’re self-financed, so we have very limited hands helping to run the company. It’s forced us to do a lot of things on our own. For me, getting used to multitasking is a challenge every single day. We don’t have the money to hire a team of experts to give us advice, so we have to experiment, see what works and go from there. A lot of times, it doesn’t work and it’s back to the drawing board.
How has your focus on sustainability and organic cotton impacted your business?
Expanding our color palette is a challenge for us. We use low impact dyes in everything, which means that some of the amazing colors we’d like to use aren’t available because they contain heavy metals. When I first started, I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to make socks with bright colors. We only manufactured Plain-Jane white athletic socks for the first year and half. So, venturing into the fashion end of socks has been very enjoyable for me.
What’s next for Zkano?
We had a very good end to the year. Our focus now is on expanding what we have now in terms of fashion socks for men and women and constantly trying to improve design and colors. We’re growing slowly, but we are definitely growing a bit each day.
Photos courtesy of Zkano.
About JakeJake is an expert on men’s style and fashion based in Washington, DC. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs and innovative clothing and lifestyle brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. He has published hundreds of articles on style and apparel, and regularly interviews small business CEOs and startup founders about industry trends. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine.
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