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Camping & Hiking

Appalachian Gear Co. founder talks expansion, Made in USA, and more

The outdoor apparel brand that specializes in alpaca has expanded to a larger facility in North Carolina, but as John Gage told OBJ, the company plans to grow at its own pace and not overreach.

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In 2015, longtime textile pros John Gage and Mike Hawkins created the idea for an outdoor apparel brand that would use alpaca fiber for its products. Two years later the duo formally launched their vision when they incorporated Appalachian Gear Co., but it wasn’t until 2019 that their business began to truly take off.

The pair had started App Gear Co., as the company refers to itself, because they wanted to create a line of apparel made with performance fabrics that had less of an environmental impact than polyester and nylon yet boasted the same benefits.

App Gear Co.’s performance wear, which is knitted with Peruvian alpaca fibers, quickly became highly sought-after by outdoor adventurers who wanted an alternative to polyester, nylon, and even merino wool.

Despite the surging popularity, the brand’s founders kept production limited so they wouldn’t scale beyond their capacity—but that only created more demand.

Read more: Did REI fare better or worse than other outdoor businesses in 2020?

“All of a sudden, we were having a hard time keeping stock,” Gage told OBJ in a recent interview. “We would have these inventory drops, and they would sell out in an hour.”

Soon after the brand hit its stride, however, the world’s economy hit a wall with the arrival of Covid-19. App Gear Co. struggled to source its alpaca fibers from Peru, yet demand for its alpaca clothing and accessory items never wavered. If anything, the brand’s already skyrocketing demand soared as supply was stunted.

John Gage
John Gage, co-founder of Appalachian Gear Co., saw his business boom during Covid. Photo: Courtesy

“Our brand name, from a cottage-industry standpoint, started to explode,” Gage said. “It got to the place where we’re dropping inventory, and it would sell out in 15 or 20 minutes. We made it through Covid, though we struggled like everybody else. At one point we went for a couple of months and didn’t have any raw material. Earlier this year, we realized if we were going to be successful, we had to use this opportunity to find a real manufacturing space that we could grow into. It was exciting to see the inventory sell out, but at the same time, we’ve got this loyal following, and it’s frustrating when people are trying to buy stuff and they can’t buy it because it’s sold out.”

Those frustrations led App Gear Co. to seek new digs, and the brand recently moved into a larger production facility in Kings Mountain, N.C., With the new facility ramping up, OBJ wanted to see what’s on tap for App Gear Co., so we spoke with Gage about the brand, its plans for increasing supply to meet the high demand, and why the company’s Made in the USA ethos is so important. Here’s what he shared.

What sparked the need for this new production facility and what metrics can you provide about how it will help the brand grow?

In the early days, when my partner and I were making it, I would put products in a van and sell them on a street corner or at a festival. It’s the same kind of story you’ve heard over and over again. When we chose this spot in Kings Mountain, we realized we had to build scalability into our operations. We did not want to move for a couple years and then have to move somewhere else. In terms of metrics, we’re making probably a few thousand pieces of different products per month—that includes beanies, buffs, and hoodies. We can scale to where we’ll make more than 10,000, 15,000 pieces per month. We’re not there yet—we just wanted to build that in so that we wouldn’t have to worry about it in the future.

What are your sales channels and does that strategy change with the increased production capacity?

We’re primarily a direct e-commerce sales model right now. In the old days—a decade or 15 years ago—if you were a company like us, the first thing you’d do after the proof-of-concept phase is go out and raise a bunch of money, hire a rep, and go straight on to REI, Backcountry, and every store you get into. Because our product line is so process-centric, and we’re still improving it all the time, we realized that the best thing for us to do was take advantage of the fact that e-commerce as a platform has grown so much in the last five years, allowing us to manage our own growth. The last thing we wanted to do is to go knock on REI’s door and say, “Hey, here we are, and we’ve got the only alpaca fleece in the world,” and then fall on our face because we can’t service that account. Servicing a retail account requires a whole different layer of administration, even if you’re servicing independent stores, so we’re not doing that yet. We’ve been around the block enough to know when not to overreach.

But with this increased production, will App Gear Co. consider a wholesale model down the road?

We’re going to further develop our e-commerce channel, and then we’ll go out and try to get into some independent mom-and-pop stores, get our feet wet, and understand how to service them. I’ve done plenty of business-to-business in my former textile life. I’ve dealt with all the big brands. But it’s different from a manufacturing standpoint because my partner and I’ve never had a brand ourselves. Dealing with a retail outlet is something that we’re going to go into cautiously because in the end, all you have is your name. If you fall on your face a couple times and get a bad name, it’s hard to turn that around.

What is the App Gear Co. customer profile?

The people buying our stuff right now are the folks who are out there using it all the time. We don’t get a lot of athleisure customers. There’s a whole segment of folks that want to buy a brand like The North Face and Patagonia because of the “cool” factor, but they might not be out there actually backpacking. We’ve really focused on the actual user market, and we get out where they are. Recently, I sent my entire fulfillment crew up to the Appalachian Trail with a hoodie to give to a person that’s through-hiking. They’ve been a customer of ours for a couple years now, and they have one of our old school hoodies that they had worn out. They got in touch with us on Instagram, so I sent our guys up there with a hoodie and a case of beer, along with a bunch of beanies for the folks hiking with them. That’s the kind of fun thing you can do when you’re a cottage brand.

Aside from the fiber that you import from Peru, how important is the Made in USA to App Gear Co.’s brand ethos?

Being Made in the USA is not about American flag waving. It’s about proving that a small business can start up in manufacturing in the United States, and if it’s done the right way, you can build a strong business. It’s small companies like ours that create jobs. It’s not like we’re going to ever have 100 employees. We’ve got 12 employees now and we’ll probably wind up with 25 or 30 but we also pay 95 percent of our employees’ health insurance. And every employee we have is on salary, not hourly. We’re not trying to be Patagonia or The North Face, but what we are trying to do is show people that you can do this—and you can do it successfully.