We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Laura Hlavac. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Laura below.
Laura, appreciate you joining us today. What’s something crazy on unexpected that’s happened to you or your business
I started my business as an apparel product development/design contractor in the Twin Cities. My clients were mainly athletic apparel companies and fitness equipment manufacturers who were adding soft good to their product line. Here is a story from my early years, one of the many times I have had to prove myself.
One of my customers was a start up bicycle clothing company. I designed and developed the line around their patented bicycle short cushion technology. The product was being manufactured by a large sewing contractor, Kentucky Textiles, one of the last standing manufacturing cut and sew houses in the US. located in Paris Kentucky. Speedo brand was their largest customer. The first time I walked into the huge room, the hum of hundreds of sewing machines creating a loud collective roar, and seeing the vast army of operators hard at work, gave me chills down my spine. I had never seen anything like it.
My client sent me there regularly to watch sample development and inspect finished goods. The factory was filled with men and women who were life long employees. At the young age of 26, working for a small start up, I wasn’t initially given much attention or credibility.
Despite the outwardly southern hospitality treatment, I was nervous and somehow felt more like a nuisance. Once their sample sewers initiated the construction of first sample, they sent the manager to tell me that my bike short design was not manufacturable. In other words, it was impossible to sew the pad into the short as I had designed it.
Immediately my confidence kicked into gear, and I shocked the entire crew by telling them that I would demonstrate. I was quite sure they assumed that this Minnesota girl was the typical young designer who didn’t sew, at least with the advanced skills that this garment would require.
I sat down at the machine and was soon surrounded by a small crowd made up of managers, the sample sewer, and some curious bystanders. I sat down and proceeded to effortlessly and skillfully stitch the pad into the short properly. The jaws hitting the floor were almost audible.
From that moment on, I was treated with the utmost respect. Later I was even given access to “play” with some of their other machines (unfamiliar to me) that they would never had trusted to a beginner. I was a kid in a candy store. Needless to say I felt an incredible sense of satisfaction having completed my critical mission successfully.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers
Though I started out as an engineering student at the University of Minnesota, it was the love of sewing that ultimately led me to initiate an apparel start up. Halfway through my sophomore year, I realized that I did not love engineering, and I wasn’t particularly good at it besides. Around the same time, I met a student in the fashion design program who lived in my dorm. I was envious of her projects, and realized where I belonged. After breaking the news to my parents, I immediately changed my major and completed a BA in Fashion Design.
From there, I set out to find R&D work and soon learned that my skills were unique in the Twin Cities. A few lucky breaks afforded me the opportunity to develop the first clothing lines for both Nordic Track Inc, and Rollerblades Inc. Through those experiences, I recognized that there was a need for local manufacturing, so I set up a cut and sew operation. Not long after that, a recommendation from the U of M Design Department led me to a contract with Kawasaki America to design, develop and manufacture 30,000 garments used for an early incentive buying promotion.
My reputation grew in the Twin Cities, and I went on to develop product beyond apparel including promotional bags and accessories for Aveda Corporation, and custom cases for companies who made wearable computers for clients such as Northwest Airlines, Ford Motor Company and others.
After developing product for other companies for over a decade, and being a creative restless soul, I decided to brand myself and start my own line of women’s athleisure knitwear. The concept originated from my experience designing fitness clothing as well as the personal custom wardrobe I created for myself. I describe it as a “work from home” collection of easy pieces consisting of epically comfortable clothes that transitioned well from home, to kids’ school, to client meetings, etc. I started dabbling with boutiques, and within a few years, my line had sold to over 700 boutiques in 35 states. I became known for my outrageously comfortable yoga style fitted hoodies, both pullover and zip up styles. Then a magical thing happened. I learned that when a woman’s clothing is so comfortable, fits well and flatters her body, her confidence increases, and when that happens, she can accomplish anything. I started to understand a whole new aspect of what I created that gave me tremendous satisfaction.
I am always looking for my next adventure in design. My Spring 2023 line features tailored blazers suitable for an executive board meeting, yet comfortable enough to sleep in. I am literally putting pockets into everything, and my stretch jean jackets continue to be the most comfortable jean jackets on the planet, Men are even buying them, and that is inspiring me to design genderless pieces.
I have frequently been asked, “Isn’t it difficult coming up with all those ideas?”. My answer is, “That is the easy part”. Running the business is the hard part. But that is another story.
How about pivoting – can you share the story of a time you’ve had to pivot?
For over a decade my business served as a contractor for corporate clients both large and small by providing full turn key services, design, product development, raw materials sourcing, and manufacturing both domestic and offshore. In 2002, my business suffered a financial crash due to an employee who stole my largest customer and sabotaged my second largest customer while trying to steal it, resulting in the loss of the majority of my income overnight. Through that experience, I learned the disadvantage of having all my eggs in one or two baskets.
A new business model was needed to survive and move forward. I knew that if I created my own brand and sold to small businesses, I would have something that no one could steal. I could have my eggs in many small baskets instead of a few big ones. However this model requires the burden of financing, as there is a 6-12 month lag time between laying out the investment for fabric and finished goods to the payout when the goods are sold to the customer. Nevertheless, my own brand allowed me more autonomy, creativity, and flexibility.
I currently run my business as a “hybrid” of these two worlds. Diversification and multiple income streams has proven to be a solid strategy.
Can you talk to us about manufacturing? How’d you figure it all out? We’d love to hear the story.
A hundred years ago, the Twin Cities was home to a thriving apparel industry manufacturing underwear and lingerie (Munsingwear), and outerwear (B.W. Harris, Fur Coat companies like Ribnick Furs and others). Outerwear was one of the first types of clothing to move offshore because of the high labor cost. That left the cities with very few manufacturing resources, but it offered and opportunity for me.
I got my manufacturing chops while working for a small bicycle clothing manufacturer who’s owner discovered me outside a grocery store. While locking up my bike, I was stopped by a stranger who asked me where I got my cool bike shorts. I told him I had made them. He offered me a job with his wife’s company, and I worked for her and learned the nuts and bolts of apparel production.
After about ten years of making goods in Minnesota, my customers were seeking better pricing in order to remain competitive. One of them told me that if I didn’t provide them with an offshore solution, they would look elsewhere for a supplier. Luckily, my husband Wayne had connections through his father who was already working with Chinese manufacturers. He started traveling there and establishing offshore relationships.
That sourcing advantage coupled with my own manufacturing expertise and experience were the key to our success. However we had to learn processes for working in China, and create our own systems for communication, quality control and the understanding of the cultural nuances for a smooth operation. There were some stumbles along the way, but it was a tremendous advantage to have Wayne make personal contact with the factory. And our US customers loved having the luxury of speaking face to face with the person who would be on site at the facility in China.
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