From uniforms, back to lifestyles

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With its new Van Willem menswear line, OOBE plans to branch out from employee apparel into a new “lifestyle brand”

 

Ten years after shifting away from its foundations as an outdoor apparel company, Greenville-based OOBE has plans to launch a new menswear line this fall, one that blurs the line between corporate brands and physical products as much as it pays homage to its past.

The new line – Van Willem – diverges from OOBE’s 10-year focus on the corporate uniform industry, designing and producing custom employee apparel for big names such as Chick-fil-A, Krispy Kreme, Race Trac, YMCA, BMW and Food Lion, among others. Launching in fall with an “experience store” in Charleston, the Van Willem line aims to elevate OOBE’s “cool factor” by showcasing its ability to innovate in the complex apparel industry, according to OOBE chief creative officer Lee Norwood.

“The OOBE line and the Van Willem line will really halo the rest of our business,” said Norwood, a recently hired 22-year Ralph Lauren veteran and Charlotte native. “It sounds terrible, but if it’s to support and to halo our other businesses… it’s almost marketing.”

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Starting with just 10 pieces, Van Willem seeks to be a lifestyle brand that blends performance and style with a “heritage feel,” says Norwood. The line draws inspiration from Greenville and the Southeast, from the indigo crop boom and legacy mill industry to key landmarks such as the Blue Ridge Mountains and Edisto Island.

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“It could be for the outdoors, or just for normal casual wear,” says Norwood, who says price points and marketing strategies have not yet been decided for Van Willem. “We want to be aspirational for the younger guy, but we don’t want to be too young for someone 40-plus.”

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Values and opportunities

 

Clemson alumni Mike Pereyo and Tom Merritt founded the company in 1994 as a premium outdoor performance apparel brand. Their products – called the OOBE line – were sold primarily through trade shows and specialty retailers, however. Van Willem’s brick-and-mortar store on King Street in Charleston will not only be its first stand-alone location, but “an outward expression of those [OOBE’s] core values,” said Pereyo.

“This line will let our global brands and partners know that we’re not just trying to be an apparel company; we’re trying to be a company that wants to do life with people,” he said. “We do actually believe it’s going to be very profitable … but it’s not just the product that moves through that pipeline, but the opportunities that it makes.”

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Norwood said the project is funded through the company via a “reallocation of resources” by phasing out work with uniform apparel firm Wolverine World Wide as well as local Greenville firms Southern Tide and Coast Apparel. Norwood calls the line a “brand positioning push” that’s not currently driven by specific sales goals, and would not disclose OOBE’s expenditures on Van Willem thus far.

 

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Both founders say the reallocation of resources is part of a strategic “pruning” of the bottom 20 to 25 percent of their business.

“People are hoarders of people, processes and products, and it’s all driven by the fear of ‘maybe one day I might need it,’” says Pereyo. “It kind of shackles you and holds you hostage … If we do this, we can focus on things that make our products great and not just good.”

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“The storytelling business”

 

Another key driver for the line is a focus on storytelling as a marketing tool, something that ingrains a brand and product into the everyday life of a consumer by pairing quality with narrative, according to Merritt. Controlling that narrative – and thus the value of the OOBE brand – was harder to control before the rise of the Web, he says, but today’s challenge is different.

“We all recognize that there’s things that you see on social media, and then there’s reality. … Sometimes they’re really close, and sometimes there’s a chasm between them,” he says. “The millennial generation has brought a whole new demand for an authentic story.”

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Norwood says the idea is part of a larger trend that says that you can’t just sell clothes – you have to sell stories.

“We’re working on collaborations for things that work well and pair with the OOBE brand,” says Norwood. “The idea is to take root in people’s … and this gives us a platform to do it in a really unique way.”

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For Van Willem, that means incorporating local makers and suppliers, which range from selling handmade boots and hatchets to sourcing with Cone Mills, one of the oldest manufacturers in the country.

“A lot of apparel happens in these big cities, and we’re here, and that’s why we’ve chosen to focus on the rich textile history,” said Pereyo. “That’s part of storytelling. We don’t say we’re in sales; we’re in the storytelling business. We’re in the branding side of it, and we love to tell the Greenville story.”

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