photos by Will Crooks
Twenty-eight year old Zach Etkind is a character study. Like his trademarked, collegiate-licensed funky Suisey Fanwear – or half-suits, half-jerseys – he’s an exhibition of curiously juxtaposed features. A Boston native, Etkind moved to Guangzhou and Shanghai for four years, where he taught English, worked for a video production and events firm, and became conversational in Chinese; but now makes Clemson his home. He’s a biology degree-holder turned fashion entrepreneur; an endeavor that emerged from his starring role in a semi-viral YouTube series he and friends created called “Donnie Does China.” Etkind starred as Donnie – a fictional character he and friends “made up in high school” – portraying the everyday realities a tall, white American male experiences when transplanted to urban China.
“Donnie’s just a blue collar guy in Boston – just a character that we all knew living up there. He doesn’t know what’s going on, and the last thing he would want to do is leave Massachusetts – he’d never want to travel over 20 miles away,” Etkind explains. “When I moved out to China, I knew it would be hilarious to put a character like this there. The backstory is that he was at Legal Seafood at Logan Airport, blacked out, and just randomly woke up in China. We came to realize that China can be an interesting experience if you’re white; like you don’t have the same standards. They pretty much let you do whatever you want if you’re not hurting anybody.”
Some episodes of the YouTube series topped 400,000 views, and garnered the attention of MTV China, Comedy Central China and the Discovery Channel. In one of the most popular episodes, Etkind – who bears a striking resemblance to Roger Federer – dressed as the Swiss tennis star, and he and his suit-clad crew hit the busiest street in Shanghai for him to try his hand at signing autographs, where they videoed the fan mob that ensued. Typically, Donnie sported his signature Larry Bird Celtics jersey. But in another popular episode, when the crew was headed to film at a Manny Pacquiao fight, Etkind’s friend Rob Wallace suggested he sport something a little “classier”: a green jacket with Bird’s name and number on the back, “so it’s like a jersey.”
That night, the Suisey debuted, but the concept is a little more buttoned up these days. UBJ sat down with Etkind to tell the story of how Suisey Fanwear has grown to fulfilling e-commerce custom orders, and batch manufacturing and importing collegiate-licensed apparel.
How did you start making Suiseys? How did you make the costume prototype for Donnie’s character to sport ringside at Pacquiao?
There’s a place in Shanghai called the fabric market with all these fabrics, all these tailors, and you can make whatever you want. For the first one, I just got a green jacket there, and had a friend’s younger sister – who sews and is into fashion – stitch the name and number on the back.
That video went pretty viral on YouTube. Half the comments on there say, “Oh, I want one for my team! That’s amazing! I want a Suisey,” because in the video, I called it that. It’s literally a combination of the words “suit” and “jersey.” The first one I made was actually a full suit. Then I went to the fabric market with a Tom Brady jersey, and I got them to make a jacket like it in a week.
When and how did this start to become a legitimate business?
[The Pacquiao fight] was in 2013. That just happened, but I didn’t start taking it seriously then. We didn’t get established as a real company until Dec. 20, 2014. We got an attorney, and trademarked the name Suisey.
The one thing that was a huge roadblock was, “How do we blow this up when we don’t have licensing?” We didn’t want to be these people doing counterfeit, without the licensing, going about it that way. And so I first talked with a licensing consultant based in the U.S. while I was in Shanghai.
I always knew that to get this off the ground, I couldn’t stay in Shanghai. It’s a very U.S.-centric product. I moved back at the end of May of this year, and immediately started with licensing. So right off the bat, after talking with three people, we decided we wanted to focus on colleges first. It’s a good way to grow; we could just choose to focus on a few schools, and build it up through a few concepts to eventually make our way to the professional leagues. I thought it would always be sweet to get licensing with Marvel and DC, so we could make Batman- and Superman-themed Suiseys, and things like that.
Who are you licensed with right now? Why did you choose to start with those schools?
Currently we’re licensed with Clemson and USC. We knew we wanted to focus down South, because fans are so much more passionate than up north. So that’s why I moved here. Up to that point, we were doing made-to-order jackets – fantasy football teams, fun things like that.
This one guy, Morgan MacMillan, reached out to me; he’d gone to USC and had been on the cheerleading team there, then transferred to Clemson and was living with the mascot. So he found me through Instagram, and said he’d like to talk. I sent him my email, and we talked on the phone. He said he thought [Clemson] would be a great place to start.
We wanted to expand to more than one school. We knew maybe it would be a little tough as such as small company to do eight to 10 off the bat, but we knew we could do two.
Morgan even put me in touch with the Tiger. He has his own custom Suisey!
Who is “we?” Who has been, or is, officially involved in your business right now besides a licensing consultant and an attorney?
My friend Rob Wallace – who originally had the idea for the video – was involved for a bit, but got a fulltime job and didn’t have time. My main partner is Dylan Kwapy, who still lives in Shanghai. He got involved because he went to the World Cup down in Brazil, and this was right when I made my first four Suiseys. So I sent him down with a lot of cards for U.S. soccer-themed Suiseys. Everybody loved it, and he saw a lot of potential for the product.
I am on the ground in the U.S. Right now, Dylan is mainly focusing on the operations, and he will help with the online marketing and stuff he can do from Shanghai. I will be doing the day-to-day, forging new connections here: business development, trying to find sales reps, trying to find retailers. Dylan is out there working on our first larger orders right now. He’s making sure everything goes to plan, and quality stays up-to-par. He won’t be out there long-term.
Does Dylan’s day-to-day include working really closely with the factories, and exporting the product here?
My friend’s girlfriend put me in touch with her boss: this woman from Montreal named Amelie Mongrain. Her business is out in Shanghai, and she would export 200,000 suit jackets to North America for pretty large, respectable brands. She’d been living in China and running this business for 10 years. So we chose to go with her – we knew the quality would be up to par.
It’s hard to manage things when you’re getting stuff done on the other side of the planet. Eventually, we want to explore manufacturing in the U.S., or Latin or South America, that’s closer to where we are doing the business.
Our next step would be, eventually, to find someone to invest. It would be great if that person who got on board had experience in apparel or the licensed merchandise industry.
Are you looking to shop multiple investors, or begin an official fundraising process? How have you been financed thus far?
We would definitely want to shop multiple investors. The first one doesn’t have to be the giant investor. I think the first would help us grow, where we could go do an official first round of fundraising.
We entered a business plan competition at Tufts University, where I went to school. We won, so they gave us $10,000, which is a very small amount. We haven’t used any of that money to pay ourselves – that’s all gone into the company. Probably for the next six months, all the money that we make we will put back into the company. I will probably have to find a part-time job of sorts; that’s why I am interesting in seeking an investor. I’m not really that interested in blowing through all my savings. But if you want something to be successful, you have to focus on it 100 percent of the time sometimes. … We have good momentum right now.
Can you explain the process of obtaining licensing?
You have to submit a pretty complicated application to the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC). They want a very detailed marketing plan, all the retail outlets you plan on reaching out to, a factory sample that has to show the fabrics you will use, and things like that. There’s a checklist.
A local application is $100, and a standard one is $1,000. The CLC manages most colleges, but not all – most of the large schools. They recommend a local license when you are first starting out, where you just focus on CLC schools in a certain state; and after a year, expand to other schools in the CLC. If we want to expand within a year, there are schools not in the CLC we would focus on like Baylor, Indiana University, Georgia, Kentucky and others.
So you apply to the CLC, and they reach out to the schools. Those not within it – you reach out to them directly, or there are a few smaller organizations that manage this stuff. … But then the CLC reaches out to the school and says, “Hey, here’s the application and the product, what do you think?” If it’s not up to par, the CLC might not even show it.
So that’s Phase I. Then the school says yes or no; and if the school says yes, you have to submit a final design for approval of what the product will look like exactly. Then you need to get a few things signed with the manufacturer for the school that guarantees the factory will only use the logo for this specific product, that the factory’s labor is all humane and safe, and working conditions are up to par.
Working with the schools, everything has to be the exact school colors. We had to send a Pantone [standardized color number], and [the factories] don’t just happen to make Clemson orange. So they take a white fabric and dye it to match the exact Pantone. The school sends all this information they want the CLC to know: these are our Pantones; this is our updated logo. When you get licensed, you can log in to the CLC, and there is a page of info that has all up-to-date info on that school.
Do the schools get paid?
With the CLC, the schools themselves charge 12 percent off of every Suisey you sell. If you got the license, and you didn’t sell any Suiseys, you would have to at least pay Clemson $500 a year to maintain the license and USC $1,000. The most expensive school is University of Texas – it’s $2,000 a year to maintain that license once you get it. Smaller schools, like Furman, are $100 a year. So it varies – how valuable is that brand? I guess UT has, in history, been more of the more valuable brands with merchandising.
Where will you go next with licensing? More colleges? The pros? How is professional licensing different?
In a year, we will probably want to be licensed by six to seven schools, along with most of the large frats. There is a licensing process with frats, but it’s a lot simpler and easier than the schools. And with the NBA and the NHL, there’s a rule where if it’s a store that’s owned by the actual team – say, if the Celtics own a store – the team can approve and sell merchandise that’s not officially licensed by the NBA. So hopefully we will be in a few team stores, too, in the NBA and NHL – the NFL is not like that.
With professional licensing, you apply to that organization. So the CLC helps organize all the schools – well, the NBA is already all organized, you know? With college, you can get licensed with five schools, for example; but with the pro leagues, you have to be all or nothing – it’s all the teams. It’s a lot more money, and we need to be bigger, because we would want to be taking advantage of that. The NFL is the most expensive.
What do people need to know about buying one of these Suiseys?
Now we’re putting in our first batch for Clemson, and we will start off making 100 at a time. It’s going to be ready in December. Hopefully we will be able to deliver to people by the holidays, but it will be close. When we applied, we were hoping the process would go even faster, so we could have them at the start of the football season. We saw halfway through that wouldn’t happen, but we’re moving right along now. So the first batch is only Clemson – but with the second, maybe we do 100 Clemson and USC.
There’s probably going to be a range in price – obviously made-to-order would be most expensive. But this first batch we make will be priced between $159-180 – not more than $200. These will be 100 percent cotton, which we wanted, especially when we were going down South – and they’ll be lined. Depending on what fabrics, the prices can vary. If you want jacket that’s a more budget version, we could do that and lower the price. If we wanted a really fancy wool to do a limited batch of nicer jackets, we can do that, too.
What’s next for Donnie?
At some point I would like to do a series of videos based in India – “Donnie Does India.” If at some point we do a Kickstarter to do “Donnie Does India,” that would be a dream come true! [Laughs.] But for the next year, I will be locked into focusing on Suisey Fanwear.
To sign up for emails to win a free Suisey & get updates on batch shipments, or to learn more about placing custom orders, visit thesuisey.com.