CINCINNATI -- Clad in the classic startup wardrobe of jeans and T-shirt, JUMPER Threads co-founder Daniel Redlinger floats throughout the Over-the-Rhine startup campus called Union Hall, stopping to work at various corners and nooks.
Redlinger’s two-person startup is a manufacturer and e-commerce retailer of premium, everyday apparel including undershirts and sweatpants. More importantly, JUMPER Threads is a member of the 2017 class at The Brandery, a top-ranked startup accelerator located on Union Hall’s second floor, and Redlinger is using the residency to grow his year-old, fashion startup via new products and strategy.
On the building’s rooftop patio, Redlinger looks at the Downtown office headquarters for Macy’s and Kroger and wonders aloud about possible connections, partnerships and pilots with Cincinnati’s corporate anchors thanks to joining The Brandery.
“Anyone that knows anything about Cincinnati’s business community knows P&G’s headquarters are here,” he said. “Their presence continues to feed very talented market research companies, branding agencies, packaging companies – and has made Cincinnati a logistics hub.”
Redlinger said corporate giants like Macy’s and Kroger provide Cincinnati with a robust retail and fashion innovation ecosystem. There are also a handful of fashion startup success stories to admire and source for best practices, such as interchangeable-eyewear startup Frameri, high-tech apparel company OROS and clothing maker Noble Denim/Victor Athletics. They launched successfully, Redlinger said, which means his fashion startup has a fighting chance.
“You don’t need to be in New York or LA to find a designer or manufacturer that will help your ideas come to life,” he said. “The internet and gig economy has leveled the playing field with respect to access to resources. Cincinnati has an eager and resourceful startup ecosystem that is especially strong in marketing and branding, and any would-be entrepreneur should look to tap into this available talent.”
Redlinger is not alone in his optimism. A growing community of talented entrepreneurs is starting companies and transforming the local apparel business, from manufacturing and packaging to logistics and operations to store design and marketing research. Their hard work and smart networking are steadily making Cincinnati a hub for fashion technology.
Other fashion leaders like Robyn Novak, vice president and creative managing director, FRCH Design Worldwide, Specialty Design Studio, look to landmark Cincinnati institutions such as Miami University, the University of Cincinnati and its College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning as key assets for making Cincinnati a fashion tech hub. To Novak, these educational enterprises can be just as important as Macy’s.
“The foundation is here for Cincinnati to be a fashion tech hub,” Novak said. “Programs like the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP and Miami University’s Cincinnati Digital Innovation Center (CDI) allow students to spend a semester working at digitally focused startup companies, key to starting the startup conversation early in students’ careers. This is a great way that promotes interaction between students and startup founders in the industry who have really jumped into something they believe in.”
Additional mentorship and services come from business support networks such as Aviatra Accelerators (formerly Bad Girl Ventures); Cincinnati Made and its First Batch accelerator, which focus on small-batch manufacturing; as well as the philanthropic innovation lab Peoples Liberty. Fashion startups Wish Supply Co., Skube.me and Your Stylist are graduates of Aviatra Accelerators, a key resource for women business owners. First Batch claims an impressive list of fashion companies, with AVA Yoga bodywear, TextileHaus, Circle Circle Jewelry and Daughters of Style benefiting from its accelerator program and maker space in the Northern Liberties footprint of Over-the-Rhine.
“Cincinnati has a thriving startup community,” said Joi Sears of The Green Store Cincy, a pop-up eco shop supported by People’s Liberty and located in its Over-the-Rhine storefront across from Findlay Market. “As someone who has spent many years living between New York City and Amsterdam, Netherlands, I find that it's much easier to be an entrepreneur here in Cincinnati than most other places I've been, mainly because it's easier to access capital, resources and support.”
Novak and her FRCH teams frequently work with major corporations such as Subway and Luxottica to transform retail environments and shopper experiences both online and on-site. However, Novak also sees exciting possibilities for fashion entrepreneurs such as Sears and other startup founders to do business with FRCH.
“I see The Green Store evolving into a global franchise with locations all over the world,” Sears said. “The key would be to mold the idea to accommodate the community in which it is housed.
“For example, could there be a Green Store in a food desert selling predominately organic, locally grown food, or on a college campus featuring sustainable school supplies and recycling kits for dorms? I would love to have a permanent brick-and-mortar location in Over-the-Rhine. I would also like to expand with stores in New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Berlin and beyond.”
Entrepreneurs and startup founders look to big corporations for pilots and sales regarding their products and services. It’s part of almost every startup’s business plan. Yet, change is the one constant in business, perhaps more so in the fashion and retail sectors. Will there be retailers such as JC Penney or Sears or a mall developer like Triple-Five five years from now?
With legacy institutions dissolving in fashion and retail, there’s space for startups to emerge.
“Traditional retail seems increasingly precarious,” said Matt Anthony, co-founder of the physical goods collaborative Losantiville and director of Cincinnati Made and its First Batch accelerator. “It's going to be hard for the large retailers to survive without adopting new ideas and practices. We’ve seen more national stores create programs to highlight local makers, like the West Elm LOCAL program. And that type of collaboration could keep these large stores fresh and connected, while allowing the small brands a much bigger platform for sales.
“A lot of our companies are coming from digital-first or direct-to-consumer starting points, so a program like West Elm can give them a great place to test ideas and a partner to help make wholesale prices work.”
Some entrepreneurs, like Sears, remain committed to brick and mortar. Others — like Michael Markesbery, co-founder and CEO of OROS, an Over-the-Rhine-based performance outerwear tech company and 2016 Brandery graduate — remain committed to e-commerce innovation.
However, Markesbery and his fellow entrepreneurs and fashion-business leaders agree on one common benchmark: Cincinnati needs an apparel and fashion breakout to truly make the region pop.
“For sportswear and athletic wear, that's Portland/Beaverton and the Bay Area,” Markesbery said. “For fashion, look to LA and NYC. There are some regional hubs throughout the nation as well, like fast fashion in Columbus via L Brands. Athletic wear is key in Baltimore with UA (Under Armour). Outerwear is big in Ventura (California) with Patagonia. You need a brand to take off in Cincy and call it home. My money is on OROS.”
Another encouraging factor: Cincinnati is already a hub for branding, consumer insights and marketing.
Fashion is well within our DNA as Cincinnatians,” Novak said. “As a creative community, we understand better than any region about the role of brand and product by being in the brand marketing hub of the United States. It’s simply in our language.
“Activating creative collaboration between many types of creative agencies, startups and influencers in the region around how we can be more a part of the conversation is a great start. But we need to remember that the fashion business as an ecosystem isn’t all that innovative on the surface. If Cincinnati as a collective community can create a new voice around what fashion could be, then we really have something to entice fashion companies based in New York, LA, Milan and London.”
Local fashion entrepreneurs weigh in
What are the tools needed to establish Cincinnati as a fashion tech hub? Talented entrepreneurs share their tips.
“I think mall developers and big-box retail are set for a rocky future. I see smaller brands being focused on direct-to-consumer with some showroom brick-and-mortar.” - Daniel Redlinger, JUMPER Threads
“We see this retail evolution occurring in OTR with specialty stores like Continuum, Sloane Boutique and Article. This transformation in OTR supporting entrepreneurship and innovation is led by consumer lifestyle changes and demand. For younger generations like Gen Z and millennials, distinct is the new cool. Thus, OTR is ‘in’ and the traditional mall has lost its way.” - Robyn Novak, FRCH Design Worldwide
“The fashion industry is moving more toward transparency. People want to know where their products come from and who made them. In five years, it will no longer be the trend but more of a mandatory requirement for businesses moving forward.” - Joi Sears, The Green Store Cincy
“Certainly Kroger could make or break a men's grooming product, or Macy’s could really lift up local fashion entrepreneurs, but our startups also need to be ready for that scale and the big companies need to be motivated and see the opportunity with them. Right now, it's a very indirect pathway, and I’d love to see more direct connection or programming around how to interact with them from a physical product standpoint.” - Matt Anthony, Cincinnati Made, First Batch and Losantiville
“Retail is moving toward direct-to-consumer (DTC), but this isn't new news. More so than DTC, the industry is moving toward anything that gives brands a speed advantage. This is causing the industry to think differently about supply chain. Many brands are making leaps and bounds here.” - Michael Markesbery, OROS