By Eric Peterson | Feb 11, 2020
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Apparel and workwear
A rugby standout at University of California, Berkeley, Vontz worked for Canterbury, "one of the largest rugby brands in the world," after his amateur career. "I inadvertently became a garmento in the apparel business," he laughs.
Since 2005, he's worked in sales in the apparel industry, most recently with Boathouse, and the experience was an ideal launching pad for Edgevale. "All of these direct-to-consumer brands were launched by people with tech backgrounds and not apparel backgrounds," says Vontz. "Well, I had the apparel background, and the tech is actually pretty easy to get to launch a website and sell something now."
A weekend at a bluegrass festival provided further inspiration, with concertgoers wearing "shiny, bubbly, overly technical stuff." Explains Vontz: "I thought it would be cool to make a jacket that was sort of a Swiss Army knife that also looked pretty sharp. That's the genesis of the brand."
Utilizing a "wooly technical soft-shell fabric," Vontz developed the North Coast Shirt Jacket. It was a hit.The jacket won a Gear of the Year award from Outside magazine in 2017 and emerged as Edgevale's top seller.
The product has since been discontinued due to supply-chain issues. The supplier discontinued the fabric about three years ago, and Vontz pivoted the brand to focus on "hybrid outdoor/workwear" pants. "That's where I felt the white space was," he says, noting that pants now account for about 75 percent of sales. "That's pretty much our bread and butter at this point."
Vontz describes the Edgevale catalog as "narrow and deep," with numerous SKUs in a few categories, with an emphasis on outdoors diehards. "Like a comedian or musician, you play to the back of the room, because that's where the other comedians and musicians are playing," he says of the brand's target market.
Edgevale pivoted from a traditional wholesale distribution model with about 25 retailers to direct-to-consumer after about four years of operation. Products are launched with presales, and discounts for early birds. "It allows us our customers to save a little money, and we get to build inventory off of real-time, real-order data," says Vontz. "We aren't loading the warehouse with sizes and colors that don't work. It alleviates risk on our end, it gives them a little bit of a discount, and everybody wins."
When he launched the brand, Vontz asked patternmakers and designers for references to cut-and-sew shops in California. "Partners in L.A., basically you find them through little industry connections and people you know," he explains. "None of them have websites. It's not like you hop on LinkedIn and find them. For whatever reason, that world is still pretty cloak and dagger. It doesn't really make any sense to me."
For its Cast Iron utility pant collection, Edgevale found a good partner in L.A. that specialized in premium Japanese denim. "We have onerous, ridiculous standards for our gear," he says. "They were in tune to that. That market requires a ton of tender loving care."
The big benefit of domestic apparel manufacturing? "Our speed to market is awesome," says Vontz, highlighting a turnaround of six to eight weeks from concept to production to warehouse, instead of 18 to 24 months.
Edgevale has three contract partners in California, but the company will move some future production offshore, due to two primary factors. The first, says Vontz: "The supply chain is completely fragmented here. At point we have to bring in raw materials from overseas, it doesn't make any sense to not just bring in finished goods."
Secondly, it's about workforce. "People are literally aging out of this industry," says Vontz. "We had a dye house we were using where the guy just doesn't do it anymore, and a lot of the IP went with him."
For Edgevale's "simple" designs, domestic shops are a good fit, says Vontz. "Once you're trying to work with more technical stuff, it becomes hard," he notes. "It's really hard to find the right nexus of sourcing and manufacturing to make it make sense."
He adds, "Insofar as we can do stuff here, I think we will, but we can't do it at the expense of the product just to say it's done here. I don't think that's fair to the consumer."
Seven years in, the Edgevale brand message has resonated. "We've grown every year since I started the business," says Vontz, citing a 20 percent uptick in 2019 -- a number he expects to exceed in 2020. The catalyst? Edgevale's acquisition by a Texas-based capital partner in January. "I don't think it could of ended up in a better position for the brand," says Vontz of the new ownership. "They get it."
That means big changes are in store for the brand. "We're winding down with the warehouse," says Vontz. "We're going to be back with all-new styles this spring and this fall, and we're going to have more SKUs than we've ever had before." The catalog will expand to include the first women's products in the form of a new workwear line.
He's looking at moving to a hybrid domestic/offshore manufacturing model as well as balancing the direct-to-consumer sales model with some wholesale distribution."We are in the process of getting back into the wholesale game in a strategic, targeted way," says Vontz. "I'm not dogmatic about having to be 100 percent direct-to-consumer."
Challenges: "Right now, it's about getting all these new ideas off the ground and synchronizing me with the new operation," says Vontz. A related challenge, he adds, is finding vendors in new manufacturing locations.
Keeping up with demand is another. "People are coming and they're not able to buy pants," says Vontz. "That is something we need to figure out day one."
But that's nothing new for Edgevale. Vontz says the challenge with U.S. manufacturing is centered on the supply chain: "Getting the fabric, getting the zippers, getting the trim -- all of that, it can be a lot of trouble to just logistically make that happen."
Opportunities: Vontz says he has high hopes for the upcoming women's workwear from Edgevale. "We view women's as a huge opportunity," he says. "We have no intention of shrinking it and pinking it. We want to do it spot-on and develop it just like the men's line."
He sees the opportunity to take the "product DNA" of the rugged Cast Iron line and apply it to other pants categories. "How do wwe take it into a chino? How do we take it into a stretch pant? How do we take it into a sweatpant?
Needs: Focus. Edgevale's acquisition has freed up Vontz to focus on what he's good at: product development and sales. "We've been used to being so scrappy," he says. "We're the kind of restaurant that uses every part of the chicken."
He also cites an industry-wide need of "more sewers," and adds, "Without the of younger energy, it's hard for legacy cut-and-sew shops to innovate their businesses, because they don't understand the market as much as younger consumers do. It's less about volume domestically. It's more about specialization and being able to go to market super quickly."