By Ray Mark Rinaldi | Jun 25, 2018
Employees: 2 full-time, plus a "seamstress squad" of contract workers
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Bow ties
Repurpose Bowties began as a fashion statement and ended up a darling of the apparel industry.
"I always tell people I started this as hobby," says Hunter. "It was never meant to be a business."
But Hunter, who is 22, quickly saw business potential when the bow ties he was wearing around town -- handmade from surplus clothing in his own closets -- were getting more than their share of compliments.
"People would ask me where I got it and I would tell them the story of it being made out of recycled materials," says Hunter. "I realized I was onto something."
He officially formed the online sales platform for Repurpose Bowties in 2016 offering 12 styles of ties. Customer demand has helped pushed that into a fashion brand featuring more than 300 designs.
Repurpose Bowties' customer appeal lies not just in the multiple colors and patterns of the products on its website, but in the way it does business. Bow tie buyers appreciate that it is an environmentally-friendly business, transforming wasted clothing, sourced from thrift stores, upholstery shops, and design firms into usable objects.
"Our major goal is not to sell bow ties," says Hunter, who works alongside company COO Charlee Riggio. "Our actual goal is just to get people talking and educated about the apparel industry as it it now."
He's referring to the dark side of an industry that overproduces to the degree that more than 13 million tons of fabric head to landfills each year.
The apparel business, especially in less-developed countries, is notorious for treating workers poorly. "From the growing of cotton to the production and sewing of it, we exploit people and pay them minuscule wages in slave-like conditions," he says.
Repurpose Bowties manufactures its products in a different way, fanning labor out to a "seamstress squad" of local sewers who work from their homes. The company looks to hire refugees who have made their way to Colorado or new immigrants to the area struggling to get a foothold in the economy.
The company supplies the fabric to its workers who then use their own sewing machines, though lately, it has started a program where it loans machines to people who don't have them. After they have made 100 ties, they can keep the machine. Workers are paid a minimum of just over $12 an hour and can make as much as $24 an hour as they get more efficient, Hunter says.
Those methods, along with the charms of the bow ties themselves put the company right on trend in 2018. They're especially popular with men under the age of 30 and Repurpose was invited to the gifting suite at the Emmy Awards last year where it got its products in the hands of celebrities who might be seen wearing them in public. It has placed its goods in retail outlets in large cities, such as Los Angeles and Boston.
Success has come quickly, though the the company does face major decisions when it comes to growth. The product it sells has a limited market. "We've realized everybody loves the mission but not everybody loves bow ties," says Hunter.
For that reason, he plans to move into other forms of apparel. "We've kind of figured out what were passionate about and what our model is. Now we need to figure out what kind of stuff we want to produce and how we want to do it."
Help may be on the way. In April, Repurpose won a competition for startups at Denver's Regis University taking the top prize of $10,000 and a year of work space at the college's Innovation Center, allowing the team to move out of their home offices.
It has also caught the eye of outsiders who are quickly seeing the business potential in bow ties, just like Hunter did when he started wearing them out on the town himself.
"Luckily, we have investors knocking on our doors very often these days" he says. "Which is super nice."
Challenges: Repurpose is eager to expand, but it needs a plan -- how to scale up production and "just making sure were accessing the market in the right way," according to Hunter.
Opportunities: Investors are definitely interested in helping the company expand and there may be opportunities in growing its female customer base. "Typically, 20 to 30 percent of our sales are to women, but it's hard to pinpoint whether they are buying for themselves or for gifts."
Needs: Repurpose needs to team with the right partners while sticking tight to its mission of being an environmentally-conscious company that is also fashion-forward. "A lot will hinge on the next couple of months," says Hunter.