Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Apparel and accessories
Building on success with state-themed apparel, founder/owner Dane Burneson has moved to local manufacturing as his company grows into new categories.
Aksels launched with apparel designs based on its home state flag. "That's the niche we fell into, with the Colorado flag lifting us off initially," says Burneson.
As the company expanded sales into other parts of the country, it developed state-themed graphics for its hats, shirts, and socks for each market. "Now there's a whole novelty side of our business," says Burneson. "The different socks and gnome gear is really taking off, that type of stuff is carried all over."
The designs are "a collaboration driven by our own research, our customers, our wholesale customers, knowing what's been working in their market," Burneson says. Some designs are based on landmarks or chosen by wholesale customers. Aksels has also done private label work for Subaru, Red Bull, and the World Skiing Championships in the past.
The company is now in stores in at least 21 states, and recently opened a company-owned shop in the Cherry Creek Mall and purchased a warehouse in Denver -- a far cry from when Burneson created the the company. "I thought realistically I'd go work with another company," he says. "I worked on some designs I thought were cool and bought T-shirts and printed on them, that's how I ended up creating Aksels."
While it develops its own patterns in-house, the company sources apparel from a global supply chain. "We still work through wholesale distributors for our blank shirts," says Burneson. "Those I think are actually made in South America. Our socks are made in China, hats are from Bangladesh. Those are our main hitters."
Most of the company's apparel is screenprinted at the company's warehouse by partner company All Stars Ink, which is co-owned by Burneson, and rents from Aksels. Bringing the printing in-house made sense as the company grew, he says.
The company also offers embroidered pieces. Burneson expounds that embroidering pieces when they're manufactured allows for more flexibility in what can be done.
The company is wading into local manufacturing of yoga pants and leggings. Burneson notes that yoga pants are not the typical product for Aksels, but it's a dynamic category. "It was something we've been trying to do for years," he says. "All girls use yoga pants or leggings -- it's a comfort item."
Initially, Aksels looked to manufacture overseas. "The big hurdle with overseas stuff is minimums. They're not small," Burneson asserts. "And with a product like a yoga pant, it's definitely a higher-priced item than socks and hats than we're used to. Things weren't coming together as I'd like."
The costs involved with local manufacturing were higher, but Burneson found other things made up for it. "By the time I started comparing things when I imported the leggings and paid duty tax and all that stuff, the cost was pretty similar," he says.
"From a management perspective, it is a lot easier, after doing so much importing, to be able to control things locally. It's awesome," Burneson explains. "The huge thing with doing them locally is there was no minimum. We could test whatever design we want and not have to make 1,000 of each. If we needed more, we ordered more and had them in a couple of weeks."
Aksels relies on cut-and-sew contractors (Burneson declines to name partners) for its dye-sublimated leggings, and it's working out well. "You're still relying on somebody, but when you're cutting and sewing locally, as long as you've got the fabric, you're in good shape." Burneson says the contractor has about five or six people producing leggings for Aksels on a part-time basis.
"My goal is to eventually figure out how to bring things in-house to lower those costs," Burneson says. He says he hopes to bring that work in house by spring.
But Burneson is concerned about how many people Aksels could bring on. "We might be able to keep one sewer fully busy," he says. But having multiple sewers is better because they can do multiple operations on an order simultaneously.
Similarly Aksels has a number of reasons for not bringing dye sublimation in-house at this point. "I've learned at this point there's no need to rush into anything. We're feeling it out," Burneson says. "It only makes sense when you're doing big, big quantities, because the equipment is not cheap."
Stil, he says he's attracted to the idea. "There's a lot of stuff you can do with dye-sub other than make a yoga pant. If you've got sewers and things like that, there's a ton of different stuff you can make, but it's a delicate balance because you don't people sitting around not working, Burneson says. "You need to a longer snapshot of it rather than just a couple of months."
Challenges: "I would say staff, being able to find the right people," says Burneson. "It's been a family-run business. My sister was my first employee. My mom still works here. . . . My wife works here. I ran out of family members and started reaching out."
Opportunities: "Bringing stuff in-house opens up the world of custom," says Burneson. "It used to be a small part of what we did years ago. Now it's a really great part of the business for us."
High volumes are not prerequisites, be adds. "If someone wants 20 yoga pants, we can do that. Being able to do direct custom stuff for customers at an attractive price and quality is where I foresee a lot of opportunities."
Needs: A growth spurt. "We used to double every year," says Burneson. "Now it's almost like we're getting close to back on that track. It goes back to the people thing. The main challenge is having people in the right roles."