Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Flannel shirts and other clothing
Founder Jeff Ladra is merging fashion and function into outdoor apparel for the 21st century, with a focus on U.S. manufacturing.
"I'm a big outdoorsman," says Ladra. "I grew up fly-fishing. Every single family vacation we took was to go fishing somewhere."
That meant packing the right clothing for the river. "I always wore flannel -- L.L. Bean, Pendleton -- but never found an actual flannel that held up to the rigors of the outdoors and still looked good for the bar afterwards," says Ladra. "There wasn't a do-all, all-purpose flannel" -- a void he now aims to fill with Pladra.
After growing up in the Bay Area, Ladra went to the University of Oregon and continued fishing -- "My parents called it Steelhead University," he laughs -- then went into software sales when he graduated in 2001.
But Ladra wanted to move into the outdoor industry, and studied product development at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco. He worked as a line manager for VF Corporation's JanSport brand and initially moonlighted as a flannel manufacturer. "On the side, I started Pladra," he says. "It kept growing and growing. . . . completely organic, no marketing, no nothing."
By early 2016, he left VF to focus on flannel full-time. "I still consider our brand fledgling, says Ladra. "What gives me hope is our return customer rate is a little over 30 percent," says Ladra, noting that's about twice the industry average. "People love the quality and care about the product."
Dovetailing into that dynamic, it's typically even harder to get return customers for premium products like Pladra's flannel shirts, priced from $120 to $140. But you get what you pay for, says Ladra, pitching his product as a best-in-class shirt that's worth the extra money. "It all comes down to quality," he says.
Competitors' flannels tend to land in two camps: "boxy" workwear or flimsier fashion from the Gaps and J. Crews of the world. "Our consumer is active, 25 to 50," says Ladra, and "not as wide as those original hook-and-bullet flannel patterns."
Pladra's shirts use high-quality Portuguese flannel and spare no expense on the cut-and-sew side with a pair of undisclosed Bay Area contract manufacturers. "Portuguese flannel for some reason is like Egyptian cotton," notes Ladra. "It's the best. It's a tighter weave, it doesn't pill when you wash it, it doesn't shrink, and it's so much softer."
Most of the raw cotton is Pima cotton from Arizona, but it goes overseas to be milled into fabric. "We just don't have the mills in the States," says Ladra.
Pladra designs its patterns in-house and works with the mills to create custom plaids. Another unique feature is the linings on the cuffs, collar, and yoke featuring owls, bears, trout, deer, and other nature-themed prints. "It's your spirit animal," laughs Ladra. "The liners are like old cabin wallpaper. . . . How do we transmit that feeling of nostalgia into a modern shirt?"
These stylistic details are matched with meticulous construction. "We triple-needle stitch at critical stress points," says Ladra. "We match our plaid lines. That takes a lot of attention to detail in cutting and lining up to sew, which all sewers hate to do."
That made finding the right partners difficult: Only a handful of shops in the Bay Area have triple-needle capabilities and a willingness to match fabrics. Ladra tried out an operation in Texas, but found the distance was an issue. "It's hard to manage that stuff once you leave," he says. "The price wasn't that much better honestly than San Francisco."
While the size of the runs have increased from 150 to about 500 as the company has moved into short-sleeved shirts, knits, and other wearables, Ladra says the company's volume is still not at a level that commands the cut-and-sew market's full attention. "We don't have 3,000 units at a time orders so we'll be pushed to the back burner," he notes. "That's the struggle with manufacturing. It's all relationship-based."
Pladra's direct-to-consumer distribution model is bolstered by some brick and mortar. After a number of pop-ups, the company signed a three-year lease on a retail storefront in San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood in 2017, which in turned catalyzed online sales. "It feeds into each other," says Ladra of the e-commerce/traditional retail symbiosis.
He says California is the top market, followed by Colorado, Oregon, and Washington along with "true flannel states" like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota. "The next logical step is to try to some out-of-state pop-ups," he adds.
But a wider geographic market won't change the brand's focus. "The outdoor shirt is our bread and butter," Ladra notes. "In the long run, we're our end user."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge ts to stay in the U.S. for manufacturing," says Ladra. "All of our competitors have gone overseas. . . . I've looked that way, too, and benchmarked some samples. It's half the price and the quality is just as good."
Beyond the labor constraints, equipment maintenance is a huge hurdle for domestic cut-and-sew shops. "There's no such thing as an industrial sewing machine repairman in the United States," says Ladra.
"Exposure" is another challenge for the brand, he adds. "We literally started this brand thinking, 'We'll make the best product we can and the rest will take care of itself.' I'm beginning to think it's the exact opposite." Regardless, he says he wouldn't do it any differently given another chance: "We proved the concept."
Opportunities: New products: After knits in 2018, Pladra jackets are coming in fall 2019. "Maybe one day we'll do a kids' line," says Ladra, floating a potential name: Pladra Cubs.
But flannels will remain the company's bread and butter. "The whole premise of our brand is starting with one product and mastering it . . . almost like Xerox for a copier," he adds. "We don't have to keep doing plaid. How do we revolutionize this classic shirt?"
Needs: Ladra says the biggest need is "manufacturing partners in the United States," noting that it's difficult to find the shops that are willing and able to take on Pladra's demanding designs.
"There are all these moving parts," says Ladra. "We'll use a patternmaker. We'll use a cutter. We'll use a sewer. We'll use an embroiderer. We'll use another sewer. Then it comes back to us."
Finding an operation that could handle quilting for the upcoming jackets is a prime example. "Only a handful of upholstery facilities were able to do that for us," he notes. "It was a nightmare."
An outside investment might also be in the cards. "We're completely bootstrapped," says Ladra. "We haven't taken any capital, but we may have to in order to grow."