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After all the talk about eco-friendly brand Livity in the Action Sports Environmental Coalition Green Room, I stopped by the booth at Class to talk to founder and CEO Isaac Nichelson about the brand.
Livity Outernational has an interesting distribution model. The brand sells their products not only to better boutiques and core shops, but to some of the biggest natural foods grocery store chains in the country: Whole Foods and Wegmans. They also supply eco-friendly fabrics to other action sports and outdoor brands like Quiksilver, the North Face and Burton.
I asked Livity Founder and CEO Isaac Nichelson about this history of his company. He said he launched the brand in 2002. Isaac was a sponsored skateboarder and snowboarder who received free product from brands like Volcom and Lib Tech. He also worked as a product developer and designer for various snowboard brands. In 1993, he started his own outerwear label, Soopkich’n that he ran in the Pacific Northwest until 1998.
“After that I started Livity really out of my frustration at bigger brands that wouldn’t make the eco stuff I wanted them to,” he said. “I wanted to show my friends in the industry you could make eco-friendly products that were stylistically relevant and affordable – products that the market would ultimately want.”
In 2002, Isaac showed his first collection of the line with headwear, luggage and clothing at the spring ASR show. There happened to be quite a few fashion boutique buyers and high fashion magazines at that particular show, and the brand immediately received influential media attention for their unique, environmental positioning and forward designs, according to Isaac.
“We had a story published in Collezioni Sport and Street Magazine, and before we even stitched a full production order, we were suddenly getting asked to be in stores like Fred Segal and American Rag,” he said.
For the first few years, the brand focused their distribution mostly in boutiques. Around 2005, they started selling to a wider range of stores including Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods. At that time, Isaac split the brand in half.
Livity became their staple brand sold to all accounts. Outernational is composed of mostly artisan-made fair trade products like hats and accessories, sold at slightly higher price points to boutiques.
The self-funded company is approaching $5 million in sales this year. They are growing rapidly, even during the recession. Isaac attributes their growth to the brand’s environmental positioning and ability to sell to a range of stores, from core shops and boutiques to natural food stores like Whole Foods, which he calls the “Bloomingdales of grocery stores.”
Distribution to natural foods stores has accounted for their largest growth category during the economic downturn.
“The great thing about selling to this channel is that there is no teaching the consumer about the product. They are already into sustainability and will pay for the right products,” he said.
He also said the brand has received more press from celebrities wearing their products in tabloids from buying it directly at Whole Foods, then any product seeding they have done with stylists or publicists.
Besides Whole Foods, Wegmans, and boutiques like Fred Segal and SEED in Costa Mesa, Livity also sells to core shops including Hobie, Pacific Beach Surf Shop and the Beach House in Santa Barbara.
“We have really been a brand that has a proven the ability to transcend the market,” said Isaac. “We have an authentic eco-positive message that resonates across different subcultures.”
The ASEC “Green Room” has also helped the brand, especially in penetrating doors in the action sports core channel. According to Isaac, the ASEC Green Room has given eco brands like Livity a place to stand out and be identified in an otherwise saturated market.
“Good sustainable products shouldn’t look any different than conventional products,” Isaac said. “Grouping those products together is the only way for sustainable brands to be showcased effectively at the retail floor without getting lost in the mix. It also helps consumers understand the product more effectively and gives retailers a chance to show the community they are doing something for the environment,” he added.
Besides their own label, Livity Outernational does 10% of their business sourcing environmentally friendly fabrics to other outdoor and action sports brands. They have helped Quiksilver, Burton, Levi’s and the North Face create specialty fabrics for technical outerwear, knits, and backpacks.
“Because we have been doing this so long, we developed a sophisticated global supply chain that make textiles like hemp yarn from the best hemp mill in the world.”
Lately, Isaac has seen brands pull back on designing earth friendly products. “It seems like when the economy hit, companies responded by using the cheapest fastest product available instead of product that is better for the earth and the industry.”
The bulk of Livity Outernational’s business is in headwear and accessories, but they also sell tees, hoodies and limited edition outerwear and surf trunks. They are known for using organic hemp in most of their products, which Isaac said saves 55% more water than conventional or organic cotton.
Last year alone, they saved over 250 million gallons of water by using a tee shirt blend made from 55% hemp and 45% cotton than if they had used organic or conventional cotton. “We are just a small brand. Imagine what the bigger brands could save if they incorporated hemp into their products,” he added.
Livity Outernational has been self-funded until now, but are currently half way through their Series A fundraising of $2.5 million that they hope to close before the end of Q2.
Most of their investors come from the natural products side, but Isaac said they are looking for the right partners from the action sports world right now. “We hope to be the Lib Tech or Quiksilver of sustainable product in action sports.”