Hold on to your pants: the rush to fund innovative fashion companies that are building out their businesses online continues apace. Flint and Tinder, a maker of premium, made-in-the-USA men’s underwear that first had its debut on Kickstarter, has now raised a seed round of $850,000 from an impressive list of investors, including Tony Hseih and Fred Mossler from Zappos; Lerer Ventures; and David Tisch, formerly of TechStars.
The funding round was partly hinted at a couple of days ago, when the New York Times ran a story about Zappos’ chief executive Tony Hsieh’s push to revive Las Vegas with his Downtown Project, anchored by Zappos and a vision for a tech-driven economic rebirth for a down-and-out part of the city. That story included an anecdote about how a Brooklyn-dwelling entrepreneur, Flint and Tinder’s founder Jake Bronstein, travelled to Vegas to meet with Hsieh and Co., without the intention of immediately moving into the community Hsieh is trying to create. Regardless, the anecdote concluded with what sounded like a green light for $250,000 — which, it turns out, was just one part of a bigger seed round.
While men’s underwear sounds like an unlikely basis for a clothing revolution, or a tech revolution for that matter, Bronstein (like David Sacks) believes otherwise. He says the idea for the company came from a trip to Macy’s, where he was unable to find a decent pair of underpants, while at the same time realizing all of them were made abroad. Putting two and two together, he decided to kill those two birds with one stone.
That came with some sweat. Bronstein says he has experience in “making things” (he also started BuckyBalls, the magnetic, designery desk toy); and he is also someone who has paid attention to men’s trends for a living before (one of his other jobs was helping launch the U.S. edition of UK lads-mag FHM — now defunct — a decade ago).
But even so, he says that underwear is one of the most precise, zero-error-margin articles of clothing there is. “It wasn’t as easy to make that as I had thought,” he admits.
Then, enlisting clothing factories — at a time when U.S. manufacturing has largely fallen to cheaper and faster competitors abroad — to make the underwear was another hurdle. (One, he says, had to be reconfigured from its existing role as a t-shirt maker, although that also means that now the company also makes a line of undershirts.) Charity, he says, is not his goal. “I wanted to make something in America but I wanted to make it competitive,” he says. “If it’s not competitive then all you’re doing is aksing for charity and that is unsustainable and upsetting for everyone.” (The video embedded below of the first manufacturing effort gives a little taste of the factory end of the business, Bronstein himself.)
That’s not to say he’s figured out how to make underpants for the same price as wholesale for in China, but he says that the changing economics of high-end clothes has created an “interesting window” of opportunity. “Companies like Calvin Klein introduced the idea of premium, designer underwear, and they charged more for it. Then NAFTA happened and people started to outsource and offshore. Companies were able to produce products for much cheaper, but they didn’t lower the cost to the consumer.” Essentially, that means he can sell his fancy-pants for the same price as Calvin Klein, Ralph Laure and Armani (around $19 a pair), and while it will cost more to make his pants in the U.S, the margin, although smaller, is “still livable.”
Flint and Tinder is part of a growing wave of e-commerce companies that are mixing a slick approach to fashion with a made-in-USA credo: others espousing this (entirely or in part) include Nasty Gal, Threadless, American Apparel, American Giant. The ethos has even spawned its own private flash-sales site, Made Collection.
It’s a measure of how far e-commerce has come along that the sales and marketing part of the equation has been relatively simple to implement and not one of the bigger pressures on that margin.
Part of that is thanks to Kickstarter. Earlier in the year, the company found itself the limelight when it turned into a blockbuster on the crowdfunding site, raising $291,493 (intended raise: $30,000), at that point the highest-ever amount collected by a fashion startup on the crowdfunding site. (The record eventually got broken by Ministry of Supply, friends of Bronstein’s that make Nasa-engineered dress shirts.)
In a way, this is a good example of how Kickstarter can be used as a proof-of-concept: if the crowds love the idea, then the odds may be that it’s a good horse to back in a bigger race. Bronstein says that the majority of its Kickstarter funds were used to manufacture and distribute Flint and Tinder’s first run of underpants, sent out to all its backers — 27,000 pairs sold in 30 days. This new seed round, he says, will be used to build out a business beyond that.
On its website, underpants are definitely Flint and Tinder’s crown jewels (ahem), although there are several other products he thinks are “cool” on offer from third parties — a list that Bronstein says will continue to grow. While he says he’d “love for the underpants to be sold in Nordstrom,” there are no deals like this in place yet. Nor are there plans to expand to other clothes or undergarments for women at this point. “We’re just keeping our head down on what we do now.” The company already ships its underpants abroad, although this is not a distinct focus yet for the company.