In fall 2014, Mason Dupré made a $10,000 gamble.
The bet? That he and his partner, Natalie John, could turn a thrift store sweatshirt into a successful business.
“Imagine you’re at a casino and you did a roulette wheel,” Dupré said. “While all your savings are just sitting on the table, you just get to see that ball go round and round and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Within just a year-and-a-half Dupré’s gamble has paid off. In 2015, Dupré and John’s clothing company, Woolly Threads, surpassed $1 million in total sales. The company now directly employs 35 people and produces sweatshirts for Greek organizations and universities across the country, Dupré said.
Like many great things, the idea for Woolly Threads came about as a happy accident.
While on vacation in Nantucket, Massachusetts, John discovered a reverse-loop terry cloth sweatshirt while browsing in a thrift shop. John, formerly a Kappa Delta at LSU, mentioned to Dupré she could see the garment appealing to sorority women on LSU’s campus.
Dupré took the idea and ran with it. The 25-year-old said he had always intended to open his own business, and felt sweatshirt manufacturing was a manageable first venture.
After returning to Baton Rouge, Dupré began sending swatches of the sweatshirt fabric to American manufacturers to determine if it could be recreated. One hundred and fifty-eight emails and over 40 phone calls later, Dupré found a fabric manufacturer in South Carolina willing to work with the fledgling business.
One week before the manufacturer was scheduled to deliver the fabric, Dupré found a cut-and-sew producer in Charlotte, North Carolina willing to produce his initial stock of 660 Woollies. The last minute arrangement came at just the right time, but unfortunately the company said they couldn’t deliver the completed sweatshirts until early December, Dupré said.
Presenting the Woolly to LSU sororities before winter break was crucial to the company’s success, he said. Customers returning to nearby cities including New Orleans, Dallas and Houston would expose friends at other universities to the Woolly and build valuable brand awareness.
Instead of caving under pressure, Dupré took matters into his own hands. He acquired production samples from the cut-and-sew suppliers and screen printed the first Woolly Threads sweatshirts in his Brightside Drive apartment. Using the samples, Dupré and John secured their first official order Nov. 11, he said.
Woolly Threads took off after the winter break, Dupré said. By February 2015, the business had grown to the point that Dupré and John were forced to move the business from Dupré’s apartment to a 1,200 square foot warehouse space. As the business continued to grow, Dupré hired two friends, Tim Lunyong and Jade Kidder, as his first Baton Rouge employees.
By summer 2015, Woolly Threads sweatshirts were featured on campuses across the South. The buzz surrounding the product caught the attention of a national Greek clothing distributor, who reached out to Dupré and John to take the product nationwide, he said.
With the 400,000 Greek female market cornered, the partners decided to think bigger. With 86 million potential customers, the collegiate womenswear market was the next step in the company’s natural progression, Dupré said.
The step wasn’t as smooth as Dupré expected.
The Collegiate Licensing Company is responsible for connecting collegiate brands with quality vendors that will uphold the brand’s integrity, according to the CLC’s website. The CLC reviews vendor applications and issues a formal approval or rejection that influences whether a university or college will grant vendors a collegiate license.
The CLC denied Woolly Threads’ vendor application. A denial from the CLC is the mark of death for many companies in the collegiate market, John said.
Woolly Threads is not like most companies.
Determined to prove themselves worthy in the market, Dupré and several Woolly Threads team members began cold calling licensing directors at major universities, personally visiting as many schools as possible, he said. No flight or cross-country drive was too far for the team.
“That was probably the most innocent but enjoyable, memorable time that I’ve had working for the company,” Dupré said. “I was seeing crazy new places all over the country, just knocking on doors and telling anybody and everybody our story.”
That innocence and enthusiasm, coupled with the brand’s unique origin story, won the company fans across the country, Dupré said. Woolly Threads was granted licenses to nearly every university the team personally visited.
Despite the CLC’s continued rejection of Woolly Threads, university licensing directors were willing to take a chance on the burgeoning brand and the young entrepreneurs behind it, Dupré and John said.
“I truly believe if you fill a company with good people good things happen, and that’s kind of what we’re based on,” Dupré said.
Woolly Threads currently holds 106 collegiate licenses and continues to expand. John said a main focus moving forward is developing the company’s brand image and establishing Woolly Threads as a competitive outfitter with a fashionable edge.
The move will allow John and Dupré to focus more on the company’s creative process and product development. Roll up t-shirts for women are the most recent addition, and Woolly PJ trunks are currently in production, John said.
Women’s pocket tees, jackets and a line of co-branded Xorbee bean bags are also in various developmental phases. Eventually, the company plans to branch into menswear, she said.
For John, a fashion enthusiast, developing designs and patterns for the company is the dream of a lifetime.
“I just never realized it was possible coming from Crowley, Louisiana, to be in the fashion industry,” John said. “Now I’m creating clothes that girls across every college campus are wearing. I never thought my dream could be reality.”
Photos by Kalynn Barnum.
The print version of this story misspelled “Crowley,” Louisiana. DIG regrets this error.