Changing an Industry

by David Billstrom

Stop Buying Mass Produced Gear -- Take the Long View

There are three decisions that project Kitsbow into the future. We’ve described the first decision: to make apparel ourselves in the U.S. after nearly 8 years of partners making it for us in Vietnam, China, and Canada. 


Our second decision was to make our clothes using Lean Manufacturing techniques, a specific set of concepts based on the venerable Toyota method. 


And the third decision was to end the use of our dealers and distribution channels, and deliver our products directly to the consumer. Sometimes known as Direct to Consumer


Okay, how does this matter to you? Because if 2020 didn’t teach us all anything, it’s that it all matters. What happens in China can change your life in North Carolina, and vice versa.


Now let’s unpack these two decisions of Lean Manufacturing and our Direct to Consumer delivery, and explain why they are inevitably linked. Why they matter to you. Because they do.


Nearly every industry has embraced the concepts of lean manufacturing because over a 70-year period the proof is evident: higher profit margins for the vendor, less raw material waste for the planet, and more flexibility in the resulting product. 


Cars, iPhones, and office desks are all made this way (and have been for decades). The apparel industry is conspicuously absent -- obsessed with a lowest-cost-per-piece of bulk production and the constant churn of fast fashion.


We’re not the only apparel company using lean manufacturing, but we are the first that we know of using it in the outdoor recreation industry


The results are stunning: we have never discarded unsold apparel. We have remarkably little inventory. We have slashed our transportation costs. We can offer more sizes and fits for our varied customers... than companies even ten times our size.


For example, we now offer our Icon Pendleton Wool Icon shirt in 182 different size, fit, and color combinations (as of February, 2021). And we add more nearly every month! 


Our pants are available in 49 different waist/inseam combinations, because we make these to order and do not need to keep 49 sizes in inventory -- a heavy lift even for traditional brands much larger than ours. 


Lean manufacturing supports this flexibility, which we are now using to include even more choices in body shape and fit, so that every body can enjoy top-quality gear outdoors.


And this is a roundabout way of explaining why we need to have our own relationship, directly with each of our 40,000+ customers. You’re not just a number, and you matter. Deeply. We make this gear for you.


At Kitsbow, we don’t make products for dealers or distributors, but for the humans that are part of our community. We make apparel for them, then we need to be able to talk to them without a third party between us… so that we can get it right, and get it directly to them. 


Spoiler: we don’t always get it right. That humility, coupled with our direct relationship with you, is why we can improve constantly, faster and more precisely, than the mass produced stuff.


Since our founding in 2012 we have known that our community wants to talk to us. Telling us what they like, what they don’t. What they want next, and what they’re no longer using. For example, this is how we knew to add choices of plaids for our wool flannel shirts. 


This is how we knew to offer different fits for different body types, and often simply different preferences (loose and flowy, tight and shaped). We start with the customer, so that we’re always making what they want… not what we think they should want.


Lean manufacturing works best in this model, where each item is made one at a time -- as we say, we make one perfect shirt. And then another. 


So making different colors, shapes, and sizes isn’t just easy for Kitsbow, but it is a core capability built right into the way we make every product.



Join Our Cause

Get connected to our journey: Sign up for email here. Buy a product or two here

Visit us in North Carolina at the Old Fort Ride House for a factory tour and to see the magic for yourself. Ride our trails, hike the ridges, and fish in the streams of the Other Pisgah; plan your trip here. Meet our community

Use the power of your purchasing to employ Americans crafting premium quality products that last for years, sustain the earth, and employ awesome people. 

And we’re always looking for more talent and artisans. Send your friends, family, and best promising candidates to join our team here.

Help us change an industry, build a community, and save the world.