From industrial engineering to consulting, Alternative Apparel's CEO, Evan Toporek, talks about making the move to Alternative Apparel to satisfy his entrepreneurial spirit. After 20 years, the brand has seen many milestones, including the most recent, joining the Hanesbrands family.
LM: Let's start by giving me a snapshot of you and the company.
ET: Founded in 1995, Alternative is an Atlanta-based fashion brand that designs and distributes casual activewear (tees, sweatshirts, etc) through a variety of leading retailers, via our own stores and online. We also have a division that sells apparel to companies that decorate it for a variety of end uses like band merchandise and cool corporate image wear.
LM: Tell me about your start with Alternative Apparel.
ET: While I grew up learning about the apparel business from my father and grandfather, both apparel entrepreneurs, I never envisioned getting into the business. I earned a degree in Industrial Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and then cut my teeth consulting Fortune 100 companies while working for Andersen Consulting, now known as Accenture. Eventually, however, my own entrepreneurial spirit needed satisfying and I joined Alternative as employee number five in 1998, the company's first year expanding into apparel. Over the next 20 years, the last eight as CEO, and flanked by an extremely talented and hardworking team, Alternative has reached many milestones including earning Inc. 500 recognition, creating iconic Burnout fabric, as well as the Alternative Earth label and breaking ground on our first flagship store in Venice Beach, California.
LM: What is your favorite part about working with this company?
ET: I love our creative and entrepreneurial spirit. We constantly spot market opportunities and quickly attack them. We are perfectionists and won't put our name on anything we wouldn't wear ourselves. We also invest, potentially over-invest, in our operations to make sure our delivery is as special as the clothing we design. But when it's all said and done, for me personally, there is nothing more fulfilling than watching someone's career progression and all that comes with it. Frankie Collins, one of our star salespeople started as a temporary warehouse laborer four years ago. Heather Devine, our Creative Director, was a graphic designer just three years ago. Our Chief Operating Officer, Teka Long, started off answering phones and now has 70 people in her organization. That's the fun part of the job.
LM: Talk to us about your commitment to sustainability.
ET: In 2004, long before sustainability was a buzzword in the fashion industry, we launched Alternative Earth, our eco-friendly line. That sub-brand dissolved when we simply took its elements (organic cotton, recycled polyester, low impact dyes) and applied it across our entire range including packaging (100% recycled boxes and biodegradable bags). But to us, sustainability stands for more than just eco-friendly manufacturing. We ensure the highest standards of social compliance as well. For example, over 90% of our production, and growing, flows through WRAP certified factories. We have also joined the Fashion Revolution movement bringing transparency to our factories and their social compliance.
LM: Alternative Apparel was recently acquired by Hanesbrands. What does this mean for the brand?
ET: First off, it was extremely gratifying to be acquired by Hanesbrands. In many ways, they pioneered the market segment we participate within. When we did our due diligence on Hanes, what we discovered was very familiar, only on a far larger global scale: commitment to sustainability, sales in similar channels, and a "good people" culture that just felt right. So far, we have discovered so much more depth to the company and its capabilities, and I believe they have found the same with us. Beyond growing Alternative, we are getting to work on other projects across the Hanes and Champion brands. The acquisition seems to be bringing more to all involved. That's the goal, right?
LM: Discuss the aesthetic/branding of the company.
ET: We've always been inspired by the past. Many of our products are inspired by vintage thrift store finds that we bring back to life with modern fits, fabrics, and color palettes. We make great fashion basics, clothing you always feel comfortable wearing, whether it's to and from the gym, to work, or out for the night. The secret lies within the premium ingredients, the proprietary way we knit the fabric, and the special washes and finishes we apply.
LM: What are three words that describe Alternative Apparel and why?
ET: Soft, proprietary fabrics and finishes that feel great. Simple, timeless fashion basics you can wear everywhere and every day. Sustainable, industry leading standards of social and environmental compliance.
LM: What brands are you currently obsessed with and why?
ET: Certainly, Amazon comes to mind. As a business person, it's a bit mind boggling to see how one company can create market domination in so many different, seemingly unrelated, channels. I've also long admired a brand like Patagonia who has proven that you can be uncompromisingly mission-driven without forsaking growth and profits. I find myself drawn to brands, in any industry, that have such a consistent point of view, a simple experience, and an obsessive understanding of their customer. Ace Hotels, Spotify, Netflix, even Howard Stern. So much to learn from everyday experiences.
LM: What's next for Alternative Apparel?
ET: We are planning major expansion for our Basics Bar concept, which we launched last year. It has blown away expectations. The idea is to "own" a section of a store, a Basics Bar, and constantly refresh it with great Alternative tees, fleece, and sweatpants refreshing it often with seasonal colors. We stock it all and ship it to stores the same day it's ordered so we are truly partnering with retailers and helping them with their pain points. Alternative fans can find Basics Bar locations listed on our website. There are many other big projects, many tied to leveraging the Hanes platform, like entering the collegiate and resort space, and adding more international distribution.
Looking forward to an Alternative world.