What began as a way to pass the time during a forced maternity bed rest has less than three years later turned into a multi-million-dollar business for a Northwest Arkansas couple.
A registered nurse, Lauren Stokes was placed on bed rest for the last 10 weeks of her first pregnancy. It was during that time she began sketching dress designs to stay busy. Husband Lance Stokes has a technology background at Hewlett-Packard and also various entrepreneurial pursuits. Sketching dresses not only helped her pass the time but helped her discover a talent and a passion, she explained. It wasn’t long before Lance suggested they try turning it into a business venture
“He said, ‘You love doing this, why not?’” Lauren remembers.
Their company is named Lauren James after Lauren and part of their first son’s name, which is Lofton James.
GROWING SALES, ADDING STORES
It turns out that sourcing, manufacturing and distributing dresses is an expensive venture so they went in a slightly different direction by launching a t-shirt printing business from their home. They used an outside screen printer and took orders, as few as 36 in one of the first batches.
But the designs sold well which allowed for more expansion since the mid-year 2013 start. The staff has grown to 50 people and sales ranged between 40,000 and 50,000 garments a month which meant the company needed a larger space.
Chung Tan, economic development director at the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, said Lauren James wanted to keep their business in Fayetteville, but there was no space suitable for them to lease. He said there is a lack of available buildings 100,000 square feet or larger in the city. However, Tan remembered that another local manufacturer wanted to build investment property on their 65 acres in the city’s industrial park. Bright Technology did just that, constructing a large warehouse space on Armstrong Boulevard in South Fayetteville. Tan said it was a perfect fit for Lauren James and it allowed the company to keep its business in Fayetteville.
Lauren James moved into the new space last year using 20,000 square feet for production, 40,000 for distribution and warehousing and 20,000 for office and multi-use. The couple are now expanding again into another portion the building. This home base is where they do all their screen printing, warehousing and distribution of the thousands of knit apparel items they sell monthly. This part of the business allowed them to raise capital and a customer fan base, which has in turn allowed them to add products and brand lines – including anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 dresses a month. Lauren designs the dresses and they are manufactured in Dallas.
Lance estimates that about 48% of their business comes from knit goods and the other 52% is all the other categories including swimwear, accessories, outerwear and dresses. Their annual revenue is “north of $10 million,” he said.
A large piece of their business is printing shirts for others but they also have the Lauren James line (launched February 2014) and will introduce the Lake Dad brand this summer. Their products are available in about 650 retail locations and they have a small store on Dickson Street. They are also developing two concept stores in Texas, which will be what they use to model all future stores, Lance said.
“We hope to have five more stores in the next two to three years,” he said.
The couple, who now have two sons, both enthusiastically say it’s been beneficial being able to work together. They both say “he’s the doer and she’s the dreamer.” Lance adds “the mentality of the brand is in her eye.”
What’s in the future for Lauren James?
Growth, for sure. As the couple continues to add more products and brand names to their selections they expect more sales. They’ve already witnessed online sales growth of 300% from 2014 to 2015 and they’ve seen a 50% increase quarter to quarter from last year to this year. Lance said they plan to add about 10 more employees over the next year.
The couple agreed that they will seek to find ways to follow the mission, which is producing high-quality clothes that make the wearer “feel good.”
“As our tagline says, ‘Your day just got better,’” Lance said.
Lauren adds that they hope their customers “continue to be blown away season after season (and) that (Lauren James) will keep cranking out brands that are missing in the marketplace.”
That marketplace is huge, and the online part of the market is not too bad, either.
According to Statista, one of the leading research firms on Internet activity, online retail sales from apparel and accessories totaled $63.5 billion. And that’s just online sales. Online apparel and accessory sales also make up 17% of total online sales, with that growing to 17.5% by 2018, according to Statista. Online retail sales for apparel and accessories is estimated to reach $100 billion by 2019.
According to a February 2015 report from the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, the global fashion industry is valued at $1.2 trillion, with annual U.S. fashion and apparel sales estimated to be around $250 billion.
“While much of the industry’s impact is concentrated in New York and Los Angeles, where most U.S. fashion designers live and work, cities in the South, Midwest, and West are seeing positive economic impacts from growth of the fashion industry in their communities. As retailers and fashion designers cluster outside the traditional fashion hubs, this can help facilitate innovation in the fashion industry and benefit other industries in those regions as well,” noted the Congressional report.