While on vacation, LSU alums Mason Dupré and partner Natalie John, found themselves transfixed by an item that had caught their eyes in a resale shop in Nantucket. It was the kind of garment no one makes anymore; a classic, American-made sweater, predating mass production and an age of disposal, fashionable wear. In contrast to the sleek high-performance fabrics favored by many students, the pair was particularly fascinated not only by its classic look—it also had a reassuringly comfy appearance to it, suggesting permanence—inviting stories and memories of camp-side fires, homecoming games, travels, adventure and even romance. Recently graduated from LSU, Dupré took some of the $10,000 he had saved, bought the sweater and invested the rest in trying to make one just like it.
Early on in his quest, Dupré, now CEO and Co-Founder of the apparel company Woolly Threads, based in Baton Rouge, realized he may have been a little overly ambitious. “I’m not sure I really appreciated how hard it would be to find someone who could produce the kind of fabric for the garment we wanted to make,” he recalls.
In the late 80s, American yarn and apparel manufacturing all but disappeared as domestic production, jobs and skill sets migrated offshore. The garment Dupré was trying to recreate, was made from an unusual ‘reverse-loop’ construction, which gave the sweater it’s insanely comfortable feel, yet also relied on skills few of the remaining mills could now provide. After fruitless emails and phone calls, he believed he had almost exhausted his options, when he located a supplier in South Carolina, only to find that finding someone who could handle the cut and sew production was an equally difficult task. By the time the project was finally ready, both the remaining money and time to sell the product before the season’s outerwear orders closed, were exhausted.
Dupré and John turned to a market they both knew well, the sororities at LSU, touring chapter meetings to present their product in person. After a presentation to Kappa Delta at LSU, the phone began to ring, and the pullover style the couple had come to name ‘The Woolly,’ had found its market. With its oversized, relaxed fit however, it still seemed to go against the fashionable tide for body skimming, silhouettes in the latest sleeker fabrics. Even Barnes & Noble College Merchandise Manager, Lisa Loughan, was initially skeptical. “When it first arrived on my desk, it was a beautiful presentation, but I just didn’t think it was immediately a fit for our customer,” she recalls. “Then I saw it on girls at the airport, on our campuses, and online—everywhere—and we started ordering in quantity,” she adds.
In short order, Woolly Threads production moved out of Dupré’s apartment and into a factory—and then into a bigger factory. By 2014, the company had sold some $20,000 of their comfortable, U.S. made apparel, growing to a $1.5 million company last year, and now the Woolly is found on more than 170 college campuses, with a new line of collegiate licenses likely only to grow its popularity.
At Barnes & Noble College stores and online, the product has been a staple of this year’s back-to-school retail season. Loughan and her team designed a big push for the Woolly at over 60 stores, firmly establishing the brand on campus in time for Rush. “It’s something to keep you warm for cooler fall evenings, on game days or just wearing around campus, I think it’s going to be a staple in every girl’s wardrobe this fall,” she says.
Both casual and stylish, and versatile enough to wear to football tailgates, stash in a weekend bag or throw on after a workout, the Woolly works as the quintessential must have for campus life. Already omnipresent on Instagram, which Woolly Threads uses to talk not only about their brand, but the company philosophy behind it, Barnes & Noble College has also put its social media outreach behind the Woolly this fall. “We’ll often support our brand partners with promotional emails,” explains Barnes & Noble College’s Sandra Webb, “but the Woolly has a very unique appeal to our students, both in its shaping and how you can style it, along with the whole company story behind it, so we wanted to support their launch in a very different way.”
Capitalizing on the visual appeal of the garment, Webb has encouraged local campus store managers to post to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, photos of staff and booksellers wearing the Woolly, or of their apparel product displays in their stores as an essential part of campus life.
In contrast to the eight week design-to-delivery of today’s mall fashions, the Woolly, with its throwback traditional values, yet timeless fashion, is still an anomaly, a fact which Dupré is unashamedly proud. “We wanted to create something young women will buy and wear and want to keep forever,” he says. “Our hope is that when their daughters go off to college, they might want to love and wear that same Woolly.”
Dupré and John, who also produce equally comfortable roll-up tees and are expanding into other leisure and sleep apparel, see their company as being in the vanguard of a new American movement; aiming to produce clothing with lasting style, comfort and a deeper connection to customers. “Making things in America should have never gone out of style,” he remarks, “it’s just not a piece of the business model than can be sacrificed. It can be done, and we’re proving that especially will the help of people like Barnes & Noble College, who see the benefit of supporting a company who knows that that’s important.”