March 8, 2021
Open a bricks-and-mortar clothier in a pandemic?
Photos/Don Del Rosso
Friends since childhood Brtiches Great Outdoors owners Matt Carson and Steve Sutherland have launched several businesses together, including SiteWhirks, a web development company in Warrenton.
The entrepreneurs plan to use the Warrenton store as a model for others and to help develop manufacturing capacity in the U.S.
Regular customer Huntley Thorpe talks with Matt Carson in the Main Street shop, which opened last summer.
The days of the great big stores in the malls are hurting. I think we’re in a transition back to the cool, hip, comfortable Main Street-based businesses that people want to visit as a destination.
— Britches Great Outdoors co-owner Steve Sutherland
Britches Great Outdoors
Men’s and women’s clothing and accessories store.
Matt Carson and Steve Sutherland.
20 Main St., Warrenton.
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
• Website: warthog.vip
• Facebook: Click here
In late summer 2019, a friend asked the Warrenton businessman if he wanted to meet the founder of the famed but out-of-business Britches Great Outdoors clothing company.
A Britches fanboy since middle school, Matt Carson jumped at the chance to talk with Rick Hindin, who had regained ownership of the brand’s trademark.
Over a long lunch at a Washington restaurant, Mr. Hindin explained that he and his partner three decades ago had sold Britches of Georgetown and that the company exchanged hands again before closing in 2003.
Mr. Carson, 45, immediately sensed an “opportunity” to resurrect Britches Great Outdoors, a spinoff of the original Georgetown clothier.
“I said to Rick, ‘Let’s bring it back’,” recalled Mr. Carson who along with his childhood friend Steve Sutherland, 44, own SiteWhirks, a web development company in downtown Warrenton.
Mr. Hindin suggested that he make an offer to buy the Britches Great Outdoors trademark, which includes the iconic Warthog logo.
“So, that night I sent him a term sheet” to buy it, Mr. Carson said. “Within three days, we signed a deal. About six weeks later, I had my first line of men’s shirts.”
Mr. Carson declined to say how much he and Mr. Sutherland paid for the trademark. But, “it wasn’t cheap,” he admitted.
In 1988, Mr. Hindin and his partner sold the larger company and its 100-plus stores to a “publicly traded conglomerate” for $50 million, according to The Washington Post. Britches opened its first store in 1967.
Last July, Mr. Carson and Mr. Sutherland — the closest of friends since preschool — opened the reimagined Britches Great Outdoors at 20 Main St. in Warrenton.
To some, the idea of two tech guys starting a retail clothing business might seem, well, counterintuitive, especially without a detailed plan.
But Mr. Carson operates differently.
“I don’t do spread sheets, business analysis,” he said. “Business, to me, is fun — the creative side of it. So I don’t stop and think. If something interests me, I go a thousand miles an hour into it. And Steve and I have each other’s back.”
The business also would allow him to indulge his “love” of design, style and clothes, Mr. Carson said.
Like the Britches of old, their version features men’s and women’s clothing that Mr. Carson described as “funky and preppy with an edge” and “well-constructed.”
“In the ’80s, they used to call Bridges preppy with a middle finger, which I always thought was clever,” he said, laughing. “It had this kind of anti-brand thing to it that appealed to us.”
In a way, the response to the Main Street store took him aback.
He figured it would appeal largely to “Generation-X” folks — people like him who became devoted to the Britches Great Outdoors line in their youth and would find the shop’s quasi-nostalgia vibe irresistible.
But, “the thing that struck me was literally the day we opened, it was high school, middle school, college kids” shopping, Mr. Carson said. “The audience is all over the map. We have middle schoolers coming in. We have folks my parents’ age coming in. And, it’s everything in between.”
While the business so far has shown a “profit,” he declined to provide details.
Britches employs four people — two work in the store and two process online orders. The company provides free shipping and postage and promises three-day delivery.
Mr. Carson estimated start-up costs at $350,000.
The Britches’ “hybrid” business model will rely on a strong brick-and-mortar and online presence.
Mr. Carson described the Warrenton store as a “template” for potentially dozens of more in small “historic” college towns and cities such as Charlottesville, Richmond and Charleston, S.C.
Mr. Sutherland believes the model can capitalize on a shifting retail market.
“The days of the great big stores in the malls are hurting,” he said. “I think we’re in a transition back to the cool, hip, comfortable Main Street-based businesses that people want to visit as a destination,” he said.
The Britches clothing line and planned locations in historic districts will combine to create that experience, Mr. Sutherland suggested.
The Warrenton Main Street space totals 2,798 square feet, with access to the building’s basement via Culpeper Street. The basement will be used for “special weekend events” that will feature gear from the 1980s, Mr. Carson said.
In January, the partners signed their second one-year lease for the space. Mr. Carson declined to discuss the financial details of the agreement.
Warrenton lawyer T. Huntley Thorpe III visits the store about twice a month.
Among Britches’ first customers, Mr. Thorpe owns two of the shop’s custom-made Carson & Machete blazers — one tan, one blue — among other garments. (Mr. Carson and Colorado-based A.J. Machete designed the jacket, notable for its brightly colored elbow patches.)
On Wednesday, the avid golfer bought a $45 polo shirt.
“It’s a good product that is durable and functional and comfortable,” Mr. Thorpe, 50, said of the store’s inventory. “It’s nostalgic for those of us who are of an age and remember the original Britches, and it’s unique to the younger generation because it’s different than any other logos or brands out there.”
As much as possible, the attorney also supports local businesses.
“I hope Matt succeeds beyond his wildest dreams,” Mr. Thorpe said.
A regular customer, Ashley Norris, 38, has purchased clothes for herself, her fiancé and her family at Britches.
“I’m just so happy to have a new business on Main Street,” said Ms. Norris, a buyer for Hartman Jewelers, a few storefronts away from Britches. “A clothing store is a nice addition.”
Products unique to Britches include a multi-functional camping drink bottle (designed by Mr. Carson), needlepoint belts depicting the Blue Ridge Mountains and the “Worthog Workshirt” — one of the shop’s most popular items.
Mr. Carson oversees the design and manufacture of the company’s products.
He initially hoped most of the clothes would be made in America, using U.S. materials.
But that proved impractical for various reasons, Mr. Carson said.
So the company depends on a system that ships cotton to mills in Bangladesh, for example, that help him make fabric decisions related to blends, thickness, patterns and colors.
Fabrics then get sent to Asia and made into clothes, he said.
The pandemic has complicated that process, resulting in shipment and manufacturing delays, Mr. Carson said.
“People tell you the clothing business is insanely difficult in normal times,” he said. “Normal times will feel like a cakewalk compared to the firestorm we’ve been through.”
Ultimately, Britches wants to establish a clothing manufacturing system of its own in Virginia, Mr. Carson said.
He and Mr. Sutherland know how hard it can be to start a new business under normal circumstances.
The Fauquier natives last year wrestled with whether to open Britches as the deadly coronavirus raged or to wait until a vaccine became available, the pandemic subsided and people returned to shops, restaurants and other businesses in greater numbers.
In the end, they decided to open last July.
“My philosophy was we have to open at some point,” Mr. Carson said. “I was paying a lease on a store, our lines of clothing were arriving. The Britches comeback was already out of the bag, because we had our launch party right before the pandemic hit.
“And I said I just can’t keep sitting on my tail forever.”
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