Meet Betabrand, the company that’s using viral humor and uncensored crowdsourcing to create the future of fashion.
By Brian Moylan
Illustrations by Ben Mendelewicz
Photographs by Peter McCollough
Chris Lindland created the clothing company Betabrand with one pair of novelty pants: the Cordarounds, corduroy trousers on which the wales run horizontally rather than vertically. It started as a joke, but the way Lindland described them in the product description made the pants go viral:
“Unlike vertical corduroy pants, which produce friction that can heat your crotch to uncomfortable, even dangerous levels, Cordarounds’ horizontal wales mesh evenly, lowering the average wearer’s crotch heat index (CHI) reading by up to 22%.”
Cordarounds were covered everywhere, making them instantly profitable. They were on back order for months. To keep people from revolting while waiting for their new duds, Lindland sent out weekly emails filled with jokes about what they could eventually do with their trousers, which kept them not only appeased, but enthusiastic. This is when Lindland settled on his motto: “99% fiction, 1% fashion.”
At the time, Lindland had just quit his job in business development for a hotel website. He thought, “I’m going to try to create this clothing company to sell horizontal corduroy pants, and it will be a joke and it will be a really funny site and my goal is to be as entertaining as possible, period.”
Lindland is tall, trim, and slightly goofy, like a human version of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, but with eyelashes so long and blonde they’d make Claire Danes’ Latisse commercial jealous. The 42-year-old is easily excitable and talkative, but shies away from talk of “crushing it” and other Silicon Valley swagger. Lindland’s the kind of guy who created a data storage company that’s like an early version of Dropbox and also sold a sitcom script to Spike TV about world record holders. When I visited the offices, Lindland spent a good part of a marketing meeting trying to figure out the funniest, most fucked up prank he could unleash on the site — he wanted to render the entire site backwards or upside down to make it barely intelligible. That, rather than sales, was what he was really excited about.
After Cordarounds, Lindland branched out into other products meant to elicit giggles, like reversible smoking jackets with corduroy on one side and a flashier fabric on the other. They were essentially wearable mullets — business on the outside, party on the inside. There was also Vagisoft, a line of pajamas, hoodies, and blankets made out of the supposed softest substance on earth: “Betabrand researchers invented the Tactile Soft-O-Meter®, a device that can detect and compare the density of softrons, the subatomic units of softness.”
Each time he came up with a new product with an outlandish story and a faux-scientific model to back it up, it would get tons of attention in the press. He wasn’t really selling clothes, he was just making stories go viral in the same way that BuzzFeed or Gawker does. The difference is once people saw the story Lindland was selling, they could buy it. Then when they wore their Cordarounds to brunch, they would have that story and all of Lindland’s jokes to repeat to their friends.
Since he started in 2004, Lindland’s company has grown, changing its name from Cordarounds to Betabrand in 2010 to reflect its new, expansive offerings, and clearing almost $10 million in sales last year. Not bad for a business that was mostly conceived as a lark. While the clothing is still whimsical, the tactics behind it aren’t. Lindland has taken everything he’s learned about e-commerce and the physics of the internet and is using it to create a company that is challenging the design process and trying to recalibrate the way fashion is made.
The first thing I noticed when approaching Betabrand’s storefront in San Francisco’s Mission District last fall was the company’s van. Parked at the curb, it featured two men in shiny clothing courting a white tiger and a foxy lady, while a white owl flew overhead shooting lasers out if its eyes. It was like a Dungeons & Dragons illustration someone might draw if they did too many Whip-Its while watching Napoleon Dynamite. Inside the store’s display window stood a four-foot-tall replica of the Golden Gate Bridge where shoppers could snap selfies when trying on the costumier lines of clothing in front of a rotating cast of inflatable monsters that includes a Godzilla, a Bigfoot, and a hanging monkey. A huge mural of Santa Claus impaling Dracula on a giant candy cane advertised Santa Slays Halloween, Betabrand’s first videogame.
The storefront and the website are sort of opposites. While the display window contains a replica skyline, Betabrand’s homepage looks like any other online retailer, with professional photographs of attractive people wearing its clothing. But when you start clicking on those items, the stories pop out — about how a hoodie can turn you into a mercenary, or how a fabric coated with super-reflective glass nanospheres can repel paparazzi or how a jacket shields subway riders from a “category-5 snot storm.” The site’s Model Citizen section hosts a collection of what is basically user-generated advertising: Devotees send in photos of themselves trekking across Iceland in an absurdly shiny disco suit (#discotrek) or BASE jumping off the top floor of a hotel. When users started submitting videos of themselves skiing out of helicopters in a Betabrand jumpsuits, the company took its YouTube Channel one step further and created mini commercials for new lines, interviewed well-known comedians wearing Betabrand garb, and made “behind the scenes” videos about the making of its products.
Seeing the clothes in the Betabrand’s boutique, however, is sort of like seeing marionettes with their strings cut. Dress Pant Sweat Pants, such an amusing idea online, just look like a normal pair of sweats. Well, actually they look like pants, but I guess that’s the point. Above the racks of Dress Pants Yoga Pants (their version of Dress Pants Sweat Pants for ladies) and Gay Jeans (which reveal a set of rainbow threads just under the surface) are the company’s headquarters, with a dozen workers toiling at their desks, standing or otherwise. Behind a station of disco clothing — pants, shirts, hoodies, and even a jumpsuit made out of shimmering material that’s a cross between lame and mylar — sit the store staff. On the other side of a rickety wall the brand’s designers, pattern makers, and seamstresses mock up about three new prototypes a day, which are then voted on by customers to determine whether they get mass-produced. At any time, any employee can become a guinea pig. On the day I visited, Lindland, who stands about six foot three, was called down to be measured so they could size a garment for taller dudes.
The space is an amalgamation of internet startup and brick and mortar: It houses a successful e-commerce retailer that encourages users to submit ideas for clothing designs that the company will manufacture if enough people buy it in advance; it is a fashion supplier for people who want clothing that serves a specific function; and it is a boutique of outrageous apparel for techies scouring the Mission for something hilarious to wear to a theme party. It’s not all things to all people, but it’s all things to the people in its orbit.
When San Francisco saw yet another influx of tech workers a few years ago, Betabrand was in a position to capture a new audience — an audience that lived on the internet, enjoyed its wacky bent, and was seeking a kind of practicality and comfort that wasn’t being addressed by other clothing companies. This was around the same time that Facebook, Zynga, LinkedIn, and Yelp were gaining tons of attention for their huge IPOs. In the spirit of maximizing press potential, Lindland created the Executive Hoodie, a hooded sweatshirt made out of pinstriped blazer material, an official sport coat of Silicon Valley, and launched it concurrent with Facebook’s IPO in 2012. Its tongue was both firmly in its cheek and sticking out at the rest of the tech world. Subsequently the company started to specialize in what it calls West Coast Workwear: Bike to Work Pants, to ease a cycling commute with a “slightly higher back rise that is optimal for crack-coverage”; Dress Pants Sweat Pants; Sons of Britches, pants for the “amateur stuntman lifestyle”; and a Ping Pong Polo shirt, for the type of people who have a ping-pong table near their workstation because they don’t want to seem so stuffy that they go to an office, or so square that they have to put on big-boy dress-up clothes.
These are clothes made for people who care less about clothes and more about how clothing can make their lives simpler and better. All the better if it helps them to do more work or incorporate their gadgets more fully into their lives. Now the company features products like the Morning Mess Jacket, a woman’s coat that has specifically designed pockets for all her essentials, like phone and keys, so she can dash out of the house in the morning, or the Audio Engineer Hoodie, with a hood made of sound-conducting fabric so headphones can go on the outside of the hood. These are clothes that address specific needs for very specific people, aiming to make all our lives just a little bit more convenient.
And that’s what the consumer wants. “I think we’re moving toward the uniform in fashion,” says Gretchen Harnick, the founder of Pattern to Plan, which finds new business models for emerging designers. “We got to a point where we have too many choices and fashion just blew up our brain cells and we want to get back to the simple and uniform and we want to have a clean way of living and functionality helps us with that.”
Other San Francisco companies are changing their business models to address this new desire for ease and uninformity. “We’re not selling products to the fashionable,” says Mike Maher, the cofounder of Taylor Stitch, an Americana-inspired clothing company that lets customers vote on which products are made. “It’s not about the guy who is obsessed with fashion, it’s the guy that’s obsessed with function. I think that’s more of the transition to the way the consumer is thinking right now. In the age of technology and information we’re providing something a little more real time and like the future.”
That doesn’t mean that the company is just operating within the Silicon Valley bubble. In fact, Betabrand’s biggest market is New York City, and it does less than half of its sales in San Francisco. The company’s customer base is simply tapped into the coast-to-coast culture of the internet and all the promise it has to offer. As Lindland says, there is a kid in every high school who wants a Poo Emoji shirt (one of Betabrand’s more recent blockbusters), and it’s his job to find that kid.
His ultimate goal, though, is not just to find those kids who want the Poo Emoji shirts to sell them stuff, but to let them design whatever wacky clothing they want to wear. This is why he’s steadily raised $14 million in venture capital since the company’s founding — to launch what he calls the Think Tank, which essentially turns Betabrand into the Kickstarter of clothing. Just like Anna Wintour has taken emerging designers, given them prominence in her magazine, and brokered deals for them with large retailers, the Think Tank is also giving emerging designers a place to display their work and a manufacturing partner to make it. However, Wintour’s proteges are making evening gowns and come from the most prestigious design schools in the world, whereas Betabrand’s proteges are making convertible rain slickers and hail from anyplace with an internet connection.
“My attitude is that fashion week should be every week and you should be able to buy it,” says Lindland. “Compared to what we do, high fashion is really a leery comparison, because they design to a different standard than we do. But that’s not going to last that way forever.”
The Think Tank centers on the reigning philosophy of Silicon Valley, which is that the best idea wins, no matter who has it or where it came from. Lindland says he had the idea because he was always being approached by people who wanted to start their own clothing companies but didn’t know how. He saw the world as full of untapped potential. “I noticed this when we started hiring designers — their books were packed with unmade ideas. So with crowdsourcing as a mega-trend, it seemed that Betabrand could be a natural platform for these folks to get ideas turned into products,” he says.
At least for now, the Think Tank isn’t trafficking in haute couture. Take the Suitsy, a one-piece business suit created to fool the corporate world into thinking the wearer is dressed up even though he’s wearing something that is essentially one-piece pajamas. It was designed by Jesse Herzog, 33, who works at a real estate development company in San Francisco. “I figured this could make it that much easier to feel comfortable, but dress up at work,” Herzog says. He ended up wearing his creation to his rehearsal dinner. After designing the Suitsy and getting a prototype made, Herzog submitted his idea and photos of him wearing his dream suit to the Think Tank program, under the assumption that if he wanted it so badly, plenty of others out there would as well.
When the Suitsy went up for voting on Betabrand’s site, it immediately went viral, ratcheting up all sorts of attention on blogs, newspapers, and even Good Morning America. It wasn’t the first time there was some Web fixation on Betabrand. “But it was the first time that it happened at this scale by way of design when we gave it up to the fans,” says Lindland. “It was the first time it happened that we had nothing to do with.”
The beauty of crowdfunding is that it also serves as market research. Lindland realized if he could test what people wanted to buy and how much of it they wanted, he could eliminate wasting resources speculating on trends. “We put the Think Tank out so that we wouldn’t waste our time any longer,” he says.
Betabrand has been steadily streamlining the submission process. People with an idea for an item of clothing submit it through the website and Lindland and his staff of 60 do all the work: Mock up prototypes, source materials, find manufacturers. Designers don’t need to figure out all the labor and source it out, because Betabrand has already done all the work for them.
Every month, the Think Tank gets about 70 to 100 user-designed submissions. The most common request, according to the Think Tank’s former coordinator, Sarah James, is something that’s waterproof, machine-washable, has a million pockets, and costs less than $70. Everyone is chasing that utilitarian dream. All of those things are impossible to make in the same garment at that price, James says, but she’s too polite to tell people to stop asking.
After a panel of Betabrand employees deems the idea acceptable or not (some ideas, like anything with solar panels, are immediately rejected because Betabrand doesn’t have the technology), the company draws some sketches (or uses those submitted by the creators) and puts the idea up for voting on the website. Recent entries include a Whole-in-One Golf Shirt (sweater, shirt, and tie all connected to look dope on the links), a 3-D printed space tie, and a work-to-evening convertible dress. If the idea seems to be resonating with fans, gets a significant number of votes, and is gaining a sort of viral momentum during this phase of the process, it moves into the crowdfunding phase. Betabrand’s team of seamstresses and designers will make a prototype of the item, after which pictures are taken (often with the creator of the garment or a Betabrand employee), and then customers can actually pre-purchase the item through the site. If enough people purchase it to cover the manufacturer’s minimum to make the product — usually between 200 and 400 units — then the item will be made, customers’ credit cards will be charged, and the item will be shipped.
Each of Betabrand’s new products — whether they come from outside designers or those on staff — goes through this voting and crowdfunding process, and about 75 percent make it to manufacturing. By avoiding that 25 percent of products that would lose the company tons of money and resources, Betabrand’s business is virtually invulnerable to failure. “If we pretend like we’re a newspaper,” says Aaron Magness, the vice president of marketing and ecommerce at Betabrand, “it’s as if all of our customers are journalists and we’re an editor.”
Taylor Stitch’s cofounder Mike Maher says the beauty of this business model is that “it works as a specialized testing club.” By cutting out wholesalers, they can get people the clothes when they want them. Instead of releasing swim trunks in February, when the spring collections hit stores, Taylor Stitch has people vote on them in April, when they’re dreaming about shaking off the winter chill at the beach, so they arrive at customer’s houses just in time for Memorial Day.
The funny thing about the fashion industry is that it has yet to be upended by new technology. Sure, its means of distribution have been changed as online retailers like Net-A-Porter or flash sale companies like Gilt have changed the way people shop, but the big design houses, especially the designer-driven luxury brands, still manufacture their products as they always have.
In fact, the model that they use is akin to crowdfunding. Each season a designer shows several collections to the public, and then buyers from boutiques, large department stores, and online retailers order the clothes they want from those collections. Only the ones that get purchased in large quantities get made. That’s why you never see the craziest things from the runway in actual stores. The clothes are in stores a year later. The only difference between these high-fashion and new-fashion companies is that Betabrand offers a new item for voting just about every day, and your purchase will make it to your door as soon as it’s available.
The traditional fashion world, however, isn’t keen on crowdsourcing fashion in the way that Betabrand and others are employing it. Simon Collins, the former dean of the fashion school at Parsons, who now works as a consultant for fashion businesses, thinks these new-fashion companies are just making widgets rather than actually designing clothing. Collins isn’t opposed to new ways for designers to get a leg up, he just wants to make sure the emphasis is on design. “I applaud designers who raise money through Kickstarters, but I have no time for crowdsourcers,” he says. “I think it’s abdication of design.” If you let the general public design clothing, he adds, “you end up with McDonald’s. That’s what’s most popular.”
Tommy Hilfiger menswear designer Frank Gargione echoes his statement, saying of Betabrand: “It’s all just so corny, and it’s so obvious, and it’s just not clothes designed by people who care about clothes at all.”
Lindland disagrees: He would love it if Betabrand became a platform for emerging designers right out of fashion school. The bar to entry in the fashion world is high and takes a lot of capital. It would be smart to let someone handle the heavy lifting while a young designer gets all the credit. After all, it’s either Betabrand or selling their soul to reality television on Project Runway.
Betabrand may never have an exhibition at the Costume Institute, but that’s not really what it’s going for. Betabrand’s clothing, since the first pair of Cordarounds, has always been about selling a story, and the new story is that it’s made for regular people by regular people. This is where the true disruption lies.
Instead of making people long for things they didn’t know they wanted and probably couldn’t afford, Betabrand makes people long for the thing they always wanted and never thought possible. And it enables them to turn their dream into a reality. If people want a one-piece suit to schlub around in at the office while fooling their coworkers, Betabrand is there to indulge their creative fantasy. If people want lounge pants printed with giant images of the Virgin Mary, or a puffy winter coat made to look like a NASA space suit, Betabrand will give them the tools to create that and an environment where such innovations are celebrated.
And that’s how Betabrand will change the fashion industry, not by trying to out-fashion Fashion, but by being the complete opposite. The fashion industry is small and insular and operates with a small elite telling us what we should want to wear. Betabrand is inclusive and all encompassing, and instead of passing down sartorial edicts, it asks the people what they want to wear and builds it for them. The fashion industry approaches design like it’s some kind of self-serious and noble calling. Betabrand approaches it like it’s trying to solve a problem or find a joke apron for a barbecue (because who doesn’t love a barbecue).
Betabrand is not cool to the fashion firmament. It is not cool to style bloggers or celebrities (other than Stephen Colbert, who wore the company’s star-spangled USA pants at his rally), or the other usual arbiters of taste. But it doesn’t need them. Betabrand is a new kind of cool. It’s created by you and me and those with a mind to how commerce will work in the new economy. If Betabrand becomes cool, it’s because Betabrand is the future.
The story was written by Brian Moylan. It was edited by Madison Kahn, fact-checked by Julia Greenberg, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Photos by Peter McCollough for Matter. Illustrations by Ben Mendelewicz for Matter.