A Maine-based apparel business with a strong pedigree and a desire to take “Made in the USA” to the extreme is about to expand significantly.
Ramblers Way Farm, founded by Tom’s of Maine’s Tom Chappell and his wife, Kate Chappell, plans to open three new retail locations in the coming months, one in Portland and two in New Hampshire. The company, which makes high-quality wool and cotton garments for men and women, opened its first store in Kennebunk in November.
The Chappells founded Ramblers Way in 2009, about three years after selling an 84 percent stake in Tom’s of Maine to New York-based Colgate-Palmolive Co. for $100 million.
In an interview, Tom Chappell said that after two years of running Tom’s under Colgate-Palmolive’s ownership, he was not yet ready to retire and become a full-time philanthropist. He needed a new challenge, and that’s exactly what he got.
“I asked myself what product category we might make a difference in,” he said. The Chappells settled on the idea of domestically sourced and manufactured clothing.
Ramblers Way products are nearly 100 percent made in the United States, including the raw materials from which they are assembled. Only the occasional button or zipper is not American-made.
But starting up a domestically sourced apparel manufacturing business in the U.S. wasn’t easy. For starters, there were no domestic suppliers left from which to buy materials. Ramblers Way had to create a market for those materials and convince potential suppliers to sell into it.
For example, Tom Chappell said he traveled to various sheep ranches and made agreements with ranchers to set aside their super-fine Rambouillet Merino sheep’s wool for Ramblers Way products.
In addition, all of the garments are assembled either in Kennebunk or at a partnering facility in Chicago. The company had to track down highly skilled stitchers – a profession that has all but disappeared in the U.S. – to make the clothes. Stitchers at Ramblers Way are paid a starting wage of $14 an hour plus benefits.
Aside from U.S. military contractors, no other American company has made 100 percent domestically sourced and manufactured garments since the bulk of apparel manufacturing moved overseas decades ago, said Nate Herman, senior vice president of supply chain for the Washington, D.C.-based American Apparel & Footwear Association. Herman said he and others in the organization are rooting for Ramblers Way’s success.
“We’re looking to support U.S. apparel manufacturing wherever we can,” he said, noting that the association has invited Tom Chappell to speak at an event it is hosting in July.
There is one major drawback to Ramblers Way’s business model: The clothes are, by necessity, expensive.
On the company’s website, prices for a men’s T-shirt range from $30 to $105, depending on the style. Women’s sweaters range from $120 to $155. Jackets and dresses can cost more than $200.
“We’ve been criticized for being expensive ever since we started,” Tom Chappell said. Selling the products through independent retailers has added another 25 percent to 35 percent to the cost, he said, which is one reason why Ramblers Way is making a major shift toward direct sales by opening its own stores.
Tom’s of Maine products always have been sold through other retailers. That’s where the Chappells’ comfort zone lies. But to make Ramblers Way products more accessible, they are stepping out of that zone.
“It was a cultural, major strategic shift for me,” Tom Chappell said.
Fortunately, there is another Chappell involved in the company who has a passion for both fashion and retail.
Eliza Chappell, Tom and Kate’s daughter, joined Ramblers Way in 2010. She is now the company’s women’s wear designer, creative director and retail manager. In addition to designing all of Ramblers Way’s women’s apparel, Eliza Chappell is deeply involved in the process of opening the new stores.
Other family members also are involved. Eliza’s brother, Chris Chappell, is website and e-commerce director, and her brother-in-law, Nick Armentrout, is supply chain director. Tom and Eliza Chappell are scheduled to be the keynote speakers at the Institute for Family-Owned Business’ annual Maine Family Business Awards dinner Tuesday in Portland.
Eliza Chappell said she is working on opening at least two more Ramblers Way stores by the end of the year. The company is looking at potential spaces in Portland, as well as Portsmouth and Hanover, New Hampshire.
“We have to find a lease and a location that works for us,” she said.
Meanwhile, the company will continue to design and manufacture products in Kennebunk. Eliza Chappell said the company is deeply committed to the principles her father instilled in his previous venture: adhering to ethical business practices and creating American jobs.
“Obviously, we’re American-made,” she said. “What that means is we’re providing jobs to people right here in town.”
Even the design and materials that go into Ramblers Way clothes follow a principle, Eliza Chappell said. The company makes high-quality clothes with classic designs that can be worn for years.
“Sustainability is a huge part of it, too,” she said.