Printwear & Promotion LIVE! is renowned for providing brands with a platform to launch into the UK printwear market. This year Comfort Colors was one such brand impressing visitors with its colourful debut. P&P editor Melanie Attlesey caught up with Mike Hoffman, president of Gildan Printwear, to find out more about the story behind the brand.
Comfort Colors was founded in 1975 by Barry Chouinard. He started a small contract dyeing operation for hosiery manufacturers in Northern US. One year later, the company ventured into T shirts in response to the growing demand for colourful T shirts among US customers.
In the mid-1980s, the company developed a revolutionary method to create a neon T shirt that was unique on the market. This method then evolved into a proprietary dyeing process that allowed Comfort Colors to achieve a vintage, worn-in look and feel.
The latest chapter
The latest chapter in the company’s story happened last year when Gildan announced that it had bought the company in February 2015 for $100m. Gildan officially acquired Comfort Colors on March 2 and so has had the business for around 13 months. The brand brings a new dimension to the company, enabling Gildan to further penetrate the fashion basics market with Comfort Colors’ unique look.
Mike explains: “We were already one of the principle suppliers of blank T shirts to Barry. And so when he put the company up for sale, we thought that we would take a look at the prospect and honestly the economics of it were just so interesting to us, and it was such a natural extension of our existing business, that we went ahead and bought the company.”
He continues: “Gildan, not only in the US, but in other markets as well, is very strong in basics and is very well-known for being one of the largest suppliers of basic Ts. But with our Anvil brand and now Comfort Colors, they are extensions of our natural business and allow us to extend into more niche markets. That’s why we have embraced the brand. The acquisition has furthered our strategy to branch out from core basics to basic fashion.”
Gildan’s acquisition has brought with it the scale and manufacturing expertise needed to take the Comfort Colors brand to new heights and expanded markets. “We have this already very large and efficient supply chain and then if you add all of the corporate social responsibility built into the Gildan and Anvil brands, this is what we can bring to Comfort Colors,” says Mike.
Gildan spent the first six months after the purchase understanding what it had and undertaking the integration of the brand. This included opening a new distribution near the already existing Gildan one in North Carolina, investing in a whole new warehouse management system, installing a new customer service system and installing new software for the front end of the business to help process orders and customers. Gildan has also expanded its Honduras operation to create increased manufacturing capacity to cope with the demand for Comfort Colors’ products. These changes to the business only add to Comfort Colors’ already successful garment construction and dye process.
Mike adds: “In order to grow the business further you have to have these foundations in place. We are producing record amounts of garments, but we are also selling record amounts.”
The UK debut
As well as entering the UK market for the first time this year, Gildan has also decided to take Comfort Colors to Japan and Canada. “As a Canadian company, Canada is our home market. Comfort Colors was previously head-quartered 100 miles from the Canadian border, but the company just didn’t have the resources to sell internationally. Now with our Honduran production we can ship duty-free into Canada. Because Canada is so similar to the US and is close in proximity to the US, it was a natural extension.
“If you take the European market, this look just doesn’t exist today and the UK market is very similar in many ways to the US market. It operates the same way and there are some brands that are in both markets. So this was just a natural place to bring Comfort Colors first. We showed it around preliminarily last year and people seemed to like it.
“And if you know anything about the Japanese market they like a lot of things that are American. They like the American look and the retro T shirt is a big hit. We will expand into other markets as our capacity allows,” says Mike.
But what unique look is Mike talking about? The Comfort Colors dyeing process offers an extensive array of colours from bright, bold shades, to soft muted tones, combining great colour with softness. Unlike the Gildan product where the fabric is dyed first, then cut and then sewn, each Comfort Colors garment is first manufactured and then individually placed into a dye vat. This means that each garment is unique in its appearance as not one colour is the same – much like buying a pair of distressed jeans. Gildan has maintained the ring spun garment dyeing method unique to Comfort Colors.
The beginning stages
The Comfort Colors product range in the US is fairly broad, but the UK and European sales team highlighted six key styles which have been introduced initially into the UK. These products are a male and female T shirt, a male and female crewneck sweatshirt, a hooded sweatshirt and a full zip hooded sweatshirt. Each style has a distinct colour palette and product features.
Mike adds: “This is not in any way shape or form representative of the entire line. There are several new products that are being designed for 2017. Even in the US where the product line is already pretty broad we want to take it into new categories, maybe some caps, maybe some polo shirts. We are at the beginning stages of this brand.”
As P&P LIVE! was the European launch for the brand, Mike and the team were pretty keen to hear first-hand what customers had to say about the product’s unique look. “The response from visitors at P&P LIVE! was huge. People were commenting on the look and saying how wonderful it is. Some people even recognise it from the States. For the older customer, the brand creates a sense of nostalgia, taking them back to their youth. The younger customer is more excited by the unique qualities that this brand has. If this response is anything to go by, we have really got the tiger by the tail here,” says Mike.
Plans for the brand in the coming 12 months include; introducing the brand to the rest of Europe as well as expanding the UK product line. Gildan has plans to double the size of Comfort Colors within the next three years. “We want to continue to drive market share with this look and feel and introduce it to as many end-users as we can. The cornerstone of our strategy is to grow the product line,” says Mike.
Comfort Colors is available in the UK from BTC activewear, PAG Leisurewear, Prestige Leisure UK and PenCarrie.