Forty years ago Joan Ecker started Fat Hat Clothing Company with free fabric remnants and a treadle sewing machine. Today F.H. Clothing Company is a nationally known family business that designs, produces and sells stylish, comfortable clothing at two retail stores in the UV , craft shows throughout the Northeast and at over 200 boutiques throughout the country. Starting an independent clothing company required creativity, determination and an entrepreneurial spirit. Keeping it operating in today’s retail and global trade environment is challenging and stressful. When all is going smoothly Joan spends her days drawing new designs for future collections but most days are spent trouble-shooting, staying relevant, being competitive, managing a profitable bottom line and negotiating and renegotiating the ever-changing landscape of a dwindling supply chain in the world of small business.
On a recent visit to the “headquarters” of F.H. Clothing Co. in Quechee, I toured the 270 year old barn which includes a retail store, sewing shop, inventory and shipping departments. Joan’s daughters run the business with Joan where kids and dogs are often found running around. When I arrived Joan was busily fixing a window display where a mannequin riding a bike collapsed and took everything with it when playing dogs flew through the store.
I had a chance to talk with Joan about being an entrepreneur and small business owner in the Upper Valley. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Fat Hat as Social Enterprise:
Over the years, the Fat Hat corner in Quechee has acted like a business incubator for upstart businesses since Joan intentionally kept rents low in order to support entrepreneurs as they get their businesses off the ground because she knows how difficult it is to find and access the critical resources when starting out.
Joan is a mentor in Job Shadow project of Upper Valley Business and Education Partnership. Through this project middle school students spend a day learning about the business. They choose fabric, pick a design, resize it for themselves, cut, sew and model their creations. Along the way they learn why it costs what it costs to make clothing and that the cost of labor is mainly what drives the price of finished goods.
Fat Hat continually tries to work with socially responsible manufacturers based in the US. As the industry shifted to off-shore production, a key mission for the business was to keep their clothing completely produced in America. In the early years Joan brought a few other boutique designers to her “cut and sew” guy in NYC to help him establish his small shop manufacturing business that works hard to provide a healthy working condition, in pay and environment for his employees.
Throughout the year F.H Clothing donates dozens of fat hats to cancer patients going through chemotherapy.
Labor- As most UV businesses are acutely aware, the labor pool is small. There is no training for seamstresses and the population of these workers is aging out. Fat Hat desperately needs at least one person with the skills and interest in clothing construction and production to work in the Quechee building.
A living wage – No one can live well even on $15 an hour especially with the continual increases in the cost of living. The company pays all employees above this minimum wage but the higher that goes the harder it is to hold onto the business’s defined market and still make a profit. (The students who were mentored even know this). The minimum wage is not enough to support most people. At some point the cost of living needs to go down to help balance this.
Stable suppliers and costs- It’s a crazy world out there with fabric, shipping, production and tariffs. There are no guarantees about final fabric cost if fabric does happen to come from over seas. There’s no telling how long a boat shipment might be held out at sea waiting for a clear bill of health, there’s the worry that the knitting and weaving companies will close their doors, there’s no sense of stability that the NY building where goods are cut and sewn is not going to be sold in the next month or two for a new boutique hotel resulting in the production house having to find a new home (that’s happened twice in the last three years, and it upheaves everything).
“you’ve GOT to be putting us on!”
QUECHEE MAIN ST.
Quechee, Vermont 05059
83 GATES ST.
White River Junction, VT 05001