“We do probably 85% of our business within a triangle from Houston to Richmond to Florida,” Ian Starnes tells me as we enjoy some meatball subs from a sandwich shop just down the street from Bird Dog Bay’s new Chicago office. There’s been a lot of change at the brand over the past few months, a new marketing director, a new office, a new focus on underdeveloped markets. Through all of that, the quality, image and leadership of the brand has remained the same. As Bird Dog Bay’s new marketing director, Ian has the task of not only continuing to push the brand in the “Triangle”, but to also figure out how to tap new markets, like the one in Bird Dog Bay’s backyard.
As someone who understands the Midwest market and how it relates to independent apparel brands like Bird Dog Bay, Ian had invited me out to Chicago to discuss some ideas on how to approach the Midwest and to show me around the new digs. After seven years Bird Dog Bay had outgrown the confines of its former home and moved into its new location, a loft in a large brick building along Fulton Street just a short walk from the United Center, in January. The new space is wide open with a few small offices along the perimeter and shelves of ties taking up an entire wall. More ties cover tables throughout the room, still waiting to be unboxed and organized as the team continues to move in. A pronghorn head watches over the entire operation from its spot near the front door.
Ian walks me through the product line, pulling out a silk plaid design new to this year’s collection he’s particularly excited about. The blue, green and pink plaid serves as a complementary piece to Bird Dog Bay’s traditional print adorned ties. It’s a bit more formal and a logical next step as the brand tries to cater to all tie-wearing situations.
Ian tells me how Steve, the founder, originally wanted to make the ties in the USA but the initial samples he got back were crap. The Chinese, on the other hand, have been printing silk for thousands of years. In this case going the made in China route actually results in a better product. It’s proof that sometimes “Made in the USA” is just a marketing gimmick that is not indicative of quality.
Ian and I reminisced over some shared connections. We both spent time in Indianapolis; I attended Butler, he grew up only a few blocks from campus. His girlfriend attended college in South Bend, thirty minutes from my hometown. He clued me in to a breakfast spot out that way I’ll have to try.
If there’s anyone perfectly qualified to figure out how to translate a product doing well in the South into the Midwest it’s Ian. Born in Indianapolis, he moved to Tennessee in grade school and eventually wound up in Florida before coming back to Indiana for undergrad and then moving to Chicago. Like most Midwesterners Ian didn’t realize how much he loved the Midwest until he left it. Now he gets to translate that Midwest passion into Bird Dog Bay’s goals of expanding its market.
On that front Bird Dog Bay faces a tough road. The infrastructure of independent clothing stores that’s abundant in the South just doesn’t exist in the Midwest. Ian talks of driving more traffic towards the web site for the time being to service those regions with a dearth of stores while identifying the pockets that have already embraced the move towards clothing that can’t just be purchased at the mall. It will take some time, but eventually independent clothing brands should catch on in the Midwest.
We’re slow to embrace change. We tend to be the last ones to know about popular music, popular restaurants and pretty much anything else the rest of the country is talking about. There’s hope, though. I’ve already seen the first wave of the movement starting to break in places like Minneapolis, Columbus, Indianapolis and Chicago. It’s moving slowly right now but will eventually gain momentum and pick up steam.
While Bird Dog Bay isn’t in-your-face Midwestern by any means, it embraces concepts that translate well to the culture. While coastal designs sneak in every now and then, many ties focus on hunting, fishing and golfing, outdoor pastimes enjoyed all over the region. In every thing Bird Dog Bay does, it maintains a high level of humility, another trait embraced by the Midwesterner. “If you look at the copy on our web site, you’ll notice we don’t throw around words like ‘greatest’, ” Ian tells me. It’s something to be commended in this day and age.
As I leave ties are being readied to be shipped across the country. Most of those will head south towards the “Triangle.” Hopefully, though, more and more of those ties will be making shorter journeys to destinations with names like St. Louis, St. Paul and St. Joseph.