RARR Sportswear: From China with love
Christopher and Amy Rohrer are doing what a lot of Portlanders do. They started a sportswear brand to unite their love of working out with their knowledge of clothing. But their brand was born from a unique set of circumstances.
Not for them the usual hip T-shirt company that blows up into fashion (then sportswear, gaming, TV and lifestyle).
Nor the midlife crisis apparel exec deplaning from the corporate mothership for a shot at the big time.
RARR exists because, well, China.
It's where they met.
He was a working in the office of a factory called Ningbo Top Garments, which did production for European fashion brands including Forever 21 and Calvin Klein. "Ningbo, it's just another 10 to 12 million people city that most people I mention it to have never heard of…" Ningbo is the second biggest port in China and is in Zhejiang Province.
He had been a day trader in New York city working for a hedge fund. He wanted something more exciting and set off for China, teaching English to kindergarteners for the first year. He lived in a suburb where he rarely saw Westerners around so he picked up Mandarin and the local Cantonese dialect.
She grew up in Highams Park in Northeast London and studied French and Chinese studies at Nottingham University, tackling classics such as the epic novel "The Dream of the Red Chamber." During her semester in China she made good contacts and walked into a job in an apparel factory upon graduating.
As the orders came in in English she would translate them into Chinese, back and forth, as the drawings and documents bounced between designer and maker.
"I have always loved making clothes, I always had a sewing machine, and I always loved language as well," says Amy in their apartment which overlooks Providence Park. (They're so close they can look up from fulfilling orders on their kitchen island and watch Timbers and Thorns games on the jumbotron.) "It was a chance to get into one of my hobbies and use my languages."
After a time, she moved to a factory that made all the big brands: Nike, Puma, Reebok, Adidas. Shen Zhou Knitting, based in Beilun just outside Ningbo.
The idea to make their own sportswear came from a practical need.
"I'd go for a run and have nowhere to put my key, so I'd tie it to my shoe. Head-to-toe in Nike and nowhere to put it. We were like, 'Can we make our own?' Well, we could!"
They started designing. They wanted zipper pockets so things wouldn't fly out when running or getting in a car. An iPhone 6+ pocket that didn't sag. They wanted bright colors and natty patterns as well as the usual solids and slimming black. They incorporated things they saw from fashion, such as the ribbed panels on the front thigh of their slim jogging pants.
Work from home in sweats
In their own words, RARR sportswear is functional active wear that is fashion forward. They are the marketing team too, but they want to outsource that.
The second bedroom is their office, where the three seasons can be seen. Winter 2018/19 is taking shape on the laptop. Chris uses Adobe Illustrator "to make things easy. A designer at
Ning Top taught me basics. It's just a tool to draw out a design." Amy works more on the colorways and patterns.
What they don't know they pick up. Neither has an MBA, nor certificates in clothing manufacture or art.
"The internet having all the knowledge, we take a lot from that," says Chris with a smile.
"With my background in sewing, I wouldn't follow patterns as much. When I learned how to draw a garment, the factory would draw the pattern for us. Being in the industry has allowed us to design a garment from start to finish. That's how we can work in the U.S. and work with the factory in China.'
Season Spring/Summer 2018 is partly hanging on the rail, as a series of samples.
For inspiration, they look to European fashion and at fashion forecasting services such as WSGM. "Plain colors and dark prints works for most people. Eighty percent choose black because afraid to wear bright prints or flowers. We like the people who aren't afraid," says Amy.
'Ships and shipping
Having access to all ends of the product cycle, from concept to fulfillment, in and out of Chinese and English language, speeds things up for them. As a translator in China for Shen Zhou Knitting (the factory they now use, thanks to their good relationship with the family who owns it) she would receive the technical pack from the client (for example Nike). The technical pack describes every particular of the garment. She would translate it into Chinese, inspect the sample several times and send it back with a note to Nike.
The back and forth might go on two or three times as they sought to get the perfect stitching and the exact drape. "When it's perfect we proceed to bulk," which means start making them by the thousand. Shen Zhou Knitting and Nike would both be grateful for her services, and she would know more about garments, business and the Chinese.
"I really loved that job," she says.
They started RARR and moved here in November 2016. They chose Portland for its active population and strong apparel ecosystem.
Chris Rohrer says that when he was looking for a job in China, he did things the Chinese way and went to a lot of business dinners.
"I met my boss at Ningbo Top at a business dinner. He liked that was speaking fluently with him, and he was interested in my skills. I was looking for something I could sink my teeth into. When I discovered clothing manufacturing and fashion, I knew I had my fit. He taught me everything I know."
The latest season of RARR product is now in a Portland Self Storage warehouse downtown. Some of it is in their walk-in closet at home. Orders sit bagged on the kitchen counter. They give them one last QC (quality control) for loose threads before dropping them in the lobby where the doorman passes them on to UPSPS.
"There's always percentage of error expected — if it's within 3 percent it's something we have to eat," says Chris.
As well as farming out the marketing (staying sharp on Instagram takes up a lot of time, but it's essential for bringing people to the website to make purchases) they would also like to outsource fulfillment to a place he found downtown.
For that though, "The timing is not right yet."
He works as a bar back at the Deschutes Brewpub in the Pearl. She works for Hello Fresh, a company that delivers meal kits, and loves it. When do they work on RARR? "All the other hours," they say together.
They want to keep control right now to grow the brand. That means selling at events such as the Portland Night Market and the Athletic & Outdoor Young Professionals holiday party.
Home from China
China has changed rapidly from the land of knock offs and neo-Victorian sweatshops of a decade ago.
"There was a huge difference just from when I arrived in 2012 to when I left." The quality of manufacturing is as good as anywhere in the world now, he thinks. Chinese people are curious about the world and are a lot nicer than were imagined by our Nixon-era grandparents.
"Chinese people want to be your friend, they want to learn about your life," says Amy. "It was a lot easier to talk to people than in France."
They explain that the money they saved in China is their capital. Apparel is an up-front business. They own the inventory and it's up to them to move it. The 20 items of season Fall/Winter 2017 is ready now, dropping one per week to maintain buzz online.
The game plan is to keep prices reasonable. So, a hoody or a pair of joggers both retail for $65. Chris estimates the top might cost $15 to make (freight on board). By the time they have paid freight and tariffs to get it to Portland, the cost is still under $40. They pay online transaction fees. (Shopify is their merchant.) They offer free shipping.
After that, everything is gravy.
Hence the part-time jobs. They know Nike pays a lot less than $15 to make a pair of joggers that they sell for $120, but it's apples and oranges to compare. RARR has very little overhead costs.
If you worked here you'd be home now
95 percent of their sales are in the U.S. but they have shipped to "15 to 20" countries, according to Chris.
The computer is where the orders come in, the garments are designed, where their social network brews and where their news comes from. No wonder then that they need to get out sometimes. You can see them running up and down Burnside to Washington Park.
Isn't the road to financial hell paved with well-intentioned sportswear startups?
Amy says they didn't research other companies' failures. "This project was less about making money, more about doing something we love and making it accessible, online and in the purchase price."
If RARR were to take outside investment they would still have to control the direction of the brand. It would be to help them outsource some of the things they would rather not do. Chris says, "Any large business decision, we'd weigh the options. It'd be about how can we expand the brand. 'How can you help us?'"
What do they think it will take to succeed?
"You need heart and determination," says Chris, sounding like an athlete. "There are a million hurdles. It's about how you handle them and what you do to get there. And we will have more hurdles too."
And the name?
The brand, from the horse's mouth:
"Amy's maiden name is Farr, so RARR is the combination of our names. Phonetically it sounds very similar to mine (Rohrer), but has the spelling similar to her maiden name.
We also came to "RARR" as a final decision because it was short, simple and memorable. It seemed like an action, or a verb in itself, which we thought was very fitting for an activewear brand."
— Chris Rohrer
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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