Back Into the Fray
Stephen Sullivan was one of the chief protagonists in the successful Jackson Hole-based outdoor apparel brand Cloudveil. He and then partner Brian Cousins were among the first outdoor clothiers to popularize softshell fabrics, especially their signature “Serendipity” jacket, which officially put Cloudveil on the map in the mid 90s. Since their early garage outfitter days Cloudveil put an emphasis on style, authenticity, function and finish, and grew to become a major player in the outdoor lifestyle category.
No middle man: Stio founder Stephen Sullivan
Fifteen years later, with Cloudveil sold to Windsong Brands in 2010, “Sulli” is at the helm again with a new outdoor apparel venture: Stio. The fledgling company "will offer a carefully curated collection of men’s, women’s and children’s apparel, bags and accessories made available direct via its full service e-commerce web store, consumer catalogs and flagship retail store in Jackson Hole." The new take? Cut out pandering to the middle man and give outdoor consumers exactly what they want, direct to their doorsteps.
Why start another outdoor apparel company from the ground up?
I guess I just love making things, whether it’s a tree house for my kids or a piece of apparel, I just love the process. I also just really love the apparel business—it’s complicated and challenging but very rewarding when people wear products that you have designed, developed and produced.
As far as the driving force to start another company? I need a job, Jackson has been my home for 24 years, my family and friends are here, making apparel is what I know, what I love to do. After I lost my last company, and after protracted negotiations to buy it back in a very public and somewhat tragic manner, it wasn’t long before I decided to do it again, and do it in a way I could control it.
So you’re using a direct-to-consumer model—why?
The direct-to-consumer model has numerous virtues. But first and foremost, the customer interaction is direct and immediate—they either like the product or they do not. Being able to react, adapt and change to fulfill the needs and wants of the end consumer is first and foremost.
The biggest hurdle that I see “out of the gate” is achieving brand exposure without the benefit of the wholesale channel, and importantly, getting the business to some measure of scale and cash flow in short order. The rewards are the ability to control the business in a sustainable manner: you build it, sell it, and move forward. The business will live or die based on our ability to produce great product and show that we have a unique brand position in the marketplace.
What makes this a more viable and responsible business plan?
I don’t yet know if it’s a more viable or responsible business plan, but I think it is. The wholesale channel has so many moving parts: trade shows, sales reps, retailers, distributors, agents, etc. Although it is a very complex business to design, develop, manufacturer and market any product, I think that being a direct-to-consumer business is a cleaner and simpler model from the respect that there are just not as many moving parts to manage it.
So this is a business model based on creative freedom.
Yes, I believe so. Basically, the premise is that we dream up interesting and unique products and we put them out to the consumer. They resonate or they don’t. There isn’t a “filter” in between. No retailer telling you it won’t sell, no reps saying that they cannot sell it. Instead the consumer appreciates the product, and buys it—or they don’t. In the wholesale channel, there is enormous pressure to build products that the retailer will buy. This unfortunately can be very limiting. Some of the best products we built at my former company we were never able to sell to the retailer, but did exceptionally well in our direct channels – be it our e-commerce, catalog and retail store. This is one of the principal reasons I chose to go direct to the consumer this time.
How has the face of the outdoor world changed since you first started doing outdoor clothes nearly twenty years ago?
I’d say that the largest change is that the business of the outdoors has become a very big business—a mainstream business. There are numerous billion-dollar companies out there now, which simply was not the case in 1997. There is more discipline and focus at these companies—it’s mostly about their businesses and the bottom line. There has also been a tremendous amount of consolidation, and there are very few GDI’s (God Damn Independents) out there any longer. Basically, once a company gets “hot,” it is usually swallowed up quickly by one of the big guys, so I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who are still forging their own path, and haven’t taken the money but continue to put out very creative stuff and compelling product, and especially those who are building businesses in the mountain community. That being said, it is still a wonderful industry, and full of well-intentioned people.
What will set you apart in the outdoor market?
We see ourselves being able to transcend the general outdoor market a bit. We are trying to set a bit of a new parameter, building beautiful and functional products that emanate from the mountain lifestyle, but products that are more appealing to a broader consumer demographic. It will be a softer brand in the approach to the consumer, not as aspirational or “in your face,” as what is currently out there. But it will still features product that will perform in the outdoor environment.
I honestly think we’ll set ourselves apart by being ourselves. Living here in Jackson we are intimately a part of the fabric of the outdoor world, and try as many companies have, you just can’t manufacture that. We’re just some good folks making some good clothes for good people, to have comfortable and meaningful experiences in their outdoor and life pursuits.