In a licensing agreement announced this week, the Postal Service agreed to let fledgling apparel business Wahconah Group Inc. use various trademarks and the words “Rain, Heat & Snow” on clothing and accessories. The all-weather slogan refers to the agency’s unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
The announcement promptedwisecracks from bloggers and columnists and jokes about postal-worker fashion. And the response startled Wahconah, a 2-year-old business, as executives were flooded with phone calls and requests to appear on the radio and television. Robert Carlston, the company’s senior vice president of marketing, sales and technology, spent much of the week correcting misconceptions and clarifying the finer points of the deal.
First: The Postal Service isn’t paying Wahconah a cent. Wahconah can use the agency’s high-profile brand and nifty buttons or emblems from Postal Service history on coats and other gear. In exchange, the agency will get a cut of the profits. How much? Carlston won’t say.
Second, to repeat: No tax dollars are at stake. The Postal Service pays for its operations by selling postage, products and services.
Third: Nobody will be dressing like mail carriers. Except, that is, for people who deliver the mail.
“We’re not looking to have a giant postage-stamp eagle on the back of a coat or a hoodie or something like that,” Carlston said. “We’re looking for people to wear design-forward products that deal with rain, heat and snow and incorporate technology. Regardless of brand, it’s something that looks great, works great and that you like to buy.”
Squeezed by changing technology and a congressional mandate to pre-pay retiree benefits, the Postal Service is searching for ways to cut costs and raise cash. This month, the agency announced plans to stop Saturday delivery of letters in August. Now the Postal Service is looking to trade on its venerable brand.
That’s where Wahconah comes in, as an unknown company building on the Postal Service’s household name. The company’s chief executive officer, retail veteran Isaac Crawford, popped up in Northeast Ohio in 2010. An executive at a California apparel business, he bid to buy the Hugo Boss suit factory in Brooklyn when the brand’s parent company planned to close the facility. Hugo Boss later backpedaled, after reaching a contract deal with workers.
Crawford liked Cleveland for its affordable real estate, manufacturing workers and roots in the garment business, Carlston said. In 2011, Crawford established Wahconah here, using a Native American name from his home territory of western Massachusetts. The company now has 25 workers between Cleveland, offices in New York and a small factory outside of Baltimore.
So far, Wahconah has produced only samples, but executives hope to see their men’s clothing brands appear at stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom.
The company is close to a deal to buy a vacant industrial building in Cleveland, where Wahconah plans to make suits and other garments. Carlston said he hopes the business will employ more than 150 people here and do much of its manufacturing in the United States, using thread and fabric from this country whenever possible.
“We have products,” he said. “We don’t have things in stores yet. We were looking to be the nice, little, quiet company and do a lot of ground work.”
When you’re linked to the Postal Service, which touches 152 million mailboxes, it’s much harder to be shy.
So how did an unknown company nab a high-profile licensing deal? Darrin Redus ofJumpStart Inc., a Cleveland nonprofit focused on entrepreneurs, points to a presentation Crawford made in Wahconah’s early days.
In late 2011, JumpStart and the Northern Ohio Minority Supplier Development Council prepared a handful of small companies for a conference in Atlanta. At that event, Crawford, who is black, pitched ideas to potential clients including the Postal Service, which already was looking for new ways to make money.
“Their prospects are significant,” Redus, JumpStart’s chief economic inclusion officer, said of Wahconah. JumpStart, which invests in some companies, does not have a stake in Wahconah.
When it comes to details about “Rain, Heat & Snow,” Carlston’s lips are envelope-sealed. Some clothing and accessories could incorporate technology, often called “wearable electronics.” Think jackets you can wear at a range of temperatures or clothes that make it easier to use your iPod during a run.
Wahconah plans to start with men’s clothing and extend the Postal Service brand to women. If the company’s executives have their way, neither rain nor heat nor snow will keep their new line from appearing in stores by spring 2014.