On the Line | Fifth&Brannan

By Caleb Bushner

Between their gushing fan mail, countless inquiries for business advice, and successfully crowdsourced funding model [ed note: that means they were able to get a bunch of complete strangers to pay for everything], it’s clear that San Francisco’s Fifth&Brannan has built a very committed following. Which is pretty remarkable, considering they don’t actually have a product to sell. At least, not yet.

So, why such a strong response? “Authenticity and transparency is huge to us,” says Katie Wintrode, owner and head designer of the brand. She explained that her new line is such an intensely personal endeavor that she couldn’t have done it any other way, “I was always curious about what it was like behind the scenes in US production. I want to show people just what it’s taken to get going.” She explained, “I receive emails, blog comments and tweets all the time saying ‘I love your work!’ ‘The clothes look great!’ ‘I’m so impressed with the shirts! [But] we’ve never put a finished product up on our site and almost all of our posts are pointing out the troubles we’ve had.” Citing examples such as backwards sleeves, poor quality sample sewing and incorrect patterns, she said, “It’s just funny to hear that people love your work when you have yet to release an image of a good finished product. I guess that’s good for us!” Without a tangible product to ogle, it seems that people are connecting first and foremost with an idea: a fully transparent brand using local production to make quality goods with a timeless look.

Katie en route to the 5&B sewer.

In an age of digital over-sharing, people need to have a reason to engage with a particular brand. In 5&B’s case, this has been the way Katie expresses her love of design, down to the finest detail. The brand has found an untapped market for style-minded folks who want to understand not only what it takes to make a high-end garment but also what it takes to make a high-end garment company. Because of her intense commitment to quality goods, Katie interacts face-to-face with her clothing sewer – a lot. Fortunately, the sewer is in walking distance. These walks – and the larger journey itself – have been tweeted and blogged by Katie since day one. “We’re so small that if Twitter and Kickstarter weren’t around we’d never have been able to do this; nobody would know who we are.”

Barron the social media maverick at work.

Fortunately, her boyfriend and business confidante, Barron Cuadro, is head of the men’s style blog Effortless Gent, and an avid social media user. The two decided to start a Kickstarer campaign to fund their first season of shirts. Amazingly, they met their $8,000 goal within a few short days, and eventually surpassed $13,000 before the campaign closed. As a thank-you, Katie (who works full-time as a clothing designer for a large company in San Francisco, as well as the occasional shift at J. Crew) is hand-making 38 ties and 306 pocket squares for contributors. For Katie and Barron, platforms like Twitter and Kickstarter have proven to be great ways to not only share their adventure, but also connect with the everyday people Fifth&Brannan’s vision resonates with. Barron tells of how during the campaign, he would occasionally receive emails and tweets from readers saying things like, “I love your site and I’ve learned a lot from it, so I pledged to Katie’s Kickstarter campaign as a thank you.” Barron explained, “I think people have used Kickstarter as a way to ‘pay us back’”

Katie hand-sewing ‘Thank You’ ties and pocket squares for her Kickstarter donors.

That’s not the only “payback” the couple has received. Looking through the 5&B blog, it’s hard not to notice the numerous comments of encouragement from both supportive friends and industry insiders, all of whom have convened on the site to discuss the challenges and successes of launching a brand from scratch. There have also been instances of exchanges transcending the digital. When Sledgehammer Wine discovered 5&B, they reached out to Barron through his blog and the two parties started talking. They soon recognized that both brands were serving the same sort of clientele and a fast friendship materialized. That friendship will be on full display at the Fifth&Brannan launch event in June, where Sledgehammer wine will be featured alongside 5&B’s shirt premier.

The relationship between Fifth&Brannan and its myriad fans and followers is simultaneously new and old: people have always congregated around shared causes; it’s only recently that brands have forgotten that the customer’s voice counts for something. 5&B has turned that thinking on its head, gaining support and encouragement from potential buyers, and using that feedback to make something bigger than would have been possible otherwise. It is fitting for a fashion brand named after an intersection to have its success come at the crossroads of new and old schools of business: style and technology. For Katie, the launch party on June 18th will be the culmination of years of work and learning; but for Katie’s fans, it will be just the beginning: finally getting to touch and feel their favorite brand they’ve never seen.

About the author:

Caleb Bushner is a consultant, writer and speaker on all things sustainability, branding, marketing and social media. He has an MBA in Sustainable Business from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, one of the “premier Green MBA programs in the country.” He lives in San Francisco.