In 2012, John McElrath decided it was time to take a leap.
He looked at his wife, who was holding their newborn baby, and said, “I think it’s time for me to quit my job and really do this.”
He was talking about jumping full time into State Traditions, a state-themed apparel and accessory line that he and two friends had created and launched in Birmingham five years prior.
Until that point, the men had been running the business part time, first out of the trunks of their cars and then out of McElrath’s dining room, selling both online and wholesale to high-end men’s clothing stores throughout the Southeast.
“At that point, the wheels had started spinning pretty quickly,” he remembered. “It was sink or swim.”
How it all started
State Traditions was born out of a simple observation. McElrath remembers he and friend Keith Brown, his co-founding partner, started noticing the rise in popularity of something they referred to as “critter brands.”
“People were wearing shirts with whales, fish or some other type of animal. We thought, ‘What does that symbol actually mean to the people wearing it?’ That gave us the desire to create a brand that really meant something to the person wearing it,” McElrath said.
The friends started with the idea that everyone is from somewhere and had special traditions created in the places they consider home. McElrath, Brown and another friend, Marty Lyons, officially incorporated State Traditions in 2007, with their first product being a cotton polo shirt.
“We started an online site, which was much different than it is now, and our first retail customer was The Locker Room in Tuscaloosa,” McElrath recalled.
In the beginning, they were embroidering and putting private labels on the shirts themselves. McElrath said the brand was more of a creative outlet for them until they went to their first men’s apparel market. That’s when the orders started flooding in, and so did the demand for products other than polo shirts. Soon after, they rolled out state-themed belts and hats followed by T-shirts and other men’s accessories.
“Once we figured it out, we allowed ourselves to continue to grow. We found that you must recreate yourselves every six months or so. You can carry items through, but you always have to have something fresh,” McElrath said.
Keeping the brand fresh
The company has long outgrown McElrath’s dining room. After first occupying a 600-square-foot office space in Pepper Place, they moved to a 4,000-square-foot space near Regions Field in downtown Birmingham before the most recent move into a facility with room to grow. The current 43,000-square-foot office and warehouse in Avondale, a revitalized and booming neighborhood and business district on the east side of Birmingham, is large enough to allow the company to remain there for some time.
“We believe Birmingham fosters new businesses very well, and we especially love being here in the Avondale district. We regularly get together with our neighbors; it’s very much a creative hub,” he said.
McElrath continues at the helm of the company as president and chief executive officer with six full-time employees. Their products now feature all 50 states and can be found in hundreds of fine men’s stores, outdoor specialty stores, golf shops and even children’s boutiques throughout the country.
“We now say we can fit a gentleman from head to knee, we just don’t do socks, shoes or pants,” McElrath said.
The experience of shopping
While online sales make up nearly 30 percent of State Traditions’ sales, the largest portion of its business comes from retail stores that carry its product lines.
“We believe that, in order to be successful in today’s retail climate, you have to have both a retail location and a website. Both drive traffic to each other,” McElrath said.
McElrath said online shoppers expect a sizing chart, a good description and real reviews. He said their brand ensures sizing and quality remain the same, even as they launch new and different lines.
“You have to be reliable and not change it up too much. When people come back, they’ll know what they’re getting,” he said. “Even so, it is hard to replace the in-person shopping experience.”
The State Traditions team plans to continue blazing a new trail in apparel inspired by a connection. They believe the company’s core mission – spreading hometown pride, cherished memories and favorite pastimes – especially resonates in today’s consumer landscape.
“Today’s shoppers make decisions based on how it makes them feel, and we think our products make people feel good,” he said.
Founded: June 2007
Number of employees: 6
Smart move: Bringing our inventory and distribution in-house to our Avondale location.
Learning moment: Too many to count. Learning moments happen often. We must be aware of them, so the lessons are not lost.
Wisdom shared: Trust but verify.
Showroom: The Avondale warehouse that houses State Traditions includes a showroom with some of its signature products displayed. Those products include polos, T-shirts, shorts, hats, belts, koozies, keychains, stickers, cuff links, flasks, money clips and ties.
This story originally appeared in the Alabama Retailer, published by the Alabama Retail Association.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)