If Barry Barr could take a time machine back to the year 1993 when he was starting the apparel brand KAVU, he wouldn’t focus all his attention on selling products.
“You think that’s going to solve all your problems, when really you need production, warehousing, and great customer service,” he said. “Once you’ve got that dialed in, you can ask for the sales.”
His approach has still worked out fine. The Seattle-based outdoor brand is now a $25 million – $30 million business, with KAVU apparel in stores around the world and in more than 2,000 doors in the United States. Not bad for a company that started with an innovative hat design.
The brand makes an eclectic line of colorful clothing, bags, and accessories that are sold in a diverse range of stores, including REI, Urban Outfitters and Boot Barn, in addition to many specialty outdoor retailers. KAVU is derived from an aviation acronym for “clear above visibility unlimited,” styled with a K.
Barr attributes that measured success to focusing on making high-quality goods rather than obsessing over growth.
“You don’t need to be the biggest to be the best,” he said. “The biggest thing I want to do is be the best.”
As KAVU hits its three-decade mark, Barr spoke with The Daily about other lessons he’s learned, his ongoing retail strategy, and how he’s approaching the industry-wide inventory problem.
As an independent and privately owned company, KAVU has seen its ups and downs over the past 30 years.
When the brand launched, its core products – one of which is the iconic strapcap – were selling well despite not putting much effort into design.
“We’ve been pretty lucky because we’ve never had a plan. We’ve just been quick on our feet. I didn’t have designers,” Barr said. “We kind of took the eye off the ball on design. That’s when Prana overtook us.”
The company took stock to figure out KAVU’s true identity, and after consulting with dealers and researching what was selling in stores, the team came up with Fun, Free and Unlimited as its slogan.
They also decided that KAVU didn’t need to be everything for everybody.
Barr went back to the mentality of the brand from when it started, appealing to the 20-25 age range.
“I never wanted a brand that was growing old with me,” Barr said. “It’s got to be stuff that’s awesome, that’s different.”
To avoid chasing after too many trends, KAVU dialed back its outerwear segment, for example, because other brands did it better.
“Why waste all that energy and time when we could just focus on being KAVU,” Barr said.
KAVU focused on responding to its customers and “not burning people. Those are the simplest things you can do,” Barr said. “Once we focused on that, sales started coming back.”
Since then, sales have grown consistently year after year.
“There was a time, when I started, when I wanted to be a little larger, but that’s just more of a headache,” Barr said. “We’re in a perfect little spot.”
He’s been advised over the years that becoming a $100 million company isn’t necessarily a good thing. That’s not to say he’s deliberately keeping the business its current size. “We’re ready if it comes,” he added.
But right now, the company can weather ebbs and flows in its business and not have to lay people off or “make bad decisions on inventory. Because we don’t buy inventory for growth. We only buy what we sell, and a little bit over,” Barr said.
KAVU’s wholesale backbone comes from outdoor specialty stores.
Once the company started making bags in addition to hats, another retail channel opened – shoe stores.
“They know how to sell accessories,” Barr said.
Department stores can be difficult to work with, especially their chargeback departments. But if a KAVU product is placed next to a high-end designer bag such as Gucci, then Barr can see the upside. KAVU avoids low-end shops that devalue the brand.
The bulk of the company’s business is in the U.S. Barr estimates KAVU sells in about 2,200 stores.
The brand also does well in Asia, particularly in Japan, with about 600 stores. Japanese consumers are fans of the company’s products made with canvas, according to Barr, because when they’re camping next to a fire a little ember won’t damage the product nearly as badly as if it’s made with synthetic down.
Singapore and Thailand are also showing good signs of growth.
Recently the company hired an international sales rep to help with European distribution. The company is seeing great growth there, Barr said.
The company isn’t selling in South America because of the off-season differences in climates, according to Barr.
Similar to most other businesses in the industry, KAVU saw great sell-through during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now, with softer demand, inventory is much harder to move.
“We thought we saw the worst of it coming through COVID,” Barr said. “Trying to adapt and shuffle and shake. Things were rocking until the third and fourth quarter last year, then the whole industry just shuttered.”
From the summer of 2022 to fall 2022 inventory started to pile up broadly across the industry as banks were raising interest rates and the war in Ukraine caused macroeconomic challenges.
To work through that inventory, KAVU doesn’t come down on price. Instead, Barr said the company tries to buy as tight as it can. “We always get through it,” he said.
The dealers Barr has spoken with are doing “great,” he said, but they’re being cautious, even though “they’ve come through these last four years making really good money.”
The supply chain is back on the fast track, Barr said, with the company’s factory partners in Vietnam getting product through quickly.
KAVU has experienced some delays in production at its India factories because of the number of holidays and extreme weather in that country, according to Barr, but that’s to be expected.
KAVU avoids the ports in California and instead ships through Seattle, which has had some challenges but nothing major.
Going forward, KAVU will continue to rely on the same strategy to bring more people into the brand, Barr said.
“We’ve never really advertised. It’s word of mouth,” he said.
But Barr wants KAVU to still appeal to the younger customer who is starting to enjoy going camping with their friends.
“That’s who we’re trying to get,” he said.
That means maintaining KAVU’s retro feel, yet staying current. One way to do that is to bring on the right athletes who are great at their sports, but also great people, Barr added.
The company is also revamping its sunglasses and adding new products, including a rope sandal.
“We always have one or two fun things in the line, that are KAVU style that are just wacky,” he said. “That’s it. We’re selling fun.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at email@example.com.