When describing his budding athletic apparel company, SODO, founder Mark Nelson most often uses the adjective “disruptive.” It’s not a word often associated with luxury clothing lines sold at outlets such as Nordstrom and REI, but he uses it with distinct purpose and repetition.
And that’s because for Nelson it’s much more than a word; it’s a strategy—to disrupt everything about the current athletic apparel business model. It is built right into the company’s philosophy, and he says it captures the main thrust of what he and his team have been trying to do since late 2013 when they launched the Seattle-based company.
For example, SODO has pledged to not sponsor professional athletes. “Sponsoring athletes has lost its authenticity, and I think people see through it now,” Nelson says. “We made a decision we were never going to pay an athlete to wear our gear. We will give them product to try, but we’re not going to write a check. If you think about it, it’s cooler if you’re not paying them and they are still wearing it. It’s more disruptive.”
It’s a defiant stance because it bucks the idea that companies should pay athletes to wear their gear, a longtime practice of nearly all large athletic apparel operations including Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, which Nelson hopes to compete against. “It was a hard decision because I love sports and athletes, and I grew up on Nike,” he says, adding that when he was growing up, Nike paying athletes was progressive.
“Nike was a kind of disruptive brand for its time. What they did early on with Bo Jackson and other athletes. That’s what stuck. That’s how Nike made its name, by taking chances and being out on the edge a little bit,” Nelson says. “That’s what we want to do, but in a new way.”
So far, the strategy seems to be working. A quick search of social media reveals an all-star roster of professional athletes, including many superstar Seahawks and Sounders, donning SODO gear.
Nelson is quick to point out that maintaining relationships with these athletes is integral to the success of SODO. The company relies heavily on feedback from athletes to perfect its product. “We have a new line called Prodigy that’s been tested and requested by professional athletes. It’s cool. They’ve told us what works,” Nelson says.
But the endorsement policy isn’t the only thing decisively rebellious about the brand. Nelson and his co-founders, sister Julie Stevenson, Laura Hosford and childhood friend Lars Haneberg, all Seattle natives, agreed on a much different approach to manufacturing.
“Our product development is very streamlined. I don’t like to say fast fashion, because the connotation is cheap, but it is fast fashion,” Nelson says. “When we first got into the research, the product development cycle for Nike, Adidas and Under Armour was typically 12 to 16 months, which is crazy, right? For a shirt.
“Our big idea was to get the process down to eight to 10 weeks from the initial idea to final product,” Nelson says. “With that speed, we’re going to be able to make the process transparent, which will be really cool. People will be able to go to the website and see what we’re developing in real time.”
They’ve also developed another manufacturing concept: the SODO lab. “It’s a hybrid retail and office space with a 3-D virtual design studio where people can come down, think of an idea, design it on virtual design programs, and then our facility will have it back in 10 to 14 days,” Nelson says. There are numerous other tech-driven ideas about manufacturing, retail sales and e-commerce, but Nelson says they are still closely guarding the details for a few more months. “Stay tuned,” he says.
All of the marketing, sales and manufacturing philosophies aside, Nelson maintains the most disruptive feature about their brand is the product itself. Currently, SODO is focused on creating luxury menswear only. They offer a range of products from hoodies to underwear, and have plans to expand their line to include more “ath-leisure wear,” a term he says includes clothing men wear to and from the gym, to a coffee shop and other casual places. He says he often looks at what Lululemon did for women’s wear and aspires to do the same for men. Although, he says SODO has its eye on women’s wear as well.
“It is really about the fabrics. There are a lot of brands doing technical fabrics now, a lot of people doing anti-odor now. We’re using technical fabrics, but we also make sure they feel great. That great hand-feel; that’s where we felt our opportunity was,” Nelson says. “We’ve got seamless gear, body mapping and other technologies to make the ultimate luxury gear.”
SODO currently operates through e-commerce and has a movable drop shop made out of a shipping container that rotates location. Follow them on Facebook for their latest location.
“We’re not trying to be a niche brand; we’re trying to be a huge brand that’s doing something really different,” Nelson says.
For more information, check out sodoapparel.com.