Their paths first intersected at a Main Line coffee shop in August 2015.
Avi Loren Fox, then 27, was absorbed in her laptop, working on her business on the Green Bean’s tiny patio in Gladwyne. Steve Burt, twice her age, shared a nearby table with his wife, Cristina, talking about sustainability.
Fox overheard them, instantly intrigued. Sustainability was a passion of the 2010 Temple University graduate with a degree in environmental studies, and a priority in her new business, Wild Mantle, producers of fashionable hooded scarves and lightweight ponchos. Fox informally started the business soon after wearing one of her homemade creations into a Narberth tavern in 2013 to rave reviews.
“I very much had my antenna up for like-minded changemakers and entrepreneurs,” Fox recalled of that day on the Green Bean patio.
She found one in Burt, 62, a business-growth expert and native of Wales with a background in environmental economics who had recently launched a software start-up, View13, to provide supply chain transparency. They talked about their businesses but would not reconnect until two years later, when Fox took a bold step that is now leading to another one for her fledgling company.
“I reached out about Wild Mantle and said, ‘Hey, would you sit down and look at this with me?’ Steve immediately got the vision and we started actively working on the growth plan that we are now taking to investors.”
The key word in that statement: We. Once a one-woman start-up, Wild Mantle is growing up. A strong sign of its maturation is that Fox has asked for help.
“I think she’s going to be a heck of a CEO,” Burt, a former analyst with Dun & Bradstreet, said recently from his Bryn Mawr home, which doubles as Wild Mantle’s headquarters. He has taken the title of chairman but is insistent the garment company remain Fox’s “baby.”
Said Fox of the man she has turned to for pointers: “I have a good mentor. It’s going to be fun.”
Fun had not been part of running her business of late, in large part because Wild Mantle had grown to a company on track to generate $500,000 in sales this year, with most production done in Colorado but with Fox wearing “every single hat imaginable” back here. Making sure inventory is in stock, getting the company’s name “out to the world,” planning for future designs and photo shoots of models, and still doing some hood making herself.
All of it meant she was working in the business but not on it. “I was treading water,” Fox said.
Burt used a similar water analogy to describe what he concluded after meeting with Fox to learn more about the company, likening her to “a swimmer who was tired and plowing along.”
He convinced her that she had to delegate. In the last month or so, Wild Mantle has added a senior technical designer and a chief financial officer, and plans to hire marketing and public relations professionals. All of it is what Burt considers essential for growth: structure, process, and Fox’s ability to have the time to look beyond the day-to-day.
They’re also prerequisites for landing venture capital, Wild Mantle’s next objective after two fund-raising successes in 2014 and 2016 on Kickstarter. The nearly $100,000 enabled launches of Wild Mantle’s initial line of winter hoods and later head coverings and ponchos for spring and summer.
The goal now, said Fox, is to raise $2 million “to put a team in place so we can set up the systems and processes to meet demand” and enable production of a less pricey line to make Wild Mantle products more accessible.
“One thing that I am looking to do is take everything I have learned from my customers over the last three years and put that into a brand new collection,” Fox said. “And that has to do with materials, that has to do with sizing, that has to do with a whole range of feedback, because they’ve shown me what works and what doesn’t.”
To that all-important consumer segment — millennials — “so far, our products have mostly been cost-prohibitive because the price has been more in the luxury than the affordable-luxury [category], and that’s one of the main pieces of feedback I’ve gotten,” Fox said. “So, we’re now looking at that and how we can increase our offering at [a starting price of] over $50 rather than over $150.”
Customers have also urged her to create a line of children’s wear, Fox said.
Burt’s projections have sales doubling next year to $1 million, and to between $3 million and $5 million in 2020.
“The fundamental logic behind our projections is that it’s a product that a lot of people want and we’re now going to make it affordable,” Burt said, insisting that will be accomplished by “looking at the right textiles” but not “compromising our values and we’re not compromising labor costs. … What we don’t want to do, and I’m not going to do, is go to China, go to India, go to wherever and all of a sudden be getting things cheap as chips.”
The biggest challenge, Burt said, “is communicating to the market. We have this vision that we’re going to make it affordable for a million women.”
Yoga Garden Philly just added Wild Mantle cover-ups to a retail shop included in a bigger studio the chain has just opened on Eighth Street in West Washington Square and in its Narberth location.
“I really wanted to carry retail products that have a story,” said Nikki Robinson, co-director. “It was such a perfect marriage of what Avi is doing and what’s important to us at the yoga studio. Her whole brand is Yogic in nature — not much waste, caring about materials used … They’re made with integrity, made with love, they’re super cute, and they’re really functional.”
She applauded Fox’s decision to get help, noting that’s a plus for the sustainable-business movement.
“That’s how you go from grassroots to something bigger than that, to deliver your message to more people,” Robinson said.
But with a more formal business structure and broader input, does the creator of Wild Mantle fear losing control of it?
“It was more scary to think about not doing it,” Fox said. “It felt the brand wanted to be more and I was holding it back.”