Originated as a school project nearly a decade ago, Steve Debus’ comfy, wrinkle- and stain-resistant ‘Exam Pants’ concept has since grown into a budding Canadian apparel empire called Mod Robes SalDebus Lounge Clothing. The driving force behind the successful line, which is expected to earn a healthy US$2 million this year, is Mod Robes’ dogged commitment to maintaining its nontraditional grassroots approach to distribution and marketing.
Although the class assignment only received a mark of 75%, Debus stuck with the idea after graduation, renting space on college and university campuses across southern Ontario to sell his cotton-hybrid trousers.
While the campus served as the ideal launching pad for Mod Robes, the direct contact with students also provided Debus with a quick lesson in relationship marketing. ‘When I started selling the pants, the kids really appreciated the fact that I was their age and I was making these cool pants,’ he says.
Debus has tried to apply this insight to nearly every aspect of the company’s marketing strategy. To date, Mod Robes does very little conventional advertising, opting instead to promote itself by hand-selling at events where its target demo tends to congregate, like BMX races, snowboarding and skateboarding trade shows and, of course, concerts. For the past two summers, Mod Robes has toured across the country with alt-rock festival Edgefest (Canada’s Lollapalooza). Last summer, it also attended Woodstock and moved half of the US$70,000 worth of merchandise it brought to the show.
Events are not a major distribution route for Mod Robes. Usually, the company generates enough to cover its rental and travel costs, with little left over. However, promotional value of attending these events is immeasurable. ‘I wanted to break through all of the bullshit that typical apparel companies do and go right to our customers and say, `Hey, this is what we make.’ I think young people really appreciate that, because they’ve become a little cynical about the advertising/big business thing,’ says Debus.
Even though the company can now afford to advertise like the big boys do, don’t expect to see Mod Robes models on TV miming to Depèche Mode songs à la The Gap anytime soon. Debus says the company will stick to refining its word-of-mouth marketing tactics. To wit: on December 11, the company is holding its first fashion/music fest at a club in Toronto. The event, which will eat up MR’s ad budget for 1999, will give Debus and his colleagues the opportunity to do more face-to-face connection with their target demo,
while unveiling their spring 2000 line.
The new Mod Robes line, which has grown to include skirts, tops and jumpers, fleece and hats for men and women, will be available at the 350 Canadian retailers that generate 80% of the company’s sales. Debus originally netted these retail accounts by referring his on-campus student customers to the stores he wanted to get his merch into. Sick of being pestered by teen shoppers looking for Mod Robes merchandise, most retailers relented and agreed to distribute the clothing line. Event sales bring in 10% of total sales, and the remaining 10% is generated by Mod Robes’ two Toronto storefronts, which Debus opened in ’97 and `98.
Having conquered Ontario, the most densely populated province in Canada, Debus acknowledges the company is currently in danger of becoming a big fish in a little pond. In order to keep the Mod Robes franchise growing, he says the company will need to develop new markets in eastern and western Canada, and especially south of the border. Though Mod Robes aren’t currently carried by U.S. stores, Debus says the company will exhibit at fashion trade show Magic in the spring. It’s also considering opening a store in New York.
On the home front, Debus will try to keep consumers and retailers content with new product introductions. Key among them is a new logo that Mod Robes is gradually working into its product mix. MR is also testing the licensing waters with the help of Toronto-based Telegenic Licensing, which will sign licensees to make Mod Robes headwear and bags.
To keep local retailers interested, Debus has started developing product exclusives for some of its larger accounts. Mod Robes offers its clothing in special colors for Jean Machine, and sports chain Athlete’s World carries an exclusive line of utility pants with pockets on the side and draw strings on the bottom.