|On Patrol with Bratwear: Custom Uniforms with Quality Results|
|Written by Jackie Rosselli|
|Monday, 14 June 2010 11:26|
Sally Swanson never wanted to make uniforms. Unlike some in the industry, she didn't inherit the family business, nor did she strive to work for any of the big names. And when she made outfits for her first police department, she wasn't exactly looking for referrals.
"I told them to go away and not tell anyone where they got their uniforms," she says flatly.
But cops are a chatty bunch, and word spread, so Sally Swanson became the accidental uniform outfitter.
Swanson is CEO of Bratwear, a Washington-based manufacturer of high quality custom uniforms for law enforcement. Although small by industry standards – there are only 16 employees and a handful of home sewers – Bratwear's reach extends far beyond state boundaries, into Canada and even the Netherlands. "An officer blogged about how great his K-9 uniform was," responds Swanson when queried about landing the latter accounts.
Designing on the Fly
Word of mouth has been Swanson's best marketing tool even before she began making uniforms. A fitness instructor back in the '80s, she started sewing her own workout gear when she became dissatisfied with off-the-rack merchandise. "It was the Jane Fonda era and everything looked the same, and was made for one body type" she says. "There was no quality, and I wanted something better."
Apparently, so did her students, and what started as a hobby quickly turned into a business. She founded Flashwear, innovative workout wear for the sports enthusiast, and began making apparel for the likes of the Seattle Super Sonic cheerleaders, among others.
A local police department, the Puyallup PD, had just started a bike patrol, and wanted to know if Sally would make their uniforms. She was less than enthusiastic.
"Uniforms?," remembers Swanson. "I made colorful, distinctive activewear, who would want to make uniforms?"
These were the days of all wool uniforms, pre high-tech or high performance fabrics. The Puyallup command staff wanted a unified look for its officers, so the bike patrol cut their wool trousers and made them into shorts. Spandex, used widely in the consumer market at the time, was frowned upon by police departments because of its less-than-professional appearance. But the Puyallup cops used it anyway, under their uniform, to prevent chafing. One slight problem: the undergarment didn't have a fly, meaning officers would have to remove clothing and gear just to go to the bathroom.
So reluctantly, Swanson designed breathable, stretch underwear – with a fly, and used the fabrics of the day to provide a comfortable pant coordinate to the French Blue trousers worn by Puyallup's rank and file. "Given what was available back then, they were pretty ugly, but they were very functional," comments Swanson.
So functional that Puyallup talked up Swanson to the Tacoma Police, who soon showed up asking for their own duds. And when Tacoma was featured on a "Cops" television segment, inquires began pouring in nationwide.
A supplier was born.
From bike patrol units, Bratwear began making uniforms for other specialized divisions, including K-9 and motor patrols. But the company doesn't just make shorts and underwear anymore. An all season jacket for bike patrols is an in-demand product, and includes zip-out sleeves, a waterproof outer shell, and reflective trim for visibility.
They even manufacture a duty uniform, a rugged jumpsuit with the high performance features demanded by officers on the west coast. They were the first to bring the concept to law enforcement, and it remains a best seller to this day.
High Performance and Highly Custom
There's little stock found at Bratwear; everything the company makes, from shorts to jackets to undergarments and body armor covers, is made to order. Fabrics come from overseas mills ("I'd order them here, if anyone made them anymore," she laments), with Bratwear's own thread blends and dyes to match a department's color requirements. Each officer is individually measured before employees cut the pieces needed to manufacture the uniform. Stay-at-home moms stitch together the rough uniform, then ship the garments back to the shop for finishing touches.
Any component of the uniform can be modified to match the desired functionality of the wearer. Bratwear will add or delete pockets, move belt loops, or resize the length of a zipper to accommodate her customers. She'll even alter garments not made by Bratwear. "Customers like our sewing better," she says.
Such quality and attention to detail doesn't come cheap. Swanson readily admits that until recently, she was the most expensive supplier in the business, but a price freeze over the past few years has leveled the playing field with competitors.
She admits to having lost accounts due to the high price tag, but says that over 80 percent eventually return, saying that it wasn't worth the switch. "Our workmanship is second to none, and our products easily outlast the competition," she says proudly. Many items in the Bratwear line last over 10 years, making it a sound investment for most departments.
A tough economy has presented challenges this year. "We've had to find better ways to do what we do, but it hasn't been easy," she adds.
What does come easy is the sense of community, the connection, that Bratwear has, an emphasis that is rare in today's global economy. Take the home sewers. "It's our way of keeping jobs in the community and reenergizing a skill that has all but disappeared from the business," says Swanson.
And when a memorial was held recently to honor those officers killed in the line of duty last year, it was Bratwear who made the shrouds for the police cars. "No one asked us to do it and we didn't advertise it, we just did it anyway," says Swanson. "We made uniforms for six of those officers, and there was a real sense of loss."
Such actions speak to who Bratwear is as company, as does the selection of Gary Wescott, as Swanson's business partner. A former Pierce County Sheriff Deputy, Wescott wore the first uniform Swanson ever made.
To learn more about Bratwear, visit www.bratwear.com
|Last Updated on Friday, 02 July 2010 16:44|
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