D.C. may not be a city that’s known for it’s style, but we are known for our unbridled population of nerds. Whether it’s politics, music, or history, our city is packed with smart people who have niche interests. Elena Hutchenson has found away to combine the two, joining her love of medieval armor with sleek, stylish leggings. Hutchenson’s brand Lorica Clothing, has three styles of leggings that showcase different types of armor and best of all they’re all 100% historically accurate.
We called up Hutchenson to talk about what inspired her to dive headfirst into the fashion industry, what it was like running a wildly successful Kickstarter, and what she plans to do next. If you’re looking to intimidate the Lulu-loving folks in your next SoulCycle class, look no further.
How did this all get started?
Well, I’ve always been a lifelong geek and a lifelong gamer. I grew up playing Pokemon cards and Dungeons & Dragons with my brother and things like that. So all things medieval have always been a passion of mine. As I’ve grown up, fashion has also become one of my interests. I was looking at brands in this space, things like Wild Bangarang and Black Milk Clothing, places that do Star Wars licensings and Warcraft licensings, and I wanted to do something that was rooted in real history and real armor as opposed to all these video game iterations that… don’t make sense when you look at them. One of my pet peeves is armor that is made to enhance certain things visually, when really, if you took a sword to them it would shatter your chest and no one wants that! I wanted things that were designed to be accurate instead of designed to be video game-y.
So you started off with a passion for history and fashion, but how did that translate to sitting down and actually coming up with a business plan and really getting this started?
In college I was a double major in graphic design and business, so it wasn’t like I had no operational knowledge, but I’ve obviously never worked in the garment industry and I had no idea how clothes are actually constructed. So the first thing I did was take a sewing class, so I knew how to actually make things. Not like I ever intended to be a one woman garment factory, but I needed to have some sort of hands on knowledge about how it actually worked if I was going to make it. And I did a bunch of googling.
I’m of the opinion that there’s no excuse for not knowing something in this day and age because you can google anything, you can go to the library and learn anything. So there was a lot of googling like, “What is a business plan? What do you put in it?” and finding resources for manufacturing, because I had no connections. I didn’t know who to reach out to. So there was a search for American made manufacturing, which is how I found a site called Maker’s Row, which is kind of like LinkedIn for manufacturing. So it’s all these manufacturers, and as a brand, you can reach out and hit up a factory that seems to have the capabilities you’re looking for. From there it was a matter of doing a bunch of research. I got a bunch of books on Amazon about garment manufacturing because there’s this certain lingo to it that you have to learn. Like when I say pattern, as a graphic designer I mean the art file, but in manufacturing the pattern is the shapes of the pieces of the clothing that get sewn together. So you have to know how to talk the talk.
Your Kickstarter is finished and you got much more than your stated goal. Did you ever see that happening?
It was a complete surprise. So I’m part of this Kickstarter best practices group on Facebook, this was after the first week of the campaign. It was basically only family and friends that were pledging and I was kind of like, “Well… This is a little sad.” At a certain point you look at all your backers and you’re like, this is my network. This is everyone and I’m not there yet. What do I do? So the “best practices” are to build up your audience months in advance. You’re supposed to have this super robust emailing list so you can blast everyone. One of the common wisdoms is that if you don’t fund in the first 24 hours it’s not likely that you’ll fund and when I read that I was like, “Help! What happens now?’ I started more aggressively approaching PR, so I reached out to a lot of bloggers. That was also a bunch of research and googling “geek girl blogs” or “geek fashion blogs” and those sort of things. Finally I was picked up by Fashion Week Geek and that’s when it absolutely exploded. It went from maybe $6,000 – $7,000 one day and the next day it was $15,000 and the next day it was $25,000 and it just kind of blew up from there.
Did you do any research about having a successful Kickstarter campaign before you started it? Or was it only after it was already live? I know there are so many blogs and podcasts and websites focused on Kickstarter.
I think you have to work harder if your product is not one that is extremely unique or has that viral potential. I’m lucky that my product is super visual, it’s like, “Oh! Armor on pretty girls!” Who doesn’t like that on the Internet? So when it was picked up by Fashion Week Geek and then it was picked up by The Daily Dot, like the video that the Daily Dot put out got like 2 million views and people were sharing it like crazy. If you’re making something like, a better paper clip, it might be a really awesome paperclip and is rightfully changing the industry, but you’re just not going to get the same exposure. So I kind of lucked out.
Why did you decide to use Kickstarter over IndieGoGo or finding investors the old school way?
I think the old school way isn’t good for brands that are testing the waters and testing demand. For me, Kickstarter was a, “I think these are cool, does the rest of the world think it’s cool?” And if it didn’t succeed I was just going to drop it. Well, the people have spoken, right? So it was like a reality check kind of thing, not just a money making robot. It was also really great to get everyone’s feedback on it too. Now I have two waist heights and two inseams and a men’s fit forthcoming and a plus size fit forthcoming, where as I didn’t begin with any of those in mind. But as people got back to me and said, “It would be great if you did this, or this,” I was able to be a lot more nimble along the way and make changes as I went along. I feel like people like that engagement and being able to have a say in the production process.
Has all that feedback made it more difficult at all?
At a certain point you have to enforce that everyone has a voice, but not everyone has a vote, if that makes sense. At the end of the day you are the creator and you decide what you do. You can’t please everyone. As much as I tried to make this campaign really inclusive, because there’s a huge plus size community in the geek community that doesn’t always get served, and I wanted to make sure that people get stuff no matter what size they are… But I got requests like, “Oh I have a polyester allergy, can you make this using natural fibers?” Or no matter how many inseams I have there are always going to be people who say “Well I’m taller than that,” or “I’m shorter than that,” and it’s like, I’m trying guys! Short of going totally custom I can’t help everyone. So there are some lines that have had to been drawn.
Would you ever consider doing custom fits?
Uh… No. The reason being that for these armor prints they are position specific. So the knee has to line up to the knee and everything has a certain coordinate. As the shape of the garment changes the art has to change too, so how it is with six sizes and two waste heights and two inseams, it’s already like 72 variations we’re in the process of making. That’s already killing me. So I can’t imagine going completely custom and having to readjust art for every person.
Speaking of the art you have three styles of just leggings you’re working on now, how did you decide on that art?
So it was part research. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and kind of scoped out their own collection. I wanted them to feel different, so in my mind, I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, they appeal to kind of three different people. The Augsburg, which is the most “bare bones” of these is just based on German gothic armor. It’s all steel colored and it’s only the thigh, knee, and calf portions that are armor. I wanted this to be the simple one. I mean, none of these are quiet designs by any means, but it was for someone who wasn’t as loud and didn’t want these huge gold designs up and down their legs. The Scudamore, which is the white and gold one, was kind of the funkier one and I feel like the Henry VIII, which is the black and gold one, is kind of in between. It has all this really detailed filigree, but I feel like it feels more classic than the Scudamore while being louder than the Augsburg.
Why did you want to start with leggings? I know you’re coming out with shirts and skater dresses and hoodies now, but why did you kick off with leggings?
Because for this trompe l’oeil to work it has to be skin tight. There aren’t a lot of other garments that are as tight as leggings. There are still bodysuits, but not everyone is a bodysuit kind of girl. It has to be form fitting in order to really pull off the illusion.
What are the timelines for the other garments? You haven’t released patterns yet right?
I’ve done some sneak peeks of the hoodie design. So they’re going to branch out even further from the European plate mail thing. One of the designs is based off of a Japanese armor pattern and one, of course, is chain mail. One is a Roman, it’s Lorica Squamata, I think? Which is the scale mail that people like to talk about. For timelines, I’m hoping to open pre-orders for dresses and hoodies maybe in July because I’ve used a second manufacturer for hoodies and dresses, whereas my original manufacturer is going to handle all of the leggings. I wanted to make sure that everyone wasn’t super backed up and we could do parallel processes. With the second manufacturer I feel like we can make things happen a little faster. Hopefully that will happen in July or August and then maybe open pre-orders for leggings again in August.
I say open pre-orders because with the 72 variations I have to keep in stock it doesn’t make sense to have an inventory. There’s no way to keep track of 72 stockpiles. So I feel like I’m always going to have to do a more made to order kind of process. It’s something that I’ve noticed Black Milk does really well. They do the scarcity thing where they have a release and it’s limited. Of course as a consumer you’re like, “Ooh limited, it’s exclusive!” But for them it’s an extremely smart business move as well because it means I’m just making x number of these units and when they’re out, they’re out. I don’t have to worry about keeping inventory or keeping stock. Not much warehousing space gets taken up… So it’s pretty clever. I feel like I’ll have to do something similar to be able to gauge demand at all.