Doing Business Here: Being Good and Feeling Good

December 11, 2013 in Luminaries, Winter 2013 Issue by oliviagrider

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zkano breathes new life into Fort Payne’s flagship industry with fun fashion socks made from organically grown cotton.

by OLIVIA GRIDER

On a Wednesday morning, Gina Locklear leads me down a row of whirring, aqua-colored machines at Emi-G Knitting in Fort Payne, Ala. Every now and then, one of the trembling, humming devices emits an extra hiss of air and, Jetsons-style, spits a newly knit sock into a clear, cylindrical container.

Huge spools of thread hang overhead and on either side, connected to arms of the complex metal framework that fills the building. I proceed cautiously through this unfamiliar industrial sea, but Locklear, 34, steps confidently in her brown boots. After all, this is where she grew up. Her parents, Regina and Terry Locklear, started Emi-G Knitting (named after Gina and her sister, Emily) in 1991 and moved to the just under- 20,000-square-foot facility on Airport Road six months later

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Locklear urges me to the back of the mill, where the spools of hitherto white thread erupt into a rainbow of bright colors. This space belongs to zkano – the brand Locklear founded in 2009.

She checks screens on a few of the machines and then announces, “This one is almost done.” She points to the clear cylinder and tells me the sock will appear there. I aim my camera, hoping to get a shot of the sock emerging from the machine, but my reaction time is far too slow. In an instant, a flap opens at the top of the cylinder, the sock shoots into the container and the flap closes.

Locklear pulls the purple, blue and black sock from the bottom of the cylinder and stretches it over her arm for inspection. Her hand emerges from the open toe; it will be “seamed” later by one of Emi-G’s 45 employees.

In Fort Payne, the former “sock capital of the world,” there aren’t many textile success stories of late. The town and generations of its inhabitants thrived on the industry for more than 100 years, and city leaders often boasted more than half of America’s socks were made there. Now, after a nearly 15-year decline, the area is littered with abandoned mills.

But zkano is an exception. The brand of organic cotton fashion socks for men and women has doubled its business every year. Here’s what Locklear has to say about her brainchild.

Lookout Alabama: Where did the name zkano come from? Locklear: ‘Kano’ is Native American and roughly translates as ‘a state of being good,’ hence our slogan – Be Good. Feel Good. We feel like this ties into zkano’s philosophy of American manufacturing and environmentally responsible products. There really isn’t anything too interesting about the ‘z.’ We just liked how it sounded.

LA: Where are zkano socks sold and who are your primary customers?

Locklear: Our biggest customer right now is Whole Foods Market, and they sell our socks throughout the Southeast. We’re in a number of boutiques and natural food stores throughout the U.S. and Canada. It seems to grow by the day. People find us online and usually contact us. We have a wholesale info form on our website and we get numerous inquiries each week that usually turn into new accounts. And then we also sell our socks to individuals on zkano.com.

LA: Tell me about the company’s history.

Locklear: My mom and dad started it from the ground up. I have very vivid memories of watching both my mom and dad knit socks just to get us off the ground. My dad, I remember as a kid, he would work up at the mill until midnight and then start again at 5 the next morning. That was in our first mill, on Sand Mountain. We were only there about six months. Before we made it into a sock mill it was a chicken house. Quickly we were able to start building this facility, and it began to grow and grow and it slowly but surely became a very successful business.

We’re small – we’ve always been small. We keep a very lean operation. I think that’s probably one big reason why we’re one of the last mills here now. There are probably seven or eight sock mills that are here, and in the heyday there were over 300.

In a town of Fort Payne’s size, that extremely significant. The sock industry employed over half the town’s population. Before NAFTA was signed, my parents had a lot of success knitting for [a major athletic brand]. And then they moved overseas. It’s just been a struggle to compete with foreign prices ever since the trend of outsourcing began to happen over 10 years ago.

This ultimately led me to want to create our own brand because I didn’t want to see something that my mom and dad worked so hard to start go away. So I thought, hey, if we create our own brand, no one can take our manufacturing from us and we can sell it ourselves. So that’s really the main reason why I wanted to start zkano.

Also I wanted, through zkano, to talk about the importance of supporting American-made manufacturing and encourage consumers to look at their labels and know that made in China, supporting that, does hurt. It’s hurt this town. I saw so many people hurt when they lost their jobs.

LA: Tell me about your manufacturing process.

Locklear: We make all our socks here in house. They’re knit here, they’re seamed here. They go through a finishing process, which is essentially where they’re washed and ironed. They come off the machines very wrinkly and have to be ironed so they look pretty on the shelves. That happens at a facility just a couple miles down the road from us. And then we package and ship everything here.

So our manufacturing footprint is very small. Because of that, we’re allowed to really control our quality. Our machines are just a few steps from our [management’s] offices, and we’re back there all the time. We’re also very picky with our inspection process.

LA: What are organic socks and what are their advantages?

Locklear: First, you’ve got your environmental impact. Conventional cotton is known as the world’s dirtiest crop. Not only are the chemicals used on cotton bad for the environment, they’re bad for the people who are around the cotton, who pick the cotton. Here, you’ll notice there are big machines that pick the cotton.

In foreign countries, which is where the largest supply of cotton comes from, people are on the ground, in direct contact with these chemicals. People are getting sick and people are dying because of contact with all the chemicals. So that’s the environmental health aspect of it.

People say to me a lot, “I understand why I should eat organic food, but why would I wear organic clothing?” I always say, “It’s pretty much the same concept because your skin is the largest organ in your body and it absorbs what you put onto it.”

In addition to all of that, it makes a really soft sock – much softer, much more comfortable and extremely durable. It just makes a better product.

LA: You offer some very stylish and colorful socks. How did that come about?

Locklear: Our background has always been kind of plain, boring socks. That’s what we’ve always made. That’s what this business was built on. When we first started zkano, we just came out with an extremely comfortable, but very basic collection of natural and white, athletic and everyday socks. And we sold that for a year.

And then I decided that, OK, it’s time to kind of put my personality into this a little bit more. I love bright colors and I love designing the socks, so the timing was right to start working on that.

We didn’t do it initially because, one, we’d never made that type of dress sock before, so we were a little scared. Also, we did not know of a place where we could get dyes for our socks that would complement the integrity of our organic cotton. You wouldn’t want to make an organic cotton sock and use a conventional dye on it.

We found a place in North Carolina that produces low-impact dyes; that essentially means the dyes are free of heavy metal. When you’re looking at a conventional dye, that’s the chief environmental concern. Our dyes are free of that. They also take less water to produce. Our cotton is sent to North Carolina, and that’s where it’s dyed.

LA: Tell me more about the fashion designs.

Locklear: We try to make some that are really bold and stand out, but also try to make some that are a little more wearable for someone who doesn’t want a party on their feet. I’d say we have a good mix of both of them. I feel like we’re stylish, we pay attention to trends – color trends, style trends.

LA: How often do you come out with new designs?

Locklear: Twice a year – fall and winter. We add to the line. Ones that are not such great sellers, we won’t make them again. But if something is a really good seller, we’ll add it to our core collection and keep it on for awhile, maybe add another color combination to it. But we always come up with at least a couple of brand new styles each season.

LA: I understand you recently began collaborating with two well-known designers – Billy Reid and Alabama Chanin. How did those partnerships come about?

Locklear: I contacted them. I sent them samples. And once they got our socks they were pretty sold. Both these designers are from the Florence [Ala.] area. We’re kind of kindred spirits in the way we’re trying to preserve manufacturing and jobs here in Alabama. And using organic cotton is something Alabama Chanin does exclusively as well, so it just made sense.

Partnering with both those brands is a dream come true for me. I’ve wanted to since we started making socks.

LA: Tell me about the designs and when they’ll be available.

Locklear: We’ve partnered with Billy Reid to produce men’s organic cotton socks for holiday 2013. This limited collection will be available at Billy Reid stores as well as billyreid.com.

Our collaboration with Alabama Chanin is with a new brand we’re launching – Little River Sock Mill. It’s a grown-up, more sophisticated version of zkano. This lineup will be available on Alabama Chanin’s website in January and in specialty boutique stores throughout the U.S. for fall 2014.

LA: What are the advantages, from a business standpoint, of operating in the northeast Alabama area?

Locklear: I love this area. I love the people, the community. The small-town aspect, the community aspect makes it easy to get the word out about employment. There’s also a lot of space here. There’s a lot of land, but there’s also empty textile mills, so there’s a lot of opportunity in terms of real estate. We have clean air and the canyon in our backyard, so I feel like you have things that would entice employees to want to come here.

LA: How do the area’s people contribute to the company’s success?

Locklear: For us, to be able to hire somebody who was in the sock business who has wanted to get back into the sock business for a couple years is just – that’s why we’re doing this. In terms of our workforce, there are people here who are old-school sock mill, who made socks their whole lives. They know the business. They come in here and start working, and we don’t have to train them.

LA: What role does zkano play in the community?

Locklear: Being a manufacturer, we have imperfect socks that are called “seconds.” We usually donate them, and we sometimes donate first quality and samples as well. We’ve donated a lot to homeless shelters and organizations that deal with youth who are in unfortunate situations. We have donated socks to Fort Payne High School, to organizations that sent them to American soldiers overseas and to tornado relief.

We always do a sponsorship for the Haulin’ for Hannah event (a 5K run/walk that raises funds for scholarships).

But a project we are new to is called the mOM doll project. (momdoll.squarespace.com) We donate our seconds to these guys, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to the foundation. They make dolls out of our seconds, and they give them to kids in need. And they teach the moms of the children how to make the dolls, and then they sell them so they’re able to provide income for their family. It’s such a new organization, but it’s gone global already. We still donate to other organizations, but we send a lot of our seconds to them. For me, it’s just really cool to see something so unique and meaningful being made from our socks.

LA: What are zkano’s plans for the future?

Locklear: To keep on growing – and try to manage our growth. I hope to see more designer collaborations in our future, as well as continued growth for both our brands.

A great place for business

Looking for a place to locate a company or business division? Consider Alabama’s Lookout Mountain region. Less than a two-and-a-half-hour drive from six major Southeastern markets (including Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville), the area is bisected by Interstate 59 and close to I-20, I-24, I-65, and I-75. This location makes the region an ideal choice for distribution companies and manufacturers. Employees benefit from the area’s close proximity to large cities and low cost of living. Learn more at dekalbeda.com, gadsdenida.org and cherokeecountyida.org.

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