Getting Off the L.A. Freeway

A Seller of Comfy Clothing Brings a Big Brand Back South

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By Holly Beilin, Hypepotamus

When Evan Toporek joined the leadership team of Alternative, then called Alternative Apparel, in 1998, the Georgia Tech industrial engineering grad had to justify his “old-school” decision to his friends.

“It was right when the bubble was starting to, you know, bubble up, and all my friends were getting wooed by dot-com companies and buying up tech shares,” says Toporek. “But I’m more of a tangible guy. I didn’t really get the bits and bytes — I like a product you can see and touch and feel.”

And originally, the third-generation fashion entrepreneur (his grandfather made military fatigues and his father, fishing and hunting attire) went the traditional route for the company as well, placing the majority of Alternative’s design and marketing operations in the global fashion capital of Los Angeles alongside business partner and Alternative designer Greg Alterman.

But Toporek remained in Atlanta, and as he watched the creative class of the city develop, he felt a disconnect between the company’s brand — which preaches being true to your roots — and its divided team.

So in 2015, after more than a decade of West Coast operations, Toporek decided he’d had enough of Alternative’s bicoastal life. Alterman had exited the company’s day-to-day operations, and Toporek would moving the entire operation back to Atlanta. But the California team wasn’t so convinced.
“We offered our L.A. employees relocation, but they’re L.A. people, and nobody took it. So one day, without being able to miss any deliveries at all, we’re left without an entire design team and missing the guts of a consumer marketing team,” says Toporek. “I definitely had anxiety.”
But Atlanta’s creatives stepped up. Within a week of posting the open designer positions, Alternative saw more than 600 applications for 10 jobs.
“That really told me that Atlanta was a place we had to wake up to,” says Toporek. That year was the company’s most successful in terms of revenue that it had seen thus far. 
Since then, the 140-person company has been on an aggressive growth path, producing record sales and profits.
The return to its roots parallels a move the company, under Toporek’s direction, made on the product side as well. Alternative is known for its exceptionally soft, comfortable, deceivingly simple knitwear. But Toporek says at one point, they broadened the product line, venturing into trendier, more fashionable gear.

Their customers weren’t buying it — neither the idea, nor the clothes.

“We found people actually just liked us for what we do,” says Toporek. “They love our T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, and all that other stuff really just wasn’t resonating. So about three years ago, we went back to what we really know we do and do well: We’re a fashion basics company. And an interesting thing happened: We’ve grown more as we got more focused.”

Aside from simply basing operations here, Toporek has now integrated Alternative into the fabric of Atlanta, getting involved at the grassroots level in startup and small business-events like the Made in Atlanta event hosted by Switchyards Downtown Club. The casual, friendly TED-style talk highlights a different homegrown brand each month, like local favorites Sweetwater Brewery and King of Pops. Alternative supplies the crowd with a different version of its signature super-soft T-shirt each time.

“We want to talk about businesses you wouldn’t realize could do great in Atlanta, and there’s so many you wouldn’t even think of. We want to be a part of sharing those stories,” says Toporek. “We focus on working with startups and brands and helping them grow themselves. Because that was the origin of this business: to allow these companies to use our shirts to print and showcase their brands — to use our product to showcase themselves.” 
Toporek believes the creative class of Atlanta — those people who filled his open design jobs in a matter of days and have grown the company alongside him — still has room to grow.
“The city is just busting right now. It is in a huge growth mode, and I like seeing what’s driving it. I like seeing more of these creative companies coming into the forefront. There’s just incredible talent here, from creative all the way to finance. We love this city.”
And with a continually growing team filling a 130,000-square-foot HQ and distribution center, Alternative plans to keep spreading its Southern roots.
“Now we can truly say, we’re made in Atlanta,” Toporek says. “The heart of the business is here, and we want to be a part of building the creative class in this town. Made in Atlanta should be recognized now as being cool.”

Holly Beilin is the editor-in-chief at Hypepotamus, the most-read startup and technology-focused news publication and community resource in the Southeast. Sign up for the Hypepotamus newsletter and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.