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Tall orders: Snoqualmie woman turns family dilemma into growing online clothes business

January 30, 2014 · 1:39 PM
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Andrea Williamson holds up a pair of her bestselling sweatpants, designed for her son. She founded Altus Menswear, specializing in tall knits, in 2011 and took it full time last year. Below, a label, and Williamson with Altus' main model, son Carter. / Seth Truscott/Staff Photo

Eighteen boxes of Andrea Williamson’s shirts and pants are lined up along a wall, ready to ship. Windows look out on timberland at her home near the old Snoqualmie Falls mill site. Sewing machines, patterns, a rack of prototype clothes and a file cabinet full of fabric samples are near at hand.

Every tee and pair of sweatpants is marked with the logo of Williamson’s business, Altus Menswear, a clothing line and online retail business that she founded in 2011. This month marks a year since she went full time, and Williamson, titled President and Director of Design has proved to herself that her business plan—an online shop for the tall and the very tall—is paying off.

“When I was in high school, I wanted to be a fashion designer,” said Williamson, who has sewn since age 8. Instead, she followed another interest, landscape architecture, and was working toward a degree around the same time she founded Altus. The word is Latin, and means “high” or “lofty.”

It was family that brought fashion back to the forefront.

Her husband, Phil, stands six feet, four inches tall, and Williamson made his shirts for him throughout their marriage. Their son, Carter, grew taller than dad, and at six feet, eight inches, he has had a hard time finding clothes that fit. Shirts and pants that are tall enough were often fitted for a much bulkier man.

The idea for Altus was sparked after a frustrating trip to the city to find a tuxedo for Carter. The only tall shirts left on the shelf were extra-large and above.

“Traditional ‘big and tall’ stores are focused on the ‘big’ rather than ‘tall’,” Williamson said.

Finding tees and sweatpants for Carter were even harder. So, those casual knits are Altus’ focus, aimed at an American market of two million men above six-foot-three. Button-down shirts are coming soon, but for now, sweatpants are her biggest seller. She holds up a pair, fit for her son. They come up to her chest.

Altus focuses on men who are tall and slim, six-foot-three and up, selling four sizes: Tall Large, Tall Extra-Large, Extra-Tall Large and Extra-Tall Extra-Large.

Lessons learned

Since founding the business, “it’s been a huge learning curve,” Williamson said.

“At first, I thought I was going to make the products myself,” but discovered it’s much more efficient to go with an experienced manufacturer in Auburn.

A lot of learning came on the technical side—handling patterns, fits and process.

When she began, she started with a pattern, then chose a fabric and tried to make it work with the pattern. The reverse is easier, so now, she starts with the fabric. This is how professional fashion designers work, Williamson explains.

One file cabinet in her workroom is full of swatches.

“I go through them, we look at the colors, we feel them,” and if she decides it might make a good T-shirt, she orders a sample, then works with the pattern maker to adjust size.

Introducing new clothes into her line is a slow process that takes a lot of time, money and collaboration.

“I want to increase to more products, but I want to do it slowly,” Williamson said.

“We hope to someday have portable display equipment and signage so we can do temporary pop-up stores if we see the need,” she said.

She’s relied on a few fit models, but her main model is her son—he’s the one showcasing her clothing on the webpage. Carter is a reluctant model, but he’s doing his part for what has always been a family business.


Williamson got some of her best feedback from former Seattle Sounders soccer player Michael Gspurning. She and Phil met the six-foot-five goalkeeper, who is an Austrian native, at a Bellevue fashion show last fall. He tried their clothes and gave much-appreciated advice. This winter, Altus is launching its European Slim fit, designed with the keeper’s help.

Williamson’s business is growing. December was a big month, as was January, and Altus sold clothes all over the United Stated and Europe.  Most sales come through online searches.

“Since starting this, all kinds of people are sending me their stories,” Williamson said. Like her son, they’ve always had a tough time finding tall clothes. It’s been satisfying for her to see the customer response, and learn that her decision to start the business is paying off.

“If you don’t know somebody who needs that size, (you) have hard time understanding why,” she said. “For me, to spend $30 on a tee—if it’s going to fit, and he’s going to wear it more than once, it’s worth it.”

Altus’ line of clothes features a variety of classic T-shirts, sweat shirts, sweat pants and hoodies, with plans to add a button-down shirt and a jacket made from recycled fleece in the coming months. All of Altus’ clothes are made in the USA.

You can find it at www.altusmenswear.com.

 

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