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Stories — and the Shorts Bus — power Reno startup

John Seelmeyer
jseelmeyer@nnbw.biz

It only looks like Reno startup Branch Clothing LLC sells custom-made shorts and hoodies.

It’s really selling a story.

“Our customers are the people who care about the story behind the product,” says Chris Zumtobel, one of the company’s co-founders.

A pocket T-shirt the company sells, for instance, isn’t just any old T-shirt. The shirt is made from recycled soda bottles, and the pocket fabric comes from a cooperative of weavers in Guatemala.

A tank top, meanwhile, is created from hand-dyed fabric from a group of women artisans in Thailand.

This summer marks a key crossroads for the company and its college-student executives — Zumtobel, Brian Bolotin and Bjorn Talbot — after a year of trial and error.

The company traces its roots to a day in 2011 that Bolotin and Zumtobel ripped apart a pair of shorts and spent five hours learning how to make their own.

After a while, they were good enough to begin taking orders from friends and family who got to choose their own designs from remnant fabrics.

Custom-designed shorts — customers pick the colors of the shorts, waistband and pocket and select from three pocket shapes — remain the core of Branch Clothing’s business.

During the winter, when the demand for shorts cooled, the company shifted its focus to custom-designed hoodies.

And it’s begun selling a line of eco-products as well.

While the company sells at a handful of retailers such as Paper Moon in Reno and through its Web site (branchclothing.com), the “Shorts Bus” that appears at Farmers Markets and other events has proven a good marketing tool.

The company’s founders raised $2,500 through a Kickstarter campaign a year ago — donors got shorts, shirts or backpacks in exchange for their help — to buy the bus outfitted with solar panels to power sewing machines

The original concept, Zumtobel says, called for the company’s founders to sew shorts outside the bus as customers watched.

They didn’t really have the skills to pull that off, so they turned to Reno seamstress Pamela Wilkinson to handle the production and used the Shorts Bus as a marketing outlet.

Hopes to take the Shorts Bus into California markets, meanwhile, were dashed by the heavy load of permits that California required.

“We’d love to travel with it in the future,” Zumtobel says.

But in the meantime, the company’s owners, friends since their days at Reno High School, continue attending classes — Talbot and Bolotin at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Zumtobel at Baruch College in New York City.

And they continue figuring ways to market their company on a college-guy budget. They rely heavily on social media — notably Tumblr — to keep customers involved.

And the products themselves have been key to the company’s sales growth so far.

“It’s been organic growth,” says Zumtolel. “People see the shorts, people love the shorts.”