Is workwear the next untapped market for direct-to-consumer brands?

Brands want to supply doctors, nurses, chefs and construction workers with their uniforms.

Stoggles sells eye-protecting goggles. It is one of a number of direct-to-consumer brands targeting healthcare workers. (Photo: Stoggles)
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Doctors getting dressed for work today have more outfit choices than ever.

Instead of donning the hospital’s baggy scrubs, they might decide to sport something from made-in-Italy scrubs brand L’Atelier Forte, or a set from Figs, the direct-to-consumer medical apparel brand that floated on the New York Stock Exchange last summer for $4.57 billion.

Instead of Crocs, they might be wearing something from Clove or Bala, two sneaker brands that are designing shoes specifically for healthcare workers.

Even their eyewear could be a bit more stylish than the hospital-issued default — Stoggles, which launched in February last year, sells bacteria-blocking spectacles for $39 a pop.

It’s not just medical professionals that are being targeted by direct-to-consumer brands. Chefs can buy stylish aprons from Worktones or flattering bottoms from Polka Pants. Construction workers can now shop with Brunt Workwear, while professional (or very keen) gardeners and farmers might get their next pair of overalls from Growers & Co.

While most direct-to-consumer brands target aspects of our personal lives, the market for workwear is huge. According to Grand View Research, the global workwear market was worth $28.3 billion in 2018. The health care sector is America’s biggest employer, with a workforce of 20 million, while 16.7 million people work in the hospitality and leisure industries.

These products are likely to find utility beyond their original audience, too. Hairdressers, for example, also find aprons with decent pockets handy, while Dickies jackets, Carhartt leggings, and Caterpillar boots are just three examples of the many workwear items that have crossed over into fashion’s territory.

Here, we speak to three brands selling workwear to find out more about their customers.

A Worktones apron, in action. (Photo: Worktones)
Worktones: Stylish aprons for Aussie chefs

Huw Bennett describes the launch of his brand Worktones — which sells workwear for hospitality staffers — as a “happy accident.”

He'd just come out of a seven-year stint in the fashion industry, when he was contacted by a hotel that needed help putting uniforms together. “I liked the construction and design part of the [fashion] business,” he explains. “But I didn’t so much like the seasonality aspect of it. So I thought, why don’t I sell the same product forever?”

Aprons for chefs seemed like a no-brainer, with the workwear options for this industry leaving much to be desired. “A lot of the stuff I was seeing was essentially bad quality, made with synthetic fabrics, and the aesthetics were an afterthought,” Bennett says.

Worktones’ aprons are made with natural fabrics sourced from Japan, while the minimal designs feature strictly functional flourishes such as deep pockets, tea towel loops and adjustable straps. “We’re as generic as we can be, while still having our own handwriting on the product,” Bennett says of the design.

Worktones also allows restaurants to create their own custom designs — which can be as minor as picking a bespoke colorway for the aprons or as complex as designing a full set of clothing. Bennett says custom work now accounts for around 60% of the business.

Post-pandemic, Bennett thinks these percentages may shift, though. Over the past two years, sales via Worktones’ online store, where chefs can buy things like hot sauces and coffee cups alongside the aprons, have risen over 500%.

Stoggles: Super safe specs

In February 2021, Max Greenberg and Rahul Khatri launched Stoggles, a company that makes goggles that protect healthcare workers’ eyes and can fit over glasses.

The specs also have the added bonus of being that bit more stylish than the usual PPE on offer — and unlike scrubs, for example, “there’s no regulations around what shape or color is acceptable”, Greenberg says. “It gives people this opportunity to have some personal expression. We get so much user-generated content because people feel great wearing their Stoggles.”

Interspersed among the product shots, Stoggles’ Instagram feed features selfies from nurses and doctors showing off their tinted plastic specs.

But style isn’t everything. Any PPE used by healthcare workers, including eye-protecting goggles, has to pass an official safety check. The glasses also have to have an anti-fog coating that’s not going to come off when a healthcare worker spritzes their eyewear with disinfecting isopropyl alcohol (“that is kryptonite for anti-fog,” says Greenberg). In order to get its Z87 safety certification, Greenberg says the original Stoggles design was tweaked to provide extra protection around the sides of the eyes.

Healthcare workers make up 75-80% of Stoggles’ customers, with the remainder split evenly between other professionals (such as lab and construction workers) and everyday consumers.

“One of our goals over the next year is to grow our general consumer user base,” Greenberg says, pointing out that more than half of the annual 2.5 million eye injuries that occur every year in the U.S. happen at home — not at work.

Brunt Workwear's shoes are safety certified. (Photo: Brunt Workwear)
Brunt Workwear: Shoes you can use

Eric Girouard has launched a fair number of direct-to-consumer brands in his time, from kids clothing brand Rockets of Awesome to luxury shoe business M.Gemi. But whenever he’d try to offer freebies and samples to his friends back home in Boston — many of whom worked in the trades — they didn’t seem too interested.

“I figured they were afraid to get them dirty or ruin them,” he says. “But they were like, ‘you don’t understand, I don’t want to wear Italian loafers, I want to wear my workboots’.”

Girouard says it’s common for a tradesperson to spend $200-plus on a pair of new boots, which they'll replace at least once a year. The mostly offline shopping experience also means there’s a lot of middlemen adding their cut along the way.

Brunt Workwear launched in March 2020, and Girouard says the company has experienced an average 63% month-on-month growth rate. In October, it announced it had raised an $8.4 million Series A funding round. The boots are designed to protect the toes, be durable and — most importantly — be comfortable enough for someone to stand in for 10 hours-plus a day. The boots are also ASTM-certified, which keeps the wearer safe from things like fire, electric shocks, or heavy weights being dropped on the foot.

Unlike other industries, where an employer might provide a worker with their uniform, Girouard estimates that around 97% of his customers are individual customers. “Whether they’re an electrician and they own their own small business, or they’re part of a huge company, a lot of consumers like to choose their own boots. They like the flexibility and they don’t want it to be mandated.”

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