Before I begin, some stage setting since no one who may someday read this knows me.
- I know that mass market clothing brands probably don’t do their design in house. I also know, or am pretty sure, no exercise shorts sold for below 20-25USD are ethically designed or made.
- As I reach a point of personal financial solvency, I’ve been trying to spend my money dollars with more sustainable, small business, creator led etc brands. This makes me extra pissy when I feel like a brand is riding on this image when not acting in accordance with the assumptions they lead their readers toward. I am petty and I have the time, but I know many people don’t care. This is why I’m finally just writing this instead of shouting at my friends about my red string covered cork board full of photos of shorts.
- I have what I would call a fairly extensive sports and athletic background. I also get bored easily, so it is more broad than deep. I am not sure, to date, that I even buy the reasoning that I should own different clothes for different activities (protective or specific purpose gear notwithstanding)
- I really, really, prefer things to Just Work. I refuse to believe that single drops of inventory, clothing with no pockets, etc. are necessary or defensible except in fringe cases. I will remain convinced to my grave that this is 98% of the time a marketing/cost saving measure. If a brand is truly interested in giving back to a community and/or has a single proprietor in charge who cares about their product, either their About Us or their business practice is bullshit if they do things like this. I’ve shopped from many small brands that do sell out quickly, but they do not engage in trumping up the drops for artificial scarcity and will employ wait lists, custom orders, etc. not to mention, often reasoning behind choices (like “unfortunately this linen knit was too light to support dual seam pockets”).
Anyway. On to the lukewarm tea.
I work out and I like to keep my bits covered when I do it. I am, fortunately or unfortunately, not in a “gymnasium as in naked” when I exercise. When I started lifting more after a running injury, I found my lined running shorts got uncomfortable and I needed different drawers.
I soon discovered there’s a rich and saturated market for what I’d call fitspo clothing, in particular geared toward Crossfitters and female lifters. I think this was even more dramatic before about….2014-2016 when I think Reebok started really leaning in to manufacturing CrossFit clothing and shoes but I could be wrong. At some point there was definitely a void to be filled after CrossFit got huge, women were being marketed to for strength and grrl power again, and some sexy and fit AF women who were getting on sports radars started thinking about how to diversify (see: Brooke Ence with NOBULL and EnceWear in particular, she’s very business savvy). Ronda Rousey became a household name. Gina Carano got movie gigs. Idk, something cultural happened and now my feed is full of questionable deadlift form to show off booty shorts that are the same single-stitched straight cut iteration of the same four-way-stretch sweat-wicking spandex blend, because there just aren’t that many ways to make workout shorts. At least not cheaply, quickly, and in quantity.
In particular, I’d say the following brands came up a lot as a result of my Google-Skynet profile, what my friends are wearing, and so on:
- Feed Me Fight Me
- Fabletics (some sort of larger brand, subscription model)
- Beast Worx
- Activate Apparel (mostly in the market of witty designs/slogans on unhemmed shirts, not shorts)
- Doughnuts and Deadlifts (I do like donuts; not really shorts focused)
The items without parentheticals all strike me, along with several smaller brands, as eerily similar. I initially starting digging down the rabbit hole with a hypothesis that I would be able to discover a common supplier. Maybe perhaps that all would be based and/or ship out of the LA area as this seems common; I suspect this also because CrossFit is incorporated in California and LA obviously has plenty of garment manufacturers, borderline sweat shops, and aspiring fashion and graphic designers.
I wasn’t able to track anything regarding manufacturing or supply, or even printing, but I did find that a couple of items on Beast Worx and FMFM shared the exact same skull donut design (in part because I liked it and really wanted a black background pair from BW but they, naturally, did a single time limited run only.) I didn’t find anything significant explaining this (maybe they announced a collab but I forgot) and it doesn’t seem to be anything fishy. I found no evidence they are owned by a shared parent, etc, so I dropped that. Something still felt like a game was afoot, though. I can’t explain why. Plenty of Shopify accounts exist online now, with limited inventory that is chiefly factory designs. Not really any harm or foul in it. The whole niche just seemed off to me still.
In my manufacturer/printer search I did find something of interest about FLEO almost by accident: a graphic/textile designer posted about two of her designs from PatternBank (a website for designers to list their art for potential licensing by brands or garment producers, basically like stock photo sites function as third parties for licensing images) being licensed by FLEO.
[Link to post; last retrieved 23 Jun 2019]
I haven’t purchased from FLEO before, as frankly I find their ordering, sizing, and fabric selections to be tedious and complicated, like how when Lularoe was big their sellers often had complex but cutesy guides to finding your size….per garment….and per fabric. And none of them had real measurements (at least FLEO has measurements I guess) you just had to guess at what a Medium meant for you, then go up or down one or two sizes for different garments. The FLEO version of this is more related to the cut and fabric (lined, unlined, etc) but in a way that, to me, is difficult to manage especially when taking into account that their sales model is (also similar to Lularoe now that I think about it) offering a rotating rack of different and new designs, not always available across all items, which tend to be dropped once and rarely restocked. The brand is quite popular in women’s lifting circles and even the unlined, 2.5″ inseam shorts (my bad napkin math says maybe 3/8 to 1/5 yd of fabric, then, per average pair?) are about $45USD so I guess I have a hard time believing this model is necessary for sales. But whatever, capitalism; this isn’t even my main issue. I digress.
My main issue is a sentence I’ve found in nearly every fawning blog post, review, and on FLEO’s own site:
We design our shorts in-house and manufacture them in the USA!
I made sure at time of writing that this was still on their site and not just an older assertion (even though those designs I posted were licensed back in 2017) and it was. Some screen grabs of this statement:
It’s not unusual for a site or company’s “About Us” blurb to be used in press releases and listicles since it’s usually already been drafted, chosen, approved, the whole nine, so that isn’t weird to me. I do find it a bit weird that the company is still trotting out the in-house design line. If the designs are licensed and they’ve already established their different cuts, what is being designed?
But GG, maybe they just liked those designs in 2017. Maybe there was an extenuating circumstance.
Maybe. Let’s start with the same designer; it looks like she posted a second announcement about two more designs in August 2017 and hinted there might be more underway later.
I decided to poke around on the FLEO site myself and PatternBank and see what could be found. I thought these were pretty cute, and monsteras are definitely on trend:
I saw from those blog posts that FLEO tends to change the names of patterns, but luckily for me I have some art apps and PatternBank has a remarkably precise “search by color” feature. It took me about five minutes to find this:
Pardon my accidentally drawing on the snapshot. It looks pretty close! I took both photos into an art app and rotated and aligned them and I don’t personally think there is any question that this is another design FLEO licensed to have printed and made into shorts.
I may not have been able to satisfy my curiosity about whether or not some of these brands are using a shared pattern or factory for their cuts (I mean, there are only so many ways to sew a pair of shorts so I’m happy to leave them the benefit of the doubt) but this still feels disingenuous in my opinion. Even if the patterns were originally self-drafted and the first prints were self-designed, it seems from the outside in that they’re charging sole proprietor boutique prices for licensed art made into garments by what I’d bet a whole paycheck is a third party printer/factory/storage and fulfillment warehouse. (I say this because they’ve been profiled by a fulfillment company in the ShipBob snippet above, and printing and manufacturing are prohibitively expensive for a small team to produce at scale. I admit my evidence is circumstantial.)
Multiple documentaries and exposés have been made on what are still illegal and unlivable conditions in US based factories, so without further information on the production I’m never willing to believe that US soil alone means my purchase is supporting livable wages and fairly compensated people behind the garments.
Oh, and by the way…..PatternBank allows for exclusive licensing for more money if the artist opts in to that, and none of the examples I’ve listed here were licensed in that fashion (please excuse me this one bad pun) so….aside from the higher costs of commissioning at a small scale, I’m not sure what would stop you from legally making your own pair of any of these shorts if you were really itching for an “exclusive” sold out pair.
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