Billy Reid + Zkano
Three years ago, Gina Locklear founded Zkano, an organic sock company in Fort Payne, Alabama, just a few hours northeast of Billy Reid’s home office in Florence. Zkano operates under the same roof as Gina’s parents’ business, Emi-G Knitting, a 22-year player in what for many years was known as “The Sock Capital of the World.”
This season, Billy Reid partnered with Zkano to create a limited-edition collection of socks in three styles and several color-ways. Not only are these socks unequivocally beautiful and comfortable, they’re made by a regional company that’s still fighting the good fight in spite of trying times for U.S. manufacturing. That makes us especially proud to be working with Gina and the entire Zkano/Emi-G family.
In the second installment of the Journal’s two-part feature on Zkano, Gina – who wears many hats as Zkano’s designer, operations manager, sales and marketing rep, and customer service chief, among other designations (check out last Tuesday’s post) – shares with us the life-cycle of a sock, from concept to shelf.
We don’t have a “private label” program that allows us to produce custom orders for other brands; we just don’t have the capacity. So we’re super-picky about our outside collaborations. Because of our Southern roots and because both of our companies are based in Alabama, I’ve wanted to make a sock with Billy Reid for a very long time. I feel like we’re like-minded in a lot of ways, and a partnership made perfect sense.
Production of Zkano socks starts and ends here at our factory in Fort Payne, Alabama. Because our processes are in-house for the most part, our speed-to-market is a bit faster than the industry standard. If we needed to, we could introduce a brand-new collection in three or four weeks. It would be rough, but it could be done.
We start working on Zkano’s fall production in June, which probably sounds crazy. Unlike some of our other brands, Zkano is more of an “immediates” collection - everything in the line is immediately available for shipping to stores within two weeks of ordering. As long as we have new fall styles on our site and new line sheets to our stores by August or September, we’re good to go.
I choose colors using books and swatches from Pantone, the company that standardized over a thousand specific shades that is widely used by creative industries to communicate exact colors. Before I do that, I research trends a good bit. I use (fashion trade publication) Women’s Wear Daily to keep me in the fashion loop. But there are seasons when there are colors that I like at the moment and want to try them out in a sock, regardless of what the trend may be. Sometimes I feel we’re completely on-trend and other times I don’t think we are at all. But I like that because it’s good to have a different look than our competitors.
I choose a bunch of colors to have dyed for yarn samples. Getting a nice variety of samples is key, as Pantone colors can look different when they’re dyed. We use eco-friendly low-impact dyes for everything we make. In terms of the Billy Reid project, their team designed the socks using our existing yarn colors, with the exception being Rubber, Billy’s signature tannish-brown color, which we had sampled by the dye house.
When we decide the colors to be run in production, we send them and our natural cotton to our dyer in North Carolina. Organic cotton makes a better sock: it’s stronger and wears better and is incredibly soft. We get our cotton from Turkey, for now. We desperately want to use organic cotton grown in the United States - specifically, in Alabama. But from what I understand, growing and harvesting organic cotton is a very hands-on and expensive process in the United States. I can only assume that this is why more organic cotton isn’t grown in this country. I hope that this changes in the near future. If we could have a supplier of organic cotton here in Alabama or just in the U.S., I feel like it would bring our sock story full circle. Nothing would make me happier than that.
When the dyed fabric comes back, I start working with Vance, our longtime plant manager. Sometimes I have sketches (of sock designs) that I bring to him to talk about; other times I’ll just tell him what I’m thinking. He’s awesome.
The machines we make socks on are no longer in production and haven’t been for a while. This presents a lot of challenges for us. For instance, the software we have to use for programming and creating new styles is outdated, in terms of technology. Vance free hands a lot of our designs on this program, which is very old-school. There are easier ways of designing socks, but this is what he knows and he prefers to do it this way. He’s damn good at it and has always been considered as one of the best in the industry.
After we determine our designs, Vance writes a program for the knitting machine. We run the program on the machine, run it again, and repeat that until we get what we’re looking for in terms of quality, shape and design. It’s a lengthy process and can take hours just for one style. (Also, I’m not technically a “sock designer,” who can create designs using a computer program, which would make this a lot easier - though, I’m not sure it would be as much fun.) This experimentation process is my favorite part. It’s exciting because you really never know how the sock going to look until it comes out of the machine. Sometimes it’s not what I wanted it to be, but it’s better. That’s always a fun surprise. Often a “mistake” will be something we love and put into production. That happens at least once every season.