Student-Run Clothing Brand JERPA Jeans Ready For Its Close-Up
With the weather slowly getting colder, despite the frequent 60-degree, sunshine-filled days, it’s time to start bundling up. And while big tailgates and daylongs are advised against in our current pandemic-stricken world, it’s important to stay warm for those socially distanced small gatherings with the people who make your stressful college days bearable. Staying toasty and comfy for your classes isn’t a bad thing either, whether in person or in bed on Zoom.
Founder Austin Thomas has always had an inkling for entrepreneurship. But when he first stepped foot on Penn State’s campus as a freshman in Smeal College of Business, he didn’t quite know where to direct his ambition.
“I knew I wanted to do business, but not what I wanted to do within business. But I always had that sort of business-savvy side of me,” said Thomas.
It came down to supply chain management or finance. After taking the preliminary course for finance, Thomas decided against the field after seeing where the top of that industry is, high powered Wall Street speculators and stockbrokers. He found that world didn’t appeal to him. Supply chain it was.
An acceptance to Schreyer Honors College came next, soon followed by a successful walk-on to the Penn State men’s basketball team as a practice player. Having played on his high school team back in Bucks County, Thomas was one of two students from that stretch of tryouts to be offered a spot. Still only a freshman, Thomas had already taken a lot on his shoulders.
He spent two years on the team before leaving to focus on his growing list of responsibilities. While Thomas never secured a permanent spot on the roster, the lessons he learned over that period proved invaluable to his future endeavors.
“It really taught me time management and the work ethic it takes to be a Division I athlete and to just be successful,” said Thomas. “You kind of apply that work ethic that you learn from your family, your life, and Penn State basketball into running a business. I like to call it brick by brick. They’re all different bricks that help lay the foundation.”
When Thomas left the basketball team the summer after his sophomore year, JERPA was still a few months away from being born. But the inspiration had been bubbling inside his brain for a while now, and it all started on the tailgating fields outside of Beaver Stadium his freshman year.
“I would notice that some of my friends would wear thermals under their jeans, trying to layer two separate pieces just to stay warm. What I wanted to do was create a two-in-one product and provide that sense of warmth and comfortability,” Thomas said.
Thomas also pointed to the rising popularity of Sherpa lined jean jackets around that time. With a well-received product like that on the market, he soon noticed that there wasn’t an equivalent of that fad for pants. There were plenty of pants lined with materials like wool and flannel, but never any that utilized that consumer-preferred Sherpa fabric.
Style was also a concern, as many of those pants that had already been made didn’t fit the fashion sense of the college audience Thomas wanted to market to. He also wanted to find a happy medium between how warm the pants would be, cozy enough for a chilly day outside, but not hot enough to get your legs drenched in sweat while sitting inside. After going through supplier after supplier, Thomas finally found the perfect one that could make exactly what he wanted.
Next came the big question that any fledgling start-up has to answer: capital. With just the money he had saved up from a prior internship at Campbell’s, Thomas knew he wouldn’t be able to afford a costly social media campaign. Instead, he went for an ambassador program.
Different from your traditional influencer model where companies simply pay popular social media accounts to advertise their products, ambassadors are passionate about the brand and community the company creates. They’re not one-time advertisers, though. They’re consistent posters who make JERPA a part of their social media lives. The growth of this program has made Thomas’ confidence in JERPA and the people involved in it that much stronger.
“I think it was about me believing in the product and me believing in myself, and then getting a true belief in our group and nothing that we’re seeing success-wise would be possible without our ambassadors,” said Thomas.
Already at over 20 colleges and 70-plus ambassadors, the growth of this program has helped JERPA’s brand swell. But managing such a massive online campaign along with getting the business to work behind the scenes is tough for just one person, no matter how driven.
That’s where a fellow student and current head of marketing Bradley Kraut comes in.
Kraut and Thomas’ relationship began years before starting a clothing business was in their minds. Both went to the same high school and played on the basketball team there, with Thomas playing the role of the varsity star and Kraut as the freshman trying to find his way. Thomas respected Kraut’s hardworking, “pit-bull” style of play, but the two were just teammates at that point. Flash forward a few years and Kraut arrived at Penn State once again as the freshman and Thomas as the experienced upperclassman.
Kraut saw Thomas’ very first Instagram post announcing JERPA’S launch and his need for brand ambassadors. He felt compelled to get involved in whatever way he could as soon as he saw it.
“I’m always just about helping other kids grow their brand. I don’t really give a shit about what I post on my social media, so if I’m passionate about something people will know,” said Kraut.
He originally reached out about becoming an ambassador himself, soon becoming part of that very first cohort. Despite being exactly at first, Kraut admitted having second thoughts on the way to Thomas’ apartment off campus to pick up the jeans, one of his first-ever ventures into downtown State College.
“Going downtown, I was kind of skeptical about these jeans,” Kraut said. “I was like, ‘They’re going to be too stiff, they’re just jeans with fur in them? How are they going to be comfortable? I’m not going to be able to move in them.”
But as soon as he put that first pair on, it was love at first wear.
“I go there, get my jeans, pop a squat in them, and immediately go ‘Austin. These have serious fucking potential. These can blow up,” said Kraut. “[From the start,] I truly believed in this product.”
Kraut’s inner salesman erupted. He started selling jeans immediately, dishing them out to people from his dorm floor and later all over campus. He was moving continuously from Thomas’ apartment back to East Halls with stacks of fresh jeans packed into duffel bags He even started taking hype videos whenever new packages of clothes would arrive, posting them all over social media. At his peak, Kraut sold 38 pairs of jeans in 48 hours.
Kraut started telling Thomas about photographers he knew who would do free work for exposure and opened up his vast array of connections from the years Kraut spent at sleep-away camps as a kid. These fellow campers were located all over the country at big universities, especially at fellow Big Ten schools like Ohio State.
With ambassadors coming in fast, even extending to Penn State football players like Will Levis and Jordan Stout, Kraut made his mark on the company right away. The duo of Thomas and Austin soon became key to the company’s success.
“Austin does the back-end stuff, he’s the supply chain major, 3.9 GPA, and I was the marketer. The combination of us is lethal,” said Kraut.
Kraut became the face of the company on social media soon, with the more reserved Thomas taking a back seat. In recent months, that’s begun to change as Thomas has taken a more active role in social media presentation and outreach.
“During quarantine, we had some serious talks. We needed to start documenting, showing people behind the scenes, putting out appreciation stories to people who are purchasing. [Thomas has] opened up to that and he’s on the camera now on Instagram having fun with it,” said Kraut.
The passion for JERPA has found its way into everyone involved, from the brand ambassadors to Kraut and Thomas at the top. That sense of simply having fun, the strong inner drive and desire, is something Thomas has clung to.
“Whether I’m packaging products, shipping products, whenever I’m doing JERPA, it’s just my passion,” said Thomas. “It’s what’s fun for me.”
While it provided the company opportunities for growth, the onset of Covid-19 affected JERPA’S plans immensely. The company was in the process of selling its new joggers with a plan to focus on a huge campaign for them in the spring of 2020. The pandemic put to stop to that, and a low amount of sales put a strain on Thomas and Kraut’s timeframe.
However, they kept the energy going as much as they could. They kept sending out clothes to influencers and their ambassadors, and the exposure was seeing green. A small t-shirt campaign of 75 shirts sold out in an hour, meaning that JERPA was able to keep their brand going strong as the new semester came around.
JERPA’S new mask initiative has also provided a new avenue of exposure. Every hoodie and pair of jeans they sell comes with a free, JERPA-printed mask. Not only does this promote safety among their customers, but having their company plastered over masks that people will wear around is free marketing. Any masks that are purchased by themselves have all their profits go directly to a Covid response fund run by Penn State students.
There’s plenty of things JERPA is working towards. Their peak season of Black Friday to Christmas is coming up, a year after they exploded onto the scene around that same timeframe. With plans to get a massive amount of orders, they’ve made it a big short term goal to fully stock up on and improve products, especially their flagship Sherpa lined jeans.
The company is also hoping to acquire an official warehouse to store their products in. Currently, its warehouse is Thomas’ apartment, but a large, official storage space is near the top of JERPA’s short-term goals.
Both Thomas and Kraut both have their own dreams for the future, past this upcoming holiday season. Thomas is open to risks and failure, experimenting with different products and marketing methods in order to learn as much as he can.
“We’re so early on that nothing we do can be wrong. Even if we make a mistake, we can learn from it and move on,” Thomas said.
Kraut also has his own vision for JERPA. In his dreams, he envisions a JERPA outlet store alongside major brands like Ralph Lauren and Vineyard Vines with a greater emphasis on expansion and customer engagement.
“Obviously you have to start in retail stores, like a Neiman Marcus or a Bloomingdale’s,” Kraut said. “But having our own outlet, our own warehouse, having fun, and taking awesome videos — I can just totally envision that.”
The duo has also brought on a handful of underclassmen to keep the growth going. Along with that and the massive attention JERPA has been receiving from social media interactions and the media, Kraut sees a strong future for the company.
“I just don’t see it going away, these products are in demand,” Kraut said. “Things are just falling into place and we need to just keep running with it.”
With all the help that’s come his way, at the end of the day it’s still Thomas’ company. And with graduation creeping closer every day and plenty of job offers coming in, it’s been tough to figure out a concrete future for himself. But no matter where he ends up, there’s one thing Thomas knows he isn’t giving up.
“I’m continuing JERPA no matter what, it’s just a matter of going full time with it or double full-time with another job,” said Thomas. “The bad we know, it’s that I fail. But the good nobody knows in terms of the potential this has.”
Thomas and Kraut can’t say exactly what the future holds; no one has a crystal ball. But whatever happens, there will always been that soft, warm, cushion of Sherpa to lay down on.
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