Mar 10, 2014
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Athletic Apparel for figure skaters
By Becky Hurley
Owners: Sharene and Jeff Eble
Manufacturing facilities are often equipped with high-tech robotic equipment, assembly lines, high ceilings and busy loading docks. Sharene Skatewear’s a different story. A factory sample shop up front includes several racks of glitzy ready-to-wear skating dresses and a customer service desk. In a nearby production area, a team of focused sewers and cutters is surrounded by a vintage AutoCad machine for pattern design, stacked fabric rolls, trims, hanging custom paper patterns, thread spools and buckets of grommets, beads and sequins.
More than 5,000 skatewear dresses are shipped annually from this garment-maker’s beehive of activity.
Sharene and Jeff Eble moved their skatewear design and fabrication business to the city from San Diego in 2004, driven away by California’s increasingly difficult business tax and regulatory environment. They’ve never looked back.
“We came to the Broadmoor Open and fell in love with Colorado’s quality of life – and the business climate is much friendlier here,” Sharene says.
While millions of American jobs were shipped overseas in the early 2000s, the custom sports clothing manufacturer known for its designer style and “bling” opted not to follow that lead.
Pricing depends on the complexity of design and hours of time necessary to create a show-stopping look. Dresses range in price from $200 to $500 or more. It’s a price top skaters are willing to pay.
The company has learned there are two cardinal sins in the skating world: the dress must fit without riding up – flosslike -- during competition and no skater wants to wear the same dress as a competitor.
Crystal ornamentation is especially expensive. A small box of crystals runs about $600 and each stone must be applied by hand. Labor represents as much as 75 percent of company overhead. But for those at the pre-Olympic or World Championship level, the right outfit gives a mental as well as physical edge.
“The dress should cause the audience to stop talking, to take a look,” Sharene says. “Then it should be quiet, and let the skater do the rest."
The Elbes initially experimented with contract bulk sewers but found quality inconsistent. In addition, some sizes would sell out while others piled up as left-overs. All production is done in-house and contributes to Sharene Skatewear’s reputation as one of the nation’s top two suppliers of custom skating attire.
Production takes place just two miles from U.S. Figure Skating Association’s Colorado Springs headquarters. The pool of USFSA competitive skaters is relatively small – just 180,000 members -- compared to sports like skiing, snowboarding and hockey.
Marketing is often handled rink-side at expos around the country. Most revenue, however, is generated by “organic” online promotion, designed to keep the company on top of most search engines. Other customers include domestic and international recreational skaters, baton twirlers and dance students.
Sharene Eble opens a recent issue of Skater Magazine and points to young Olympic hopeful Karoline Calhoun pictured, sporting an outfit she’s designed.
“I am so proud when I see our (dresses) worn in competition. Sometimes at the rink I’ll hear a young skater tell her friend, ‘You’re wearing a Sharene – I have three Sharenes in my closet too!’ That makes it all worth it,” she says.
Challenges: Seasonal business. It's a delicate balance to keep well-qualified employees busy during slow times, and not burn them out when we’re busy. To compensate we charge rush fee to ship to customers in a hurry.
Opportunities: Finding additional vertical markets that would utilize similar products. Dancewear sells for too low a price. There’s also what I call “partywear.” The 20-something young lady who wants to go to the club with a little "bling," would be a fun market to serve.
Needs: Continuing to find good employees like the team I have. One dress is very labor-intensive so we need profoundly expert sewers.