How a clothing designer for competitive horseback riders expanded his business to make face masks for brands like Target, Starbucks, and USPS

  • Kevin Garcia, a high-end clothing designer for horse shows, began making masks to generate cash flow for his business early on during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • While other companies laid off employees, Kevin Garcia had to hire three additional employees to keep up with the demand for masks.
  • Garcia has received 3,000 orders for masks through his website since he announced his pivot, partially thanks to the strong domain name and also his extensive horse show network.
  • He's noticed that masks are as much a fashion statement now as a safety precaution. "I've received some funny emails about people wanting specific prints or styles and being disappointed they were sold out," he added.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In early March, Atlanta, Georgia-based designer Kevin Garcia started making masks for family and friends so they could follow recommended safety precautions. An initial Facebook post announcing the service generated a pre-order list 200 customers deep. Since then, he's received 3,000 orders for masks through his website, in addition to personal requests.

In his day job, Garcia specializes in designing high-end outfits for competitive horseback riders. His business, Kevin Garcia Originals, relies on events across the country to connect with customers and make sales. His bestselling western shirt costs between $975 and $1,125, while custom-made vests and jackets range from $2,500 to $4,500.

"I didn't wait to see how my business would fair," he said about the pandemic. "I adapted to the situation. I was actually able to hire three additional workers who were displaced by COVID-19 on top of not letting anyone go because I was proactive."

Plenty of fabric and customers to pivot

Coincidentally, Garcia was well-prepared for transitioning to hand-sewn protective masks that sell for $10 to $12 each. Each mask takes about 15 minutes to make. Some days, a few sewers would come to the office and create a mini-assembly line cutting and sewing. On those days, they could make 100 a day. 

Well before the pandemic, Garcia had purchased the domain name with the hopes of eventually expanding into the market for masquerade masks and elaborate headdresses. With a ready-to-use domain name and expertise in design, he had the tools needed to succeed — the website recorded more than 10,000 views within the first month.

"It's kept my name out there so people don't forget who I am during this time," he said. "It would have been hard to make payroll without the daily orders."

With his standing and connections in the horse industry, he had a built-in customer base ready to buy masks. Garcia's social media manager posted on the company's social accounts asking how many followers would be interested in masks. That generated a list of 200 people. Then they reached out to those individuals via email and began creating a waitlist.

Masks as a fashion statement and uniform

The initial 1,000 masks Garcia commissioned were made from black and white houndstooth fabric left over from his wedding. The pattern sold out almost instantly. 

Garcia told Business Insider that he's noticed masks are as much a fashion statement now as a safety precaution.

"I've received some funny emails about people wanting specific prints or styles and being disappointed they were sold out," he said.

Fabric companies print patterns on demand. With those businesses closed because of COVID-19, wait times have gone from overnight to a few weeks. Meanwhile, elastic has become hard to find, and what's available is not suitable for making masks, said Garcia. Working with a local vendor has helped him be able to buy 3,000 yards of elastic the first week he started making masks.

Garcia has since made custom masks for Starbucks, Target, the United States Postal Service (USPS), and several small businesses. He leveraged existing relationships to land these accounts. 

For example, a regular horse show customer is also the postmaster in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Garcia's husband, Brian Isbell Garcia, worked for Starbucks for 10 years, and Garcia has embroidered employee names on the company's logoed aprons in the past. Offering face masks was a natural extension of the existing relationship.

Although he wasn't able to get fabric printed with company logos fast enough, Garcia was able to accommodate color requests to coordinate with uniforms.

"We did gray and blue masks for the USPS to match their uniforms," he said. "It is important that it looks like part of the uniform, so it takes the scary part out of having to wear them."

Still keeping on with business as usual

Although horse shows are allowed to begin operating as many states reopen, Garcia doesn't plan on attending. His husband is a highly regarded horse trainer, and being half of a power duo will help sustain the business, Garcia said. 

He shared that so far, the pandemic hasn't affected his show clothing business as much as he anticipated. Because each order from Kevin Garcia Originals is hand made in the United States, buyers place orders two to three months in advance. In a normal year, horse show season begins in late February and early March, so Garcia said that he was fortunate to have two to three months of work in the pipeline before COVID-19 hit. And orders have continued to roll in online.

"We invested a long time into advertising in 2019, and that paid off for us as our sales were better this year than last year," he said. "My reputation is really important to me and I repair, for free, an item the entire time the original owner has it, even if it has been 10 years. That has also been keeping customers coming back."

Many horse show competitors are small business owners or executives at large companies. While individual sales for face masks have slowed since the start of the pandemic, Garcia sees the demand from commercial accounts picking up and anticipates that will continue to grow.

"The business accounts will not be going away," he said. "My family owns a trucking company and needed 70 masks so their employees could go back to work. One of my clients from horse shows owns a grocery chain in Florida and needed 60 masks, so we're accommodating those requests."

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