Updated: Nov 24, 2020
STORY BY AMANDA IBEY
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY VERMONT FLANNEL Some businesses are born intentionally, others by chance. Such is the story of Vermont Flannel, a
company founded almost 30 years ago by the husband-and-wife team of Mark and Linda Baker.
Mark had worked in the textile business selling advertising on T-shirts and placing the merchandise in large national outlets. After spending more than a decade in the T-shirt business, Mark’s parents
suggested he “get a real job.”
“I told my parents I was going to come up with an idea that would sell a million T-shirts, and [I’d] show them,” said Mark. His first idea could have been it.
The year was 1991, and the U.S. military had just defended Kuwait against the invasion by Iraq and called it Operation Desert Shield, when Mark got an idea. He designed a black T-shirt (like a rock and roll T-shirt) that read on the front, “Saddam Hussein Middle East Tour 1991.” On the back, Mark listed different countries in the Middle East, and then he placed a huge stamp across those names that read, “Canceled Due to Desert Storm.”
People ate it up. In one week, he sold more than 2,000 shirts, donating a dollar of each sale to the families of soldiers. Hoping to capitalize on the moment, Mark bought vendor space at a three-day T-shirt convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where large national retailers would be hunting for new product lines.
This show was going to be his big break. He had visions of selling millions of his T-shirts in stores across the country. The show did turn out to be his big break, just not in the way he expected. Shortly before the convention, President George H.W. Bush announced he was ending Operation Desert Shield, and with it, came the end of Mark’s million-dollar idea too.
Still having to pay for the booth space and airfare, Mark needed a new product line quickly. Enter flannel. Two years earlier, Mark had made a prototype flannel T-shirt and had invented a new type of flannel—the lounge pant.
The initial reception to his innovations was lukewarm. “The first day of the convention, I don’t think I’ve ever been as insulted,” said Mark. “People asked me, ‘What the hell are you doing up there in Vermont? Flannel is for hunting, not for T-shirts—and this is a T-shirt convention.’ I was almost ready to pack it up and leave.”
But Mark didn’t leave. By the second day, people were more intrigued by his idea. By day three, no one questioned him. They just wanted his samples. “I had a line of people asking me for samples and that’s what gave me encouragement to keep going.”
One of those companies that asked for a sample was J.C. Penney. Ten weeks after Mark sent it to a company representative, he was surprised to see the store had rolled out its own flannel sleep and loungewear line at 500 stores nationwide. It was made in China and with a much inferior quality. “If someone wants to copy Vermont Flannel, then I figured I must be doing something right,” said Mark.
Not to be deterred, Mark knew the public was interested, he just needed to get the word out. “In the beginning, we were so small, and my ideas were so big. Our main outlets were craft shows. I would load up my car on Wednesday, drive to Cape Cod, or Maine, or Pennsylvania, or all over Vermont, set up on Thursday, and sell on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Sunday, I’d drive home, say ‘hi’ to my wife and three young kids, and then I spent Monday and Tuesday re-packing and making more products to load up again on Wednesday. I did this for 25 weeks out of the year.”
Mark’s tenacity paid off. Within a year, he had snagged a large contract distributing to L.L. Bean with Vermont Flannel’s label (which was unheard of) and had rented manufacturing space in Barre to house his sewers and stitchers. During that time, Vermont Flannel grew from 3 employees to 63.
When the L.L. Bean contract unexpectedly fell through seven months later, Mark quickly pivoted again just like he had done so many times before. “We had already bought fabric and had the stitchers hired to fill the L.L. Bean orders, so when they went away, we decided to keep it going—just in a different direction. We opened nine stores in less than a year. We were opening a store just about every month,” recalled Mark.
Such rapid expansion and growth earned Vermont Flannel an award from then-governor Howard Dean’s administration as one of the fastest growing businesses in Vermont.
Proudly Made in the USA
Since day one, Vermont Flannel products have been handmade and handcrafted in the USA from 100-percent pure cotton flannel. Every item is cut, stitched, and sewn by hand, using the finest brushed flannel on both sides to help give it the ultra-soft, cozy, and comfortable feel that “Vermont Flannel Fans” have come to know and trust.
Mark realized how powerful the “Made in America” sentiment was when he manned a kiosk during the holidays at the University Mall in South Burlington. It was 2007, and the Great Recession had just started, and people were panicked. Stores of all sizes, especially the name brands like Bon Ton, Sears, and J.C. Penney were feverishly trying to off-load their inventory with fire-sale prices of 50–60 percent off everything in the store.
Shoppers would approach Mark asking what his discounts were, but instead of following the trend, he carved his own path. “We weren’t trying to compete with a J.C. Penney. We were too small of a company then, with less than 50 employees— it wasn’t going to happen,” said Mark. “What did we have? Well, over 99 percent of everything in the mall was made in China, so when someone bought flannel at J.C. Penney that money went to China. But when they bought one of our Vermont Flannels, that money went to their neighbor.”
Mark made a huge sign for the kiosk that read, “Made in the USA. Do you give a stitch? We do. Do you?” His marketing tactic worked. Not only did he sell all the products at full price, but his sales increased too.
Today, Vermont Flannel continues to promote its Handmade in America heritage, selling about 100 unique products online and at its five retail outlets in Ferrisburgh, Burlington, Johnson, East Barre, and at its flagship store in Woodstock, Vermont.
Just about anything you can wear can be found in flannel. There are lounge pants, shorts, fitted long sleeve shirts, hoodies, bathrobes, and pajamas for men, women, and children in dozens of patterns. Their best-selling product remains the original Vermont Flannel lounge pant, the ones Mark invented. The men’s and women’s flannel shirts also remain hugely popular.
Never content to rest on just the classics, Vermont Flannel continues to create unique flannel accessories and products, too. Customers can find flannel ponchos, hair scrunchies, boxer briefs, scarves, baseball caps, blankets, head warmers, and flannel sleeves for beer bottles or wine glasses. Vermont Flannel even makes jackets for dogs. “Although we’ve been in business almost 30 years, we still think of ourselves as a startup,” said Mark. “We continue to be leaders and innovators in everything flannel, and we’re always looking for new ideas that our customers will love.”
Mark is quick to point out that such innovation can only come when you have the right team. “We have an amazing group of people with an incredible work ethic, and we try to play to everyone’s
After almost 30 years, Mark even credits his team with giving him the energy to continue logging his long workweeks. “A lot of our people never call in sick. There’s one woman who has worked for us for 25 years, and I can think of only one time when she called in—and that was for a half-day! If my team can keep going, I can keep going.”
Vermont Flannel may have begun by chance, but Mark has always known what the company stood for. “Dedicated to World Comfort” is the tagline Vermont Flannel lives by, but that comfort runs deeper than just how a shirt feels on the skin.
Just before closing, late one Friday afternoon, Mark received a call from a woman in Burlington. “I was at our offices in East Barre, and she asked if we were open.
I said we were just about to close, and asked, “How can I help you?’ She said weeping, ‘My dad passed away. He’s been wearing Vermont Flannels for the past 10 years, and we want to get him some new flannels to be buried in.’ So, she drove down from Burlington, and we took care of her, and she was incredibly happy,” said Mark.
It’s this intersection between the product, the company, and what the word “Vermont” represents that has helped Vermont Flannel grow, thrive, and nurture a dedicated worldwide customer base. “Vermont has become a worldwide brand itself, representing quality and a way of life,” he said. “Vermont Flannel has also been promoting this for close to 30 years. Vermont and flannel go together like bread and butter.”
Go into a Vermont Flannel store and customers aren’t just talking about the products, they talk about Vermont. “Our customers appreciate Vermont,” said Mark. “They come to our website or visit our stores and they talk about how much they love this state. We get so much positive reinforcement from our customers. Vermont is always a part of the conversation. They talk about how beautiful Vermont is and how much they enjoy visiting.”
“It’s the joy of actually seeing our employees make great things, to the joy I see when my employees are selling them, to the joy of our customers buying Vermont Flannels and coming back for more that makes this rewarding,” said Mark.
After almost 30 years running Vermont Flannel, Mark and Linda say it’s getting time to broaden their horizons, so they’re looking for a managing partner. “We’re not talking a corporate entity that will just spit us out, but someone with a vision who also loves the Vermont lifestyle.”
For Mark, it’s been that Vermont lifestyle that’s made all the difference in his life, personally and professionally, and it’s what helped make Vermont Flannel not only possible, but successful, too. “Thirty-five years ago, Linda and I bought and renovated an old farmhouse in East Barre to raise our three children,” said Mark. “Today, I look out my backyard and it’s beautiful. There is foliage, green fields, and I don’t have to fight traffic on my way to work. The overwhelming benefit to living and building a business in Vermont is worth any monetary advantage I may have gotten in another place.”