From Scratch: World Clothes Line

Mallory Brown graduated from college four years ago with a mission in mind: See as much of the world as she could.

She’d already studied abroad in France a year earlier. In fact, she graduated from Albion College a semester early so she could spend what would have been her last semester traveling. With a go-for-broke philosophy she added Thailand and Indonesia to her global itinerary. As soon as she got off the plane, however, she was struck by something most travel books fail to mention: people in those countries were desperate for something most Americans take for granted — clothing.

“People in other parts of the world use clothing for the actual purpose of clothing — to cover your body and provide protection,” she says. “Fashion isn’t really an issue at all.”

In fact, even in the middle of an Indonesian summer locals were wearing turtlenecks and sweaters because that was all they had. As a result, Brown ended up giving away almost everything she’d brought with her.

When she handed someone her tennis shoes, the person was in tears. “To see how much that meant to people, that stuck with me,” she says. A new mission began to take root in Brown’s mind: World Clothes Line.

The idea of running a philanthropic clothing donation organization had occurred to Brown early in her travels, but working out how to bring that idea to fruition was still a long way off. “I didn’t really expect to go out and start my own venture,” she says. “I think I needed an experience to decide I was going to go out on my own.”

With a degree in economics and management tucked under her belt, Brown settled in Farmington Hills and worked at Michigan Movie Magazine, a start-up publication focused on the emerging Michigan film industry. Her vacations centered  around low-budget backpacking trips, with South America next on the list. Backpacking in Costa Rica, Peru, and Brazil allowed her to experience these countries as a local would. It also reinforced her observation that access to clothing was a major issue for many.

“I found that clothing was a need that just wasn’t addressed, and it was a need that affected me personally,” she says. “I was continuously asked for my clothing.”

There are existing organizations for clean air — the Clean Air Initiative, which has programs for Nepal, India and China, among other countries — and food. (A Google search for “feed the hungry Africa” brings up World Vision, The Hunger Site, Feed the Hungry, Feed the Children, Food for the Hungry, and many more.) But finding an organization that provided clothing was proving a bit more difficult.

So Brown finally took the leap. In 2009 the branding strategy for World Clothes Line started to take shape. She quit her job and officially founded the company in January of 2010 — fully aware that she had a lot to learn about running a business, not to mention the clothing industry in general.

At first, Brown reached out to friends, specifically friends who had started the Ann Arbor screen printing company, CreateMyTee. She decided on an online store, because her mission was an international one, and she wanted to reach as many people as possible. After some personal fundraising, World Clothes Line’s website went live in September of last year.

Brown quickly realized that World Clothes Line was more than just a feel-good philanthropic organization, it was a business that needed to justify every choice it made. For example: World Clothes Line uses a “buy one, give one” business model; for each shirt or pair of pants purchased, an exact match is sent to the country for which it’s designated. Some asked: Why not just raise funds to send to people in need, or have a used clothing drive?

Brown explains that the “buy one, give one” model is tangible; instead of sending off dollars that get exchanged for food, customers are funding an actual article of clothing to be sent where it is needed. And recipients have the dignity of receiving a new piece of clothing.

“The t-shirt you’re receiving is the same as a t-shirt someone else is receiving, so it creates a bond between customer and recipient,” she explains.

Another challenge: Getting the t-shirts to their intended recipients. For now, at least, Brown packs a suitcase full of t-shirts, sweatshirts and sweatpants, and takes them on the plane with her — which is cheaper than shipping them. It’s an unconventional approach and not a responsibility she takes lightly. Brown knows her customers have to trust her, to know that she’s there to deliver clothing to the poor, not to have a luxurious vacation.

She keeps costs low by staying in hostels and using local transportation, and walking. A lot. “It’s really the flight that costs money,” she points out. “It’s cheap to live like a local. I’m not staying in five-star hotels.”

Plus, the in-person travels and delivery allows her to take the many photos and videos that appear on the World Clothes Line website. This allows her customers to establish a deeper relationship with the people to whom they’ve given a piece of clothing. “I think everyone sees the value in that, and they feel really connected,” she says.

Right now Brown is not only the company’s founder and CEO, she’s its only employee. It’s another strategy for keeping overhead costs down. It also means she’s the one who answers e-mail, maintains the website, and does all the grunt work.

And Brown really does deliver each and every garment. A tally on the site keeps track of the clothing as it’s allocated for a particular country. If you buy an item dedicated to Peru, an item just like that one will be taken to Peru. “You can decide where in the world you want your clothes given,” she says. “However many I sell up until the point of delivery is how many I take with me.”

Brown uses her contacts with guides from previous travels to Indonesia and Peru to determine who is most in need of clothing. They know the area well and can identify the most impoverished villages. For example, on their trip to Peru, her liaison thought the best place would be a village called Mesaconcha, in the Andes mountains. The area had been hit by a landslide right before the team had left for their trip. The villagers had been evacuated, but had lost all their possessions and were living in a refugee camp. They were still wearing the same clothes they had on when they fled Mesaconcha. The team ended up providing the villagers’ first change of clothes since the landslide.

David Benjamin, a local social media marketing expert, speaker, and member of The Hungry Dudes, is one of the hundreds of people who have purchased a few items from World Clothes Line. He’d met Brown first, helped work on an event benefiting World Clothes Line, and then purchased a sweatshirt and pair of sweatpants.

“I have bought a few items because I really like the clothes, but, more importantly, to support the humanitarian effort and support Mallory,” he says. “I would definitely purchase again and plan to do so as new items hit the market.”

“I think Mallory has an infectious personality and someone I want to support because she’s doing great things.”

Benjamin isn’t the only one who thinks Brown is doing great things, if a recent partnership is any indication. This summer, World Clothes Line teamed up with Moosejaw, an outdoor adventure outfitter that just happens to have its headquarters in Madison Heights, practically down the street from Brown. Together, they created a limited edition, co-branded t-shirt for Indonesia, which was sold at Moosejaw locations. The collaboration combined Moosejaw’s adventure aspect with World Clothes Line’s global mission.

Moosejaw’s creative director, Gary Wohlfeill, explained that although Moosejaw has collaborated with other organizations, such as Forgotten Harvest, “World Clothes Line was a bit different since we got to leverage both of our brands to create an amazing item with a built in ‘give-back value’ that inspired customers. …To be able to include our customers in the ownership of doing something good is the best thing we can think of.”

While trips to Peru and Indonesia are exotic and fun, Brown hasn’t forgotten that there are many needy people much closer by. She’s already distributed about 250 items of clothing to people in Detroit, through the Young Detroit Builders  and through a regular Saturday barbecue and food distribution program in the Cass Corridor on Saturdays.

Brown’s first major trip is currently in the works. She expects she’ll bring more than 1,000 articles of clothing to Indonesia.

“We launched with Indonesia as one of the countries, so we’ve been accumulating items over the year,” she says. For the t-shirt, the Moosejaw collaboration, she chose a design of the Gili Islands, a set of islands that are somewhat removed from the normal tourist destinations. There are three islands in a row; the group is targeting the first and second and hoping to still have enough for everyone on the third.

“My goal is to give every local on those islands a new outfit of clothes,” she says. Considering that the cheapest item of clothing is a t-shirt, at $28, and World Clothes line has sold at least 1,600 items, that’s $45,000, at the very minimum worth of clothing, being distributed to those in need.

So, what’s next for World Clothes Line? After all, Brown admits she didn’t expect it to be so successful so quickly, with orders coming in from all over the world. Brown would like to offer a wider variety of clothing items such as hats, socks, gloves, and coats. She also wants to add another country, probably somewhere in Central America. And she’s planning on her next domestic delivery to be somewhere in Appalachia; although it’s an area she admits she’s never visited.

Does the company’s rapid growth and early success indicate that World Clothes Line is actually filling a niche?

Brown certainly hopes so. “I think it shows that people want to help,” she says. “I think that everyone is striving to do more, and give more, and become a better person.”

Kristin Lukowski is a Detroit-based freelance writer.