ND Founders Profile #95: This FouNDer Is Building a Fashion Brand Where Doing Good Is as Important as Looking Good

Author: Melanie Lux

Nd Founders Square Photofbweb


Company Founded: Fox & Robin Year Graduated: 2016
Title: Founder Degree: BBA, Finance
Location: Chicago, IL Residence Hall: Alumni Hall

From the day he stepped on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in 2012, Tommy Flaim knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. His dream was not to be a tech unicorn, finding a cure for cancer or making piles of money. No, his vision was different. He wanted to start a fashion brand.

Flaim’s friends got a chuckle out of that one; he’s not known for his fashion sense. But looking good wasn’t the driver of his dream. Doing good was. He was intent on addressing the dark side of the global fashion industry seldom discussed out loud. Low wages. Long hours. Verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Child labor. Forced labor. Issues the world’s largest and most prestigious brands treat with a blind eye. And so, in a premeditated way, he used his years at Notre Dame and his early professional career on Wall Street to prepare to be a force for good.

Flaim lays out the very complicated, non-glitzy side of fashion that captured his attention. “The fashion industry creates a tremendous number of jobs producing fabric and clothing. These jobs are mostly offshored to low-cost countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and China. While jobs help alleviate poverty, it’s a double-edged sword. There’s constant pressure from fashion brands to keep labor costs low and turn merchandise out fast. Factories, desperate for the business of western brands, turn to unethical business practices to keep up with customers’ unrealistic demands.”

He pauses before continuing. “Here’s an example. Brand X asks its partner factory abroad to make 10,000 shirts very quickly and at unreasonably low prices. To meet these pressures, the factory subcontracts a portion of the order to a sketchy factory down the road that forces its workers to work crazy hours in inhumane conditions. As long as the brands get their 10,000 shirts in a timely manner and at the price they demanded, they don’t really care if their partner factory made the shirts or the sketchy factory down the road did. Ignorance is bliss, right? It’s only when workers are abused like what happened with Lululemon at a plant in Bangladesh in 2019 or a factory catches fire and people are killed that these humanitarian issues come to light. The question is, why have these problems existed for so long with no solution?”

To Flaim, these are issues worth trying to solve as the room for impact is enormous. “I wanted then and continue to want to be now an advocate for those currently without a voice in the room, the workers.”

Notre Dame was the first stop in Flaim’s entrepreneurial journey. For the native of Clifton Park, a town in Upstate, New York, Notre Dame was his top choice for college. “Everyone I knew who had gone to Notre Dame was obsessed with the school and gave it rave reviews. The undergraduate business school was among the best in the country. I wanted to work on Wall Street so that weighed heavily in my decisions,” he explains.

With a laugh he adds, “I’m Irish, I’m Catholic and I love sports!”

True to his plan, Flaim majored in Finance. During his sophomore year, he joined a team called Reading for Life competing in the annual McCloskey New Venture Competition sponsored by Notre Dame’s IDEA Center. Reading for Life was a social impact startup that used enhanced literacy as an alternative to community service for juvenile offenders. Flaim’s role on the team was exploring how Reading for Life could utilize social impact bonds to expand. The team won the Klau Family Award for Greatest Social Impact in the 2014 McCloskey Competition.

The experience fueled Flaim’s personal vision. After graduation, and true to his plan, he headed to Wall Street. The next four-and-a-half years were spent working in investment banking with Citi, Jet.com and Viacom, laying a foundation for the future. “I learned to like coffee,” he jokes. “The hours were long, but it taught me how to operate in corporate America. I learned finance and accounting. I worked on a lot of mergers and acquisitions, so I learned how to value companies. Finally, I learned the language of investors. All of this would give me the credibility I needed to launch my own company.”  

While at Notre Dame, Flaim founded a social entrepreneurship and impact investing club, Unleashed, to further explore  his interest in using business as a tool to fight the social and environmental ailments of the world. One of the more fundamental differences of Fox & Robin versus other fashion brands is that they are a Certified B Corp. To ingrain “doing good” into the DNA of the company, he registered Fox & Robin as a benefit corporation rather than a C Corp. Unlike a traditional corporation where profit is the number one priority, B Corps are legally obligated to optimize for a triple bottom line of social, financial and environmental impact. For Flaim and his fashion startup, that meant doing right by factory workers and the environment. Nearly all fashion brands are C Corps, meaning they legally exist to optimize for profits.

Starting a B Corp in the fashion industry would take some doing. Flaim found inspiration in one of his favorite brands. “Patagonia has built a great reputation with consumers for its environmental and social causes. That message is out front on everything they do. Each year they commit one percent of their sales to preserving and restoring the natural environment and being ethical across their business. Their customers  love them for it.”

Thus inspired, Flaim began the hard work of creating Fox & Robin, a task that included naming the company. For that, he turned to the story of Robin Hood, a character who stood up for what is right and for those without a voice. “I really liked the animated version of Robin Hood, where a fox played Robin. So that’s where the fox comes from,” he explains.

Flaim was committed to the idea of being the only activewear company in the world to disclose the wages paid to its factory workers, no small feat. For many, it would be close to impossible to do so even if they wanted. “It’s probably impossible for large corporations like Nike to retroactively go back and reengineer their supply chains for transparency. They are too complex, too ingrained.”

From the beginning, Flaim set a high bar for paying competitive wages and establishing transparency with his manufacturing partners. He was able to identify ethical manufacturers in China and Jordan by networking with freelance fashion designers who worked with Lululemon, Ralph Lauren, and Under Armour who could design clothing for him but also connect him with the right manufacturers. Today, Flaim publishes the wages paid to Fox & Robin’s offshore manufacturing workforce on its website.

To ensure his partners are true to their word, Flaim has a third-party auditor that monitors the practices of the three plants. This includes visits to the factories in advance of Fox & Robin production runs and random audits. No subcontracting is allowed. While all of this has taken a concerted effort, Flaim wonders why more brands don’t demand more of their overseas manufacturing partners. “While costs vary, wages for production workers are usually less than 3% of the price consumer’s pay for their clothes. Increasing wages shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Patagonia proved it can be done and still have competitively priced clothing. We’re doing it now with Fox & Robin.”

Fair wages and supply chain transparency is just part of the Fox & Robin equation. The company has committed to donating one percent of its sales to non-governmental organizations to help protect the environment and replenish the resources the company uses. Flaim has enlisted world-renowned conservationist Forrest Galante to help select beneficiaries. Finally, Fox & Robin mitigates its carbon footprint by carbon-offsetting shipments to customers and using plastic-free packaging. If all of this sounds like a tall order for a startup, it is. But Flaim is making it work.

Flaim initially bootstrapped Fox & Robin using savings from his Wall Street days. This required that he streamline his lifestyle. “When my apartment lease came up in New York City, I let it go and moved back home with my parents. This kept my overhead low. Mom liked having me back in the nest but was concerned that I’d quit a great job and had no income or health insurance. She’s very risk averse.”

Flaim kept plugging. During this time, he started a crowdfunding round on Kickstarter to introduce the brand, launch a limited men’s product line to gauge customer interest and get money flowing into the kitty. His mother kept tabs, regularly asking, “Did you get any donations today?”

He smiles at the memory. “She didn’t really understand what I was doing.”

Flaim supplemented his Kickstarter with a friends and family round. His parents invested $1,000 as did many friends from Notre Dame. He also secured investments from professional athletes and former reality show star Connor Saeli of the Bachelorette. In June 2021, he moved his base of operations to Chicago.

As Fox & Robin gained more traction, Flaim began a pre-seed round in May 2021 with the goal of raising $600,000. With the help of Chisos Capital, he succeeded in raising $200,000. After a short pause, the seed round was reactivated in late January 2022 with the goal of engaging angel investing groups and closing the round by March 2022.

Although Fox & Robin expects to quadruple revenue in 2022, the raise will provide capital necessary to explore new growth channels, launch new products, and hire a chief branding officer.

“That last one is a top priority,” Flaim says. “We don’t have a big ad budget. We don’t pay celebrity endorsers or influencers other than advocates using their own networks. There are many other things we can do cost effectively that we need help with such as email, social media, and other touchpoints to build the brand and win customers. We don’t want to leave anything on the table.”

Fox & Robin did a soft launch on the Internet in  December 2019, slightly before the global pandemic lockdowns. The broader public launch came in August 2021. During the pandemic, the original men’s line of men’s shorts was expanded to include joggers, hoodies, and athletic tees. Next, a women’s line was added with a full complement of tights, sports bras, cropped hoodies, joggers, and tops. With more people working from home and shifting wardrobe choices from suits and dresses to comfy wear, Fox & Robin’s timing was perfect. Joggers quickly became the company’s best-selling product for men and women.

Through it all, Flaim has tinkered with the website’s visuals and messaging to find the right balance of conveying social benefits and product information. Customer education is critical to differentiate the brand and win hearts. The site features real people, many of them Notre Dame alumni, rather than professional models. The most recent iteration, which went live January 24, uses humor to convey that Fox & Robin is a brand for everyone with an interest in health and fitness. Says Flaim, “Not everyone aspires to be a professional athlete. After all, sports are games. When it comes to working out and staying active, we have a you-do-you mentality.”

The biggest challenge Flaim has faced to date has been convincing consumers to switch from familiar, powerhouse brands like Lululemon and Nike to a little-known startup just starting to make its presence known. “The initial purchase is the most difficult as it’s hard for consumers to take the leap. But when they try Fox & Robin clothing, know the story and experience the quality, they stay. Our customer retention is four times that of other brands. Customer testimonials  and word-of-mouth have largely fueled our growth thus far,” Flaim explains.

The biggest win has been Fox & Robin’s expansion into bricks and mortar retail. As an omnichannel brand that sells direct to consumers online and through retail channels, Flaim has been reaching out to yoga studios, running stores, and fitness-oriented retailers whose clients want quality workout wear. The strategy is paying off. Fox & Robin is currently in 36 locations and adding new retailers every week. “It’s a big win for us and them. They appreciate our focus on ethical sourcing. Fox & Robin gives them something different for their shoppers the big box stores don’t have, something important to a lot of people.”

Flaim offers this advice to others that want to start a company but may not know where to start: Just do it. “People tend to be very cerebral and focused on their business plan, but this is a trial-and-error process. Throw things at the wall and see what sticks. My first line had a men’s dress shirts and I ended up dropping them. Experimenting is part of the process. Just have a passion for what you’re doing and solve an issue you care about.”