Daniel Shapiro has spent his entire career in fashion. After spending his formative years in St. Louis, he lived in the Bay Area for a decade and worked allocation for The Gap. A switch to American Eagle brought him to Pittsburgh for a few years before he settled in New York City.
It was a pipe dream of Shapiro’s to have his own apparel brand, and in August 2016 that dream was realized when he launched Fourlaps. The high-style collection of athletic wear for men takes inspiration from vintage Ivy League sportswear with clean, simple designs.
Shapiro spoke with Crain’s about moving away from the corporate world and starting his own business, developing Fourlaps and what makes his product stand out above the rest.
Q: How did your previous work experiences lead you to Fourlaps?
A: As a kid and in college I was very interested in consumer behavior. I worked for this startup that did a lot of work for retailers and at the time I thought I wanted to start my own brand. But a close family friend said, “You really need to get some experience before you start an apparel brand.” So that’s what I did.
While I was in Pittsburgh [with American Eagle], I got really into working out. I felt like there was a lack of great athletic apparel on the market that was inspired by style and had clean lines. I felt that everything was very over-designed with tons of logos and neon. It was just kind of crazy. That’s when I started thinking about starting an athletic apparel company. But then The Gap changed their structure and there was a very big job [available] in New York. I interviewed with them for awhile and they offered me the job.
The person that hired me left four months after I started working there and I had one of the more challenging work experiences of my career. It was hard personally and professionally. So after about a year I left. I went on a trip to Australia and New Zealand to kind of decompress. I came back and thought pretty hard about what I wanted to do. I was interviewing for jobs, [and I actually] got a big job at a company and ended up turning it down to start Fourlaps.
Q: Did you feel like you had enough experience then and were ready to drop out of the corporate world to be an entrepreneur?
A: I think that you are never ready. And I think that the reason why there are so many young entrepreneurs is because it’s almost like ignorance is bliss. The less you know, the less you have to worry about. I do think there’s a benefit of me having over ten years of experience in corporate retail.
Q: Was there anything in particular that made you want to leave corporate life and not take another big job?
A: Yes. What I realized is there’s no easy path to success. I had what looked like on paper to be this great job and it turned out to be a really hard experience. What I realized was that the time was ripe for me to start [Fourlaps] because at that point I kind of had nothing to lose. I had this great idea and it was time to take the risk. Because ultimately, I had taken this job that should have been a low-risk job and it ended up being really hard and not what I thought it was going to be.
Q: What mistakes did you make while trying to get Fourlaps off the ground?
A: The biggest mistake that I made was not trusting my gut. One of the hardest things when you’re starting an apparel company is finding a manufacturer. Through networking I was given the name of a production consultant in New York. I met with her a couple times and didn’t have a great feeling about her—very pushy and very brash and brazen, and very over confident. I basically didn’t have any other options. But that is not a reason to choose someone, that you don’t have any other options. You can always find another option.
But I went with it. She had promised to do all these things, and we’re going through the development process and things are just not right. We’re five months in and she’s blaming my designer and she’s saying that it’s taking longer and she’s going to charge me more money and finally I got to a point and said, “Have you been to the factory?” She said no.
So I got on a plane and I went over there and I basically uncovered that [it was] a factory that made simple woven pajamas for large value players. They had never worked with the materials that I was working with.
Months went by and we were negotiating and a day before they were supposed to transfer the goods, we found out they had cut all the fabric into patterns that I hadn’t approved. And I had to start from scratch. I lost everything. I subsequently found out that at least six other people had very similar stories and in many cases had lost a lot more than I had lost.
Q: If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would you say?
A: I would have trusted my gut. And when I had a bad feeling about this woman, I would have looked for someone else. But I also don’t like to live with regret, and I think everything happens for a reason. So beating myself up over the decision isn’t going to get me anywhere.
Q: Are there any lessons you learned during your corporate days that you carried over into Fourlaps?
A: I think one of the biggest lessons I learned and what made me successful in corporate America was my passion around delivering great product and being maniacal about product. I think product is so important to being a successful brand.
Q: How do you stand out in the massive market of accessible, economical activewear? What makes people look at Fourlaps?
A: It started with the great product and the colors. It’s very different from everything that’s on the market right now. I think we’ve gotten some really good press and people pay attention to that. We had a full-page feature in the January issue of GQ, and that was a game-changer. When they say we’re their new favorite brand, people pay attention to that. It was a very good thing for the brand.
Q: What have you found is the hardest part of being your own boss and becoming an entrepreneur?
A: Focus is challenging. You have to be able to focus. There’s nobody telling you what to focus on, so that’s a huge thing. But it’s important that you take mental breaks because taking a break helps you become more productive.
Q: Do have any plans to expand into women’s activewear?
A: Women’s wear is on the radar but I think we need to get the men’s wear right first. I started a men’s athletic apparel brand because I felt like that’s where the white space was and that’s where the need was in the market. And I want to conquer that before I move into women’s.
The tagline of the brand is "Start Before You’re Ready." And as an entrepreneur, if you wait for that perfect moment, it just won’t present itself. You’re never quite ready to do what you need to do and you just have to go for it.
Follow Fourlaps on Twitter at @Fourlaps