When Vapor Apparel announced plans this January to establish its first U.S. manufacturing facility in Union County—a $1.3-million investment expected to create more than 110 jobs over the next five years—people took notice. This is, after all, a company that began in a Mount Pleasant garage just 11 years ago. But under the leadership of co-founders Jackson Burnett and Christopher Bernat, the manufacturer of performance apparel (think T-shirts, rash guards, and cycling jerseys), bulk fabrics, and accessories (such as bandanas, socks, and fleece scarves) has grown by leaps and bounds. “When we started out, our focus was simply on making high-quality, undecorated shirts for sublimation manufacturers,” says Bernat, who serves as Vapor Apparel’s chief revenue officer. “They’d then take our products and print designs on them to meet their own specifications.”
About five years ago, when New Balance and other brands asked them to start doing the printing, Burnett, a former textile management major at Clemson, and Bernat, who had years of experience in the digital-ink and technology market, jumped at the chance to expand their business. That step forward was accompanied by Vapor Apparel’s entry into e-commerce, and now, many of its products can easily be found on Amazon and other online retailers.
Additionally, through its distribution network, the company sells its shirts and accessories in dynamic markets such as Canada, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean, as well as right here in the U.S. And its customers run the gamut from the manufacturers it’s served since the beginning to event presenters, such as the Cooper River Bridge Run, to partners selling its two brands, Altered Latitudes (featuring coastal lifestyle art on fabric that offers sun protection and moisture wicking) and Meridian Line (an outdoors line sold by entities ranging from Backcountry.com to dozens of National Park retailers). “One of the fastest-growing parts of our business is working with specialty retailers such as Half-Moon Outfitters to grow their brands with our SPF protection garments,” says Burnett. Vapor Apparel has twice been named one of the state’s top 25 fastest-growing companies by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. “Our growth last year was in excess of 35 percent, and this year has gotten off to a similarly promising start,” Bernat says.
But Burnett and Bernat don’t want to just do business; they’ve always wanted to do business right. After considerable research, the firm farmed out much of its manufacturing to Colombia, as the South American country generates most of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources, principally hydro- and geothermal electricity. Since 2007, the company has utilized an eco-friendly yarn called Repreve®, made from 100-percent recycled materials, to create an athletic top called the “Vapor Eco” for customers focused on sustainability. And when Vapor Apparel outgrew its 2,200-square-foot space in the Navy Yard at Noisette, it expanded to a 22,000-square-foot, LEED-certified headquarters that continues to house its production facility and warehouse.
The announcement of the company’s new 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Union County—a complement to its North Charleston operation—is adding more manufacturing back here at home. It follows Vapor Apparel’s decision to launch a line of custom cut-and-sew services. “We’ll now be literally cutting the fabric and sewing it together domestically,” Burnett says.
“Our decision to expand is directly tied to the new services we’re offering,” he continues. “Our experience over the past two years has proven the market is growing, and having the facility close at hand gives us more control, more flexibility, and the ability to manufacture more sophisticated garments. At the same time, it’s also a reflection of what’s going on in the larger society. People want things customized to their specifications, and our new facility will better enable us to do that.”