Students create clothing line to represent the Midwest

A U alumnus co-founded a clothing company inspired by lakefront life.
University alumni Spencer Barrett and close friend David Burke co-founded Great Lakes, a clothing brand on Midwestern lifestyle. The company launched last October and includes items such as T-shirts, hats, belts and koozies.
September 17, 2013

Spencer Barrett was studying marketing at the University of Minnesota in 2011 when he got a call from his best friend David Burke.

Burke was in South Carolina for a lacrosse tournament with the University of St. Thomas when he noticed region-specific clothing brands at the local shops. But Burke, an Edina native, noticed one region wasn’t represented — his.

The two founded Great Lakes, an apparel company created to be the “premier brand” of the Midwest later that year and launched the website in 2012.

Barrett and Burke reached their Kickstarter goal Friday and will receive more than $20,000 to expand their clothing line.

The Hopkins-based company features T-shirts, belts, hats, sunglass fasteners known as “croakies” and can koozies — all adorned with its blue loon logo. 

“We thought it was about time the Midwest had a clothing company that could represent them,” said Barrett, who graduated from the Carlson School of Management in 2013.

Great Lakes has 29 student ambassadors at nine different schools.

Business and marketing senior Samuel Clark, one of these representatives, said he tries to promote the company with sponsored events and product giveaways on campus. Clark isn’t paid, but he said he receives free Great Lakes items from time to time based on his performance.

All Great Lakes products are American-made, and 1 percent of the profits from each product go to preserving lakes in Minnesota via two organizations: Conservation Minnesota and Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes made $60,000 this year.

“We know it’s a drop in the bucket, but we knew we had to do something,” Barrett said. “It felt like it was our duty if we were going to represent the Midwest.”

Launching pad

As of publication Monday night, Great Lakes had amassed 289 backers pledging $21,402 on the fundraising website Kickstarter, surpassing the company’s $20,000 goal.

“It’s relieving,” Barrett said. “We were confident we were going to hit it, but after you hit it you can take a deep breath.”

Investments from family and friends initially launched Great Lakes. The three key investors were David’s father, grandfather and family friend and University alumnus Paul Karos.

“This is risky, like any startup venture,” said Karos, senior portfolio manager at Whitebox Mutual Funds. “They’ve identified a brand gap in the apparel industry, and I’m betting they can figure out how to produce a brand people will want.”

The Great Lakes duo wants to start producing button-up shirts, swimwear, fleece jackets, sweaters and a more extensive women’s line.

Larger office space and a storefront are also in the early planning stages.

Barrett said the Uptown area by the lakes is the ideal location for the inaugural Great Lakes store.

Karos also serves as the company’s principal advisor and mentor. He said the No. 1 hurdle for Great Lakes will be a congested clothing market.

“Whenever you have a startup company, you are first investing in the people,” Karos said. “I trust them.”

Summer inspiration

Barrett and Burke said Great Lakes’ clothes are inspired by time spent at cabins during their childhoods.

Lynn Barrett, Spencer Barrett’s mother, said their days at the cabin were filled with beaches, burgers and boats.

“We would go up the minute school ended in May and stay the whole summer,” she said.

With no technology and only family, Lynn Barrett said the time spent on the lakefront was meant to instill a sense of priorities.

After graduating from Edina High School together in 2009, the two were separated in college, but Barrett and Burke were able to stay in touch by spending summers together.

“Some of the best times in my life were spending the summers at my cabin,” Spencer Barrett said.

Lynn Barrett said the clothing line pays homage to the boys’ upbringing.

“This is their expression of that lifestyle, and that’s great,” she said. “It makes me feel proud as a mom to see their sense of appreciation for the time spent with family at the lake.”

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