When Sue Burns’ husband Kevin accidentally shrank her wool sweaters in the wash 20 years ago, she had no idea that their laundry mishap would be the catalyst for growing a creatively satisfying, financially robust business in Leelanau County. Unable to throw away her favorite garments, she cut and resewed the fabrics into colorful hats, jackets and sweaters for her two young daughters. When friends, acquaintances and even strangers asked where she’d gotten them, she realized she had the beginnings of a promising niche in the fiber arts market. Thus Baabaazuzu — the name combines the sound of a sheep with Sue’s nickname “Zuzu” — was born.
The couple had moved from Grand Rapids to Leland in 1987 to operate the Riverside Inn, an enterprise which, while successful, was intensely hectic during the short summer months, and all too quiet in the long off-season.
“It was hard, with every summer weekend being really busy, and having young kids at home,” Kevin Burns said. By 1993, they were ready to sell the Inn, and were brainstorming ways to be able to remain in the county — “and make a living!” he laughed — doing something different than restaurant work or other traditional tourism-related enterprises.
With the early positive feedback from their children’s clothing, and growing interest in adult-sized versions, they moved into women’s apparel and accessories, whose market is much more widespread. In those heady, pre-Internet days, they attended trade shows, worked art fairs and approached boutique owners face-to-face to show their high quality, eclectic wool products, which included not only hats and jackets, but vests, mittens and sweaters. They quickly outgrew the family basement as well, moving first to two buildings in the village of Lake Leelanau, then to their current location 12 years ago at a former sawmill on Schomberg Rd.
The Burns’ story is remarkable not only in terms of their own trajectory, but also because they purposefully have followed practices throughout the evolution of their business that create win-win solutions for others as well. Whether you call them early adopters of the local movement, “paying it forward” fans, or sustainability proponents, their principles call to mind the saying, “Think globally, act locally.” (As an interesting aside, the adage is thought to originate with Scottish-born biologist Sir Patrick Geddes. His 1915 book Cities in Evolution expounded visionary ideas about regionalism, city planning and sociology that influenced, among others, historian, philosopher and architectural critic Lewis Mumford.)
The couple was able to take two business loans totaling $25,000 from the Leelanau County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), allowing them to create their products more efficiently and expand their business, taking it from a home-based craft operation to an award-winning, annual million-dollar business today.
“The loans really helped us,” says Kevin. “We were able to buy equipment: a custom-built, energy-efficient washer and dryer we ordered from Germany. It keeps the water super-hot [for felting the wool textiles], and dries them in about 15 minutes.” Another machine die-cuts the pattern pieces, saving not only time but also fabric — they used to be individually cut with hand scissors, a tiring, labor-intensive step that resulted in pieces being slightly smaller or larger than their corresponding parts.
“It [the loans] really helped us grow,” Sue concurred. “We heard they [the county commissioners] are thinking of ending the loan program, and we’re against that.”
[The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners voted, 6-1, in mid-June to disband the EDC following several contentious weeks of self-inflicted wounds and bad press. (The lone vote in favor of the EDC came from Carolyn Rentenbach, who represents Glen Arbor, Empire and Cleveland townships.) Three commissioners gave public comments that indicated they weren’t interested in job growth in Leelanau County (even though unemployment is at 8.8 percent, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle); they rejected a future partnership with the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corp., and one commissioner’s husband sought out and assaulted a Record-Eagle reporter. — Editor.]
Sue and Kevin Burns later consolidated their loans through a local lender, Huntington Bank, a move that allowed them to accelerate their repayment to the EDC, thus making the funds available to other small business owners.
“It was really important to us that the money stayed in this area,” she said.
Baabaazuzu is all about community connections. Although they’re a family business, their daughter Hillary joined them professionally only a couple of years ago. The digital marketing major from Grand Valley State University brought a wealth of new approaches to spreading the word about the company, as well as the family eye for fine design.
“But she had to apply for the job,” Sue laughed. “She even put together a presentation!”
“And I got to return to the county,” Hillary said.
Lindsay Farrell has been office manager for about two years; the Traverse City resident said she too is grateful to have a permanent, full-time job that she loves, and that allows her to remain in this area.
The company employs between 12 to 16 men and women in their Lake Leelanau facility. They not only perform the physical tasks to make the company’s product line, but also provide creative imput. Another eight jobs are outsourced to a Benzie County small business, and Baabaazuzu contracts with Traverse City-based Goodwill Industries, providing paid work for mentally or physically challenged employees who put liners into the pieced mitten shells. The phosphate-free, ecologically formulated soap used to wash incoming fabric is manufactured by Selestial Soap in Traverse City, and Baabaazuzu’s packaging and marketing materials are, naturally, as recycled as their textiles.
“We even reuse cardboard boxes as drawers,” Sue said, pulling out one of the many sturdy produce boxes that line the shelves at their manufacturing and retail space.
The term “upcycling” wasn’t even coined when Sue and Kevin started buying old wool sweaters from thrift stores in the early 1990s.
“When we would say ‘used clothing,’ some of our [prospective] clients would go, ‘No, no!’” she laughed, waving her hands comically in front of her. Baabaazuzu now buys about 1,000 pounds of the now-trendy “upcycled” material a month from textile salvagers, who in turn purchased the unwanted clothing at those same thrift stores. And it’s not just the thousands of pounds of fabric that their business saves from the landfill each year, or the buttons that embellish their products. They also repurpose books of upholstery and other samples from interior designers and others, as well as vintage tablecloths and fabrics.
One of their biggest challenges came when the economy tanked in 2010. “We had been going about 50-50 in summer and winter,” Kevin said, noting that creating enough product to meet their client demand takes time and resources. Unlike large manufacturers in Third World countries, whose nearly throwaway clothing can be churned out in a short period by ill-paid workers, a small, United States-based clothing company must plan ahead, meet higher quality standards, and pay workers a living wage. Ironically, Sue said, Baabaazuzu frequently finds — and reuses — these throwaway textiles in their salvaged bales: “Look, another American Eagle sweater!”
“People got more nervous about spending with the [down] economy, and their buying habits changed,” Kevin noted. They responded by expanding into menswear and accessories last fall, and this spring, they launched cotton-weight apparel for women. Sue showed off a pieced headband she was wearing. Dresses, skirts, handbags and totes, made from remnants of men’s shirting, offer a vintage vibe and urban chic, part of the identifiable visual signature of the company. They also redesigned their logo and website, to keep their look fresh and accessible.
Another continuing challenge is the imitators, whose knock-off products appear with some regularity. Yet they see this as an opportunity to showcase the high quality and designs of their own work.
“We’re always staying ahead of them,” Sue explained. “People do notice the difference. We’re in places like the Smithsonian’s gift shop, the Detroit Institute of Arts, national parks stores like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone. We’re in 900 retailers in the U.S., about eight in Japan, one in Korea, another in Australia — so far. We’d like to do more in other countries.”
Their facility off Schomberg Rd. also now hosts a retail space. Like everything else at Baabaazuzu, the repurposed lumber kiln building now features recycled gymnasium flooring from a Harbor Springs school, bought at Odom’s ReUse in Grawn.
“We don’t totally depend on regular traffic – we do a lot on the Internet … it’s easier to exist.
We’re making a go of it in the county,” Sue said.
The 20-year transition from a seasonal, feast-or-famine business/economy based on tourism (Leelanau’s other big, traditional output is agriculture) to a permanent, year-round, sustainable business has taken Baabaazuzu a lot of determination, as well as a creative eye, innovative business practices, and strong community support — and a whole lot of laundry loads. Their tag line says it all: “Do you zuzu?” For Sue and Kevin Burns, the answer is emphatically yes.
This story is part of a year-long series in the Glen Arbor Sun about the positive impact of local economic development in Leelanau County.