Northsiders to Know: Evan Toporek
A Decision Maker
written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photography courtesy of ALTERNATIVE APPAREL
AS CEO OF A GLOBAL corporation, the most challenging decision Alternative Apparel’s Evan Toporek made to date was in May 2015 when he chose to move their Los Angeles, Calif. outpost under the same roof as the Atlanta office. While Toporek’s team did what they could to help those employees find other places to work, jobs and investments in people were lost.
There was authenticity in Toporek’s voice when he recalled it to me, just as there was lightness when he talked about the company’s family atmosphere, including 10 dogs lounging by desks outside his door or an employee’s baby shower happening the same day.
The revamped, Norcross headquarters for this stylish and sustainable basics brand is hidden within an unassuming building, tucked just a few miles from I-85. I first met Toporek there for a tour shortly after the move. Once inside, I could sense the palpable buzz of creativity in the air and left with mental notes of how I would design my own dream office space (yoga break room, anyone?). I was also reminded how little details often make the biggest difference.
Sure, there are a few magazine covers with national titles and A-list celebrities clothed in Alternative framed near the front door to the showroom, but more striking is the chalkboard wall in the café packed with written messages such as, “Do it with passion or not at all.”
This is a common thread that has tied to the company’s mission since day one. It’s an aesthetic that brings to life “less is more.” When Alternative first started in Atlanta 21 years ago, they set out to replicate the perfectly broken-in softness of a thrift store tee, but with high-quality, innovative materials – environmentally friendly fabrics, organic cotton and low-impact dyes. The brand continues to exist in the sweet spot of staying ahead of its time, yet remaining timeless. For example, their “Rocky” hoodie pays tribute to the 1976 film classic and the way its title character’s iconic, nondescript hoodie became synonymous with hard knocks and hard work ethic, cementing its prominence in mainstream culture.
Following an industrial engineering degree from Georgia Tech Institute of Technology and five years in the consulting world, Toporek came on board with the company in 1998. He served as chief operating officer and president before his 2011 appointment to CEO.
“I’m a third generation garmento. My father and grandfather owned a camouflage clothing company and military fatigues company, respectively, so I guess it was in my blood,” Toporek said.
Proximity to and the number of direct flights from Hartsfield-Jackson have also been key to their success, Toporek shared. There’s also a lower cost of living compared to California or New York, yet an emerging creative class that rivals these bigger markets.
“Atlanta seems to be the perfect intersection of opportunity,” he said. “There is a deep pool of talent, spanning the range from design to finance. We don’t need to pay recruiters and we don’t need to relocate when we hire.”
Within the last year, they’ve partnered with SanMar, the largest imprintable sportswear supplier as well as new-age, digital delivery retailers like Stitch Fix and have started rolling out their trademarked Basics Bar at Bloomingdale’s, with a dozen or so different silhouettes in many colors that are constantly refreshed.
Today’s younger shoppers may relate more to the 2012 stir that a hoodie caused when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg chose to don one while meeting with Wall Street investors ahead of the initial public offering. Whether or not Zuckerberg meant to make a fashion statement, Alternative continues to play with the concept that their staples give consumers a choice to identify as a non-conformist.
Thinking out of the box, as a start-up must, is something Toporek embraces – both for his own business, and for a varied mix of others including Unify Water, Point 3 Basketball, Babiators and UGallery for which he sits on the advisory boards.
“I love the resourcefulness of start ups,” he said. He is frequently contacted by other entrepreneurs and aims to have at least a lunch a week, encouraging the opportunity to be externally focused and get his brain picked. For someone with a schedule as busy as his, it’s disarming that Toporek’s demeanor is as laid-back as his attire. As he walked me through aisle after aisle of stories-tall shelves packed with cardboard-boxed inventory in the warehouse, I truly started to get a hint at Alternative’s scope.
But for Toporek, clear perspective comes when traveling abroad. Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), an independent, nonprofit team of global social compliance experts, certifies many of the factories they work with. Recently, he visited one of their most productive factories, located in the Dominican Republic.
“To see 800 factory workers, all making our products, earning fair wages, in a great working environment, you realize the work we are doing is positively impacting more than just our 125 employees. It’s helping sustain many communities around the world.”
When not traveling for work, Toporek said he likes to catch flights for fun. He recently visited Jackson Hole, Wyo. for a family vacation and Maine for a kayaking excursion with his wife. Around town, you might catch him cheering on Georgia Tech football and coaching his kids’ teams. You might also spot him at Ponce City Market this holiday season, where Alternative is popping up a shop starting this month.
“Please come see us and see if you love what we do as much as we love what we do,” he said.
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