Building a clothing brand over the past decade has been like watching an art piece come to life, said Ryan Tanner Mueller, the man behind one of Kansas City’s most quietly successful apparel ventures.
“I’ve always been influenced by a brutalist, minimalist-blend of streetwear and sportswear. Around the time we launched, the fashion trends were a lot of bright colors and flashy designs. We were focusing on minimalism, which is what a lot of branding has moved toward over the past 10 years,” said Mueller, the founder of Alpha Clothing — which is set to rebrand to ACI in early 2023.
Click here to check out AC1.
Officially launched in 2012, AC1 was created out of Mueller’s frustration in not being able to find quality athletic apparel while still supporting small businesses, he recalled. Studying entrepreneurship at University of Missouri-Kansas City at the time, Mueller decided to build the business himself.
“I started with about $3,600, which was all the money I had at the time,” Mueller said. “I wired it over to a factory in China, not knowing if I’d ever see it again. And then I immediately started hitting people up on Instagram and YouTube asking if they would be sponsors and create sponsored content.”
For Mueller and AC1, influencer marketing — paying individuals to wear and post about a product — proved successful in forming a loyal following of customers, he said.
“By 2016, we had gained a significant increase in Instagram followers,” Mueller noted, referencing the brand’s 125,000 followers on Instagram.
AC1’s returning customers rate has been about 67 percent year over year, Mueller continued, noting that a majority of its customers have been excited to support new clothing releases. Creating a devoted community was never part of a scaling strategy in AC1’s earlier days, Mueller admitted; rather, he and his young team were having fun creating something new.
“Our mission from Day 1 was to be more of a lifestyle company with a message,” Mueller explained. “Because not only could we sell products, but we could make it our own message. With every order, we sent out a card about us and our definition of what it means to be ‘Alpha.’ For women, men, anyone, Alpha was about being a good person and doing the right thing; having integrity and taking control when it comes to hard times. … I think our customers really like that intention and care. Taking care of our customers is something we pride ourselves on.”
Trials and tribulations
The same word that built a community has also been one of the business’ biggest hurdles in scaling, Mueller said.
“It took us a very long time to get a registered trademark for the word ‘Alpha,’ and we had a lot of accounts faking our company,” he noted. “So if you Googled ‘Alpha Clothing’ in 2017, images and ads of our products would come up, but it wouldn’t be us. Most of our customer service inquiries were people who never actually purchased our products.”
As a precautionary measure, Mueller started designing pieces with another logo “AC1” in 2018 in case of a brand pivot.
In 2020, another clothing brand, which had trademarked the word “Alpha” for clothing companies, filed a lawsuit against Mueller’s company that would last about two and a half years.
“That lawsuit turned into a possible acquisition, and it was all extremely stressful,” Mueller said, noting that they ultimately decided not to go forward with the acquisition. “It was two and a half years of not ordering more inventory and having an operation freeze out.”
With the lawsuit finalized, Mueller is excited to pivot the brand to AC1, he shared, revealing that he and his team feels that AC1 aligns more with their identity and artistry.
“The word ‘Alpha’ has so many social connotations to it, and I was starting to even not like it myself,” Mueller said. “It’s hard enough running a company, it’s extremely hard to try to persuade how society uses a word — whether it’s used negatively or positively. I’m very happy to have this new chapter of AC1. There’s no connotations there; it’s just a moniker that’s very minimal and industrial. And that’s how our style has been this whole time.”
The first drop of AC1 is set for the first quarter of 2023, Mueller teased.
“We’ve been designing new collections all year long,” Mueller said. “We already have a Spring/Summer collection fully ready and a Fall/Winter collection fully ready. All brand new items. I’m really excited about it.”
AC1 is currently raising its first round of funding, Mueller continued, planning for a $600,000 round.
“When we first started out as college students, we put all the money into the company. But we didn’t have any business credit cards, and it was just me managing my Shopify dashboard,” he recalled. “… We’ve evolved so much to now having a CFO who is managing finances. This is the right time to start raising funds.”
For young entrepreneurs who are just getting started, Mueller had some words of advice: prioritize getting to know who you are and what you truly want out of your business.
“It’s such an internal journey,” Mueller shared. “In the earliest stages, it’s easy to get caught up comparing yourself to others or losing sight of your business goals. As I’ve grown to be more self aware, I’ve gotten more in tune with my exact passions. As I remind myself of those passions, I know that we can get through any hurdles that come our way.”