When David Burke traveled to the southern United States with his University of St. Thomas lacrosse team in 2011, he witnessed how apparel and clothing companies below the Mason-Dixon line represent the Southern way of life—that gritty, saucy flavor that rides in the saddle with cowboy boots and overalls.
The 2009 Edina High School graduate realized the South had something the Midwest desperately lacked: clothing lines that fully represented the region’s way of life. Inspired, he turned to longtime friend and fellow Edina native Spencer Barrett to create the Great Lakes Collection. “We saw a huge opportunity to represent the Midwest, which is highly unrepresented,” says Barrett. “We felt that it was time the Midwest got a brand that represents what it’s all about. We have some of the most faithful people to their region.”
Burke and Barrett first struck up a friendship as basketball teammates in elementary school. They were buddies throughout middle school and high school, and stayed in touch through their college years, with Burke attending St. Thomas and Barrett just up the river at the University of Minnesota. Both graduated with a degree in entrepreneurship last May.
After their sophomore year, Burke and Barrett began brainstorming about what makes their home state special, and what sets Minnesota apart from other states. They settled on lake life as a cultural attribute. Both young men escaped to getaways in northern Minnesota during summers growing up. “We asked ourselves, ‘what did we grow up loving to do?’” says Burke. They settled on the logo of a loon.
The duo launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds. The crowd-sourcing website, which is highly popular for those starting their own companies, uses an “all or nothing” policy. Burke and Barrett crossed their fingers and asked for $20,000 to supplement startup costs. They surpassed that figure and raised more than $24,000 in one month from their Edina community. “We have had a crazy number of connections, people who have helped us out with anything that we needed,” says Barrett.
Part of Burke and Barrett’s mission was to give back to the state for which they have such high regard. The Great Lakes Collection donates one percent of every sale to Conservation Minnesota and Alliance for the Great Lakes, two organizations dedicated to preserving water quality. “We have always thought that if we were going to be put in a position to give back, we were going to,” Barrett says. “We want to give future generations the same experiences that we had growing up with amazing lakes. We have some super-clean and awesome lakes and we want to keep it that way.”
Meanwhile, their creative juices continued to flow. The Great Lakes Collection began with a simple shirt, featuring the famous loon logo, as well as belts and cotton T-shirts emblazoned with lake graphics. The collection focuses on quality and considers consumer preference. “We really thought through what the Midwesterner would want and need,” says Barrett. “We are creating a story behind each product, and focusing more on quality, not quantity.” They collaborated with American Apparel and a local embroiderer for customization.
Burke and Barrett slowly rolled out their products to determine whether the market was there. They found that it was, and the Great Lakes Collection soon saw success. The clothing line soared after the two men graduated from college and took on the company full time. It parted ways from American Apparel to provide more colors, styles, fabrics and further personalization. Burke and Barrett’s focus is now on expanding the line to outerwear and other pieces, as well as reaching out to shops and retailers. They traveled to North Carolina last October in hopes of creating deeper relationships with their suppliers and crafters, and to experience the full process of “dirt to shirt,” the cotton-harvesting process.
They also received a remarkable boost this past fall when the owner of Brightwater in Excelsior jumped at the opportunity to include the Great Lakes Collection in his store. “That was exciting and validated our idea,” says Burke. “Getting into that solidified for me that we truly have something special going on.” The duo attended their first trade show and targeted 20 stores in October. Brightwater carried the Great Lakes Collection this past holiday season.
Burke and Barrett believe they have filled a void that any Minnesotan can appreciate. The Great Lakes Collection encompasses what this state is all about: great lakes, genuine people and that at-home feeling.
To shop he Great Lakes Collection, visit greatlakescollection.com or stop into Brightwater in Excelsior. 256 Water St., Excelsior; 952.474.0256. To support Burke and Barrett’s initiatives, visit Conservation Minnesota at conservationminnesota.org and Alliance for the Great Lakes at greatlakes.org.