Woolly Mammoth

16 years ago Leelanau County's Sue Burns started recycling a few shrunken sweaters into fabulous fashion pieces. Today her homespun business has extended its reach to 900 retail outlets around the nation and, in 2011, is looking at $2 million dollars in sales.

LEELANAU – A lot of people are familiar with baabaazuzu, the "upcycled" clothing business with the funny name, and how owner Sue Burns turned a clothing calamity into a bustling business.

But folks may not realize that the Leelanau County operation roared past the $1 million sales mark last year and is on track to do $1.5 million this year – and targeting up to $2 million next year.

Using 100-percent-recycled material, baabaazuzu creates jackets, vests, scarves, hats, mitten, gloves, and other funky clothing items. As the temperature falls, baabaazuzu's sales rise.

"This is our busy season," says Burns with a smile. "This time of year, it's non-stop. We're depleting our shelves."

So while many other companies are having sluggish sales, how does a tiny 20-employee business record such success?

"We've gotten very smart with our processes," explains manager Lisa Brookfield. "Also, we've added some new equipment and our outsourcing has been important."

That outsourcing includes a team of five seamstresses who have worked for baabaazuzu from their homes since they were laid off by Second Chance Body Armor in Central Lake. That connection was made through the Michigan Works program. Baabaazuzu also relies on the sewing skills of other work-at-home seamstresses in Manistee and Leelanau Counties.

"And we have a really, really special staff," says Burns. "Most of them have been with us for many years. They've made it possible."

With some 900 retail outlets in North America and overseas sales in Canada, Norway and Japan, shipping can be complicated, so baabaazuzu partners with Grand Traverse Industries to handle the process.

Another key factor in keeping sales climbing is the company website – baabaazuzu.com. It's currently undergoing an upgrade to make it even more customer-friendly.

In 2008, the company was in need of cash to purchase equipment and took out a pair of loans from the Leelanau County EDC, according to Tino Breithaupt, senior VP of economic development at the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce who is also a staff member of the Leelanau EDC. "Now they're at a point where they're talking about paying off those loans ahead of schedule," he says.

The baabaazuzu backstory is one to inspire every entrepreneur with a dream. Back in 1994, Burns' husband Kevin was doing laundry and shrank two of her wool sweaters. Rather than throw them out, she used the sweaters to make jackets for her two young daughters. Friends saw them and started asking her for similar jackets.

"Bells rang, and I started baabaazuzu," says Burns. "The name comes from the source of our wool and my nickname, 'Zuzu.'"

She started the business in her living room and soon, baabaazuzu had taken over the basement. The business then moved to its location on South Sawmill Road, just outside Lake Leelanau.

While Burns started with children's clothing, she soon expanded to making jackets and vests for adults. People liked them, so they added scarves, hats and mittens.

"We make about 350 pair of mittens a week," she estimated. "Between them and our new fingerless gloves, we cover a lot of hands."

All of baabaazuzu's clothing line is made from 100-percent-recycled material, most of it from secondhand shops that have too much inventory or items that are slightly damaged. Each month tons of used clothing arrives at the shop – mostly wools and wovens – including sweaters, suit coats, pants and more.

The baabaazuzu staff launders, shrinks and processes the used clothing. Then they turn the items into one-of-a-kind apparel. It's labor-intensive, but Burns says the results are worth it. "Everything we make is unique," she explained. "It's the special details, like vintage buttons, a small pocket or a hand-sewn blanket stitch that makes things our things one of a kind."

A couple of new items have really fired up the sales. The fingerless gloves now outsell the company's popular line of mittens, and boot toppers are another hot addition to the product line. "We're always looking for ways to adopt items to our look," says Brookfield. "We're always thinking of new products." BN