GTPulse: Baabaazuzu Has Been Creating Sustainable Winter Warmth for 27 Years
Is getting older synonymous with wanting things that last? Recently, I hemmed and hawed about buying a pair of $50 nylons. The nylons claim to be unbreakable in human hands and I haven’t had a pair of drugstore nylons last me longer than three wears without getting a snag and ending up in the garbage. After finding myself again in the inconvenient situation of running to the drugstore last minute so I could wear a dress, I decided I wanted to buy the good nylons. Beyond stockings, I think there’s just less space for single-serve things as we get older. When I look back I realize that the younger I was, the less I cared about how long something was going to last. Whether it was it nylons, a relationship or a job. There’s something comforting about caring and in knowing that care put in results in something strong and everlasting.
Baabaazuzu has made it their job to make a product that lasts, and they’ve been doing it for the past 27 years.
Sue and Kevin Burns were born, raised, met and fell in love in Grand Rapids.
“How did we meet 30-some years ago? The way everybody used to meet, in a bar” Sue said with a laugh.
In their first year of marriage, Sue and Kevin had a baby, bought and sold their first house and moved to Leland.
“I thought, ‘oh my God my life is over I just did everything in one year,” Sue said.
They chose Leland because Kevin had summered up here as a child and had fond memories of the area.
A laundry error was the catalyst for the business. Kevin shrunk a few of Sue’s sweaters and instead of getting mad she got crafty. She repurposed the sleeves as mittens for her young daughters, and when people started asking her where she got them she knew that she could make and sell them to a bigger audience.
“I thought, I’m gonna run with that. So, I launched this children’s line 27 years ago and the first year that we were promoting it we had so many adult women saying that they would wear something like that. We just answered to the call and quickly switched gears.”
For women, they started with a vest that they adorned with vintage buttons. From vests, women asked for jackets. They use every piece of the wool sweaters, nothing gets tossed.
The company started in the basement of their home, initially, and was working in wholesale only. Sue and Kevin would hit the road with their product at different craft, art and wholesale shows.
“Problem with the art shows is that they’re in the summer and selling wool in the summer is not a good mix,” Kevin said.
Nevertheless, the two got Baabaazuzu products into some prestigious trade shows across the U.S. With a company that is couple-run that offers one-of-a-kind apparel pieces, they were well-received by coordinators for craft shows.
“This was before there were websites. It was really an amazing time in our industry. Those shows that we do are particular to handmade, made in America, so if the whole show isn’t about that there’s always a segment that is and we’re showcased there.”
Their product is embraced for being sustainable and environmentally friendly now, but 27 years ago customers would lose interest when they found out that the clothing items were made from secondhand wool sweaters.
“Suddenly they’re backing out of our booth going, ‘I don’t think my customer wants used clothing.’ Fast forward maybe 10 years into our initiative and people were saying, ‘sign me up’ or ‘double my order.’ It was overnight.”
They source their wool sweaters from salvage companies that buy around the country. They buy sweaters by the pound and when they’re delivered to the Lake Leelanau store location, they go through a cleaning and sorting process to decide which sweaters will work best for being turned into which garment. Garments are cleaned, sorted and cut at the Lake Leelanau store, and outsourced to be assembled in Manistee by Seams So Right.
Nowadays they spend much more time at their Lake Leelanau location than on the road at tradeshows. They moved the Baabaazuzu operation into the red building on Sawmill Road in 2001. Although they still do some trade shows, they sell a lot of pieces through their storefront, Etsy, Amazon and other retailers that carry their products all over the U.S. Their products are praised for their longevity and I always wonder how places continue to sell products that are so well made they don’t often need replacing.
“We just have to rely on people coming back for more because everything is different and one-of-a-kind. As well functioning as your 12-year-old gloves are, I’m sure we have a new color or design that speaks to you,” Sue said.
Sue and Kevin have built a love, a business and a product that lasts and they’re not planning on stopping anytime soon. Baabaazuzu, a combination of the sound a sheep makes and Sue’s nickname, has made its mark on the world of sustainable fashion and on Northern Michigan.