Denver, Colorado

Photographer Chris Gerardi’s unique apparel company is beautifying the world of leggings.

Portrait Jonathan Castner; production photos courtesy Mellivora

When Gerardi left a corporate job in 2016, he was unsure of what his future might hold. “I had no clue how I was going to make money or survive,” he recalls. “I knew that I didn’t want to work for a large corporation anymore or let anyone else dictate my life, so I decided to figure it out.”

In his newfound free time, Gerardi rediscovered his passion for hiking, mountain biking, and landscape photography. He started the website for Mellivora (which is Latin for honey badger) as a channel to share his photographs and hopefully make a few sales. Then one day, while shopping at Whole Foods, a new idea occurred.

“I saw a lady walking around in terrible looking leggings,” he explains. “I thought, ‘somebody gets paid to make these.’ And it suddenly came to me that I could put my photography on leggings and use them as a vehicle to get my inspiration out into the world.”

Gerardi enlisted the help of Mellivora’s co-founder, Jen Coffey, and the two began researching their manufacturing options. They knew they didn’t want to manufacture overseas, so they hired local seamstresses and found a 1,000-square-foot space. “I wanted to know who was making our products by name,” Gerardi adds. “I wanted to know every bit of what was going on in the manufacturing process, including where our materials were coming from. That’s what really pushed me to go in this direction.”

Eventually, demand for Mellivora’s leggings grew to such an extent that Gerardi and Coffey had to look at scaling their business. This examination led to a partnership with another manufacturing company in Colorado that wanted to take on more contract work.

“We have an NDA because of legalities, but I can tell you that they’re in the ski apparel world and have around 15,000-square feet of production room and eight to 10 employees,” Gerardi says. “Everything is still manufactured in Denver and our legging material is still milled in California. We keep everything as domestic as we can. It’s a good collaboration, and we’re working to grow both companies together.”

Though they’ve outsourced wholesale production, Gerardi and Coffey are still able to take new legging designs from inspiration to product within 30 days. When COVID-19 arrived in Colorado, they were able to launch a line of face masks in less than five days.

“Jen saw the need two to three weeks ahead of it really blowing up,” Gerardi says. “They’ve ended up being very popular.” So popular, in fact, that they’ve contributed to online sales growth of more than 1,000 percent in 2020. “A lot of people who didn’t know about us in the leggings realm who purchased face masks ended up buying leggings too,” he adds. “That helped get our name out there. We also went on the news for a segment where thousands of people saw us.”

Challenges: Gerardi says customer acquisition is still a huge challenge for Mellivora. “We’re trying to grow a brand in a world where people have a million different things coming at them every day,” he explains. “It’s very hard to get people’s attention and to get them to listen to what you’re trying to say. We want them to know that they can buy creative, locally made, good quality product at what we think is a pretty fair price considering the competition.”

Opportunities: Though leggings are made by many brands, Gerardi says there is opportunity in the fact that few, if any, are producing anything similar to Mellivora’s. “We’ve seen a couple companies pop up and try to do it, but they’ve fallen by the wayside,” he continues. “It can be very expensive to do this, and people run out of cash quickly. We’ve been able to maintain our footing in the space, which gives us the ability to grow and continue to produce products that are unlike any other leggings on the market.”

Needs: “New products are always a need,” Gerardi says. “We have to come up with new designs and stuff like that. Even though we can do it quite rapidly, it’s costly. We’re also always looking for talent as well. That’s something that we’ve struggled with. It’s a lot harder than it seems to get people to buy into what you’re doing and to work hard for it.”