Founder Shane Gould works with factories in the Philippines and Bangladesh to supply blue-chip customers with private-label accessories.

Gould relocated Fuel Clothing, his well-oiled private-label machine. from Hilton Head, South Carolina, to Park City, Utah in late 2020.

“Personally, I enjoy snowboarding, mountain biking, outdoor activities close to the Park City area, and the airport’s very good for international flying,” he says of the move.

Gould has come a long way from when he launched Fuel Clothing from the trunk of his car in 1992. Back then, the former professional snowboarder was looking to supplement his income. “I’ve always been design-oriented,” says Gould. “I had a few extra bucks and decided to make T-shirts and sell them out of my car while I was traveling.”

His original intention was to foster Fuel Clothing into a go-to for extreme athletes, and got the products into more than 1,000 retail accounts, but Gould ultimately saw more demand in the private-label market and pivoted to fill it, initially as a “side hustle,” in the early 2000s. The Fuel Clothing brand now represents only about 2 percent of the company’s gross sales, says Gould.

He started with a notably broad catalog, but catalyzed growth by streamlining the catalog. “I narrowed it down to be very specific, very hyper-focused on accessories,” says Gould. “Now we do about 550 brands for accessories. . . . Now we just go volume. We go deep on what we do.”

The Fuel brand’s catalog features outerwear and snow gear, but the private-label offerings are socks, beanies, gaiters, and other accessories. Customers include companies like FedEx, Lowe’s, Ford, Honda, Suzuki, and UPS. “On a good day, I sell about 10,000 units of private label,” says Gould. “We go down to the guy who only orders 1,00 pieces and then we have guys who order hundreds of thousands of pieces.”

“That program is all word of mouth — 100 percent. I started with one customer and now we have 500-plus. That’s a lot of years of connections and networks and doing good work, but at the end of the day, I didn’t go after Lowe’s or Ford or Honda or Suzuki or NASCAR tracks, or any of these people. That’s all word of mouth.”

After the company’s sales hit a high-water market in 2020, Gould forecasts 65 percent growth for 2021. “We just keep growing, and we keep growing at a decent rate,” he says. “I literally started this thing with 600 bucks, and on a good day, I sell about 10,000 pieces of private label.”

Where Fuel Clothing manufactures

Fuel Clothing works with six main contract manufacturers in the Philippines and Bangladesh to make its products. “Everybody I use, I’ve been with for a long time,” says Gould. “We’ve all grown together.”

He elaborates, “I’ve been selling socks since the ’90s. It was just one of my go-tos where people loved my product and wanted theirs. I grew with the company — I’ve been with the same factory since I started doing socks. The factory’s moved a couple of times since then, but has just gotten bigger and bigger.”

Even with recent disruptions, Fuel Clothing is able to deliver industry-leading turnaround times, says Gould. “Most people can’t design, approve, sample, production, and ship in 30 days,” he says. Shipping directly to customers “eliminates time, it eliminates cost, it eliminates overhead. We have to pass that onto the customer.”

Photos courtesy Fuel Clothing

That short lead time comes from nearly 30 years of experience in private-label accessories. “I know how hard it is to make the products that we make,” says Gould. “Anybody can go get a T-shirt printed or a blank hat embroidered, but if you want to get a true custom hat built from scratch, you’ve got to go to a guy like me.”

Recent shipping disruptions have caused “no issues whatsoever” thanks to long relationships with manufacturers, he adds. “We’ve been doing it long enough. A lot of these people aren’t number one, two, or three in the factory — they’re just one of thousands.”

What’s next?

“We’re in the scaling business of building our clientele,” says Gould, “I think once we get to 1,000 customers we’ll have some real strength. If we can double or triple the numbers we do now in the next three to five years, we’ll be in a good position for someone to acquire us down the road.”

The move to Utah was a first step. “It made sense to relocate the business here to scale it and sell it,” he says. “We just want to make sure the customer’s happy and build brands. The more successfully we build their brands, the more successful we’ll be.”

But the hyper-focus will remain on hats, beanies, socks, and other accessories. “I don’t see us adding more products,” he adds. “We’re good at accessories and we’ll stick to those.”