Earlier this fall, after Texas and Florida were struck by devastating back-to-back hurricanes, Nate Montgomery, the cofounder of a social enterprise that sells hats to help fund children’s hospitals asked himself the same thing as many people around the country: “How can I help?”
The answer, he says, “was kind of sitting right in front of us.” He was in the unique position to create a spin-off product that might provide immediate disaster relief.
Montgomery runs Codeword, an apparel company that prefers its name written as (code)word because the parenthetical-based bit of branding goes with it’s selling point: hats stitched with felt numbers representing the three-digit area codes of the places where they’re sold. That explains the “code” part, but there’s also a word on the back of each hat, too: the city nickname most locals associate with home.
The hats retail for about $35, with 20% of that going directly to nearby hospital foundations for pediatric care, a decision that honors the mother of Montgomery’s longtime girlfriend, a former pediatric nurse, who was injured and can no longer work. In September 2016, the company launched in Nashville before expanding quickly to other southern cities like Knoxville, Athens, Birmingham, and Huntsville. The group has since partnered with a total of 40 foundations in 38 cities with plans to reach 60 by the end of 2017 and at least 140 by this time next year.
“It’s a national/local give-back brand. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it really isn’t,” Montgomery says, noting that products are sold both online and through boutique retailers in the cities where they’ve formed partnerships, in some cases through an informal relationship with Children’s Miracle Network. “If you’re going to offer somebody a way to represent their hometown, why not offer them a way to invest back in it as well?”
After Texas and Florida were hit, Montgomery and his partner, Sean Pace, decided to release a new line of hats to fund local food banks in the hardest hit areas. In this case 35% of each sale does that, which because of bulk-rate supply costs means that buying one hat should provide 21 meals to those in need. Rather than use area codes, each hat has three letters—”TEX” or “FLA”—and is available online in the company’s top-selling colors, gray and camo. On the back, the codewords are “lonestar” and “sunshine” after each state’s nickname, respectively. (The company currently does not have a Puerto Rico themed hat to support Maria relief, but says it’s looking at it.)
So far, (code)word has sold enough to provide 80,000 meals, and expects to hit 100,000 by the end of October. At that point, it will switch recipients, redirecting money back toward children’s hospitals in those areas to provide more stability during long-term recovery efforts. At that point, the hats will become an official offering that can be carried by merchandisers anywhere.
“We’re not the first to create a city-specific apparel or hats, especially in places like Chicago and Nashville and St. Louis,” Montgomery says. “But the difference is we’re going out and we’re giving that kind of product to Colombia Missouri, and Des Moines, Iowa, places that have never had this kind of thing before.”
The hope is that people in those places will continue to want to support something bigger than themselves, and the hats will serve as a signal for others to catch the trend, especially after a major disaster. That’s one way to make charity fashionable.