August 8, 2010

Executive's Job is Making School Uniforms Cool

By Joan Verdon, Staff Writer / The NJ Record

When school lets out for the summer in June, the busiest time of the year for the school uniform business begins. The Dayton warehouse and offices of the French Toast school uniform brand buzz with activity from June through the fall each year as the central New Jersey company coordinates orders to department stores, discount stores and to consumers who buy directly from the website.

Michael Arking, president French






DON SMITH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER French Toast President Michael Arking's company debuted its first national promotion, a contest called 'U in Uniform,' which invites customers to send in photos or videos of their children expressing their individuality.


At the center of that activity is Michael Arking, 48, president of and vice president of the school uniform division of LT Apparel Group, the parent company of French Toast.

School uniforms are a growth business. French Toast expects its sales to increase as much as 5 percent this year. More retailers are expanding their uniform offerings for back-to-school, and French Toast supplies many of them with private label or French Toast uniform pants, skirts and polo shirts.

This year, French Toast debuted its first national promotion, a contest called "U in Uniform," which invites customers to send in photos or videos of their children expressing their individuality. Arking, an Ocean Township resident, spoke with The Record during an interview in the Dayton offices. (Interview condensed for space.)

Michael Arking President,
His business: He heads the school uniform division of LT Apparel Group, overseeing online uniform sales at French, as well as wholesale uniform sales, and private-label school uniform programs at national retailers. LT Apparel has a 600,000-square-foot warehouse in Dayton, and several hundred employees based there.

His background: He has been president of since 2003, and was named vice president of LT Apparel Group’s school uniform division in 2009. Before joining the company he was a co-owner of a business-to-business marketing consulting firm.

Q. It used to be that school uniforms were ordered by the schools and the parents picked up their orders in the school cafeteria, or went to the warehouse of the uniform supplier. Now, it seems like every department store is expanding their uniform offerings.
The difference between uniforms today and 20 years ago — when they were more exclusive to parochial schools — is it's more of a dress code today than a uniform. It's more about polos and khaki pants and casual clothes that kids wear. It's much more comfortable. It's not so much a sports jacket and a tie and an emblem any more. Before, uniforms were predominantly in private schools. Today, close to 22 percent of public school students across the country have some sort of dress code.

Q. Is that number increasing?
It is. We've seen about a 7 percent increase in schools adopting, or considering adopting, a dress code this year. A lot of schools reach out to us when they're considering dress codes. We have a whole team that helps them get that passed.

Q. So you guide them through the steps of adopting a dress code?
Exactly. We have specialists for that. We have PowerPoint presentations for them. If they want to run a fashion show, we do that. And in our online and catalogue sales we have a fund-raising program that gives back 5 percent to schools for every purchase parents make.

Q. What are the most common arguments for and against uniforms?
Years ago it was more difficult to get a school into uniforms. Today parents are coming to us after a dress code passes and saying it was cheaper than I thought and it's easier to get my child out in the morning. If people are opposed to school uniforms, the argument is, "My kids can't express themselves, their individuality." Which you counter with, "They can express themselves creatively in music or dance or sports." That's why we have the "U in Uniform" contest. We're giving away $15,000 — the school wins $5,000 and the parent wins $10,000.

Q. I understand you're doing a lot with social media.
We launched a Facebook page in the last year and I see a lot of moms writing in on Facebook, and now they're starting to submit photos of their kids in uniforms. You get this great feedback.

Q. And you use Twitter, too. What would a uniform company tweet about?
Facebook is probably more mom-friendly than Twitter, though we do promote a lot of sales through Twitter. We are moving more toward being helpers for moms, since moms are our customers. We're trying to give them helpful hints — alerting them to a sale, letting them know about projects they can do with their kids. We've had psychologists write a newsletter for us. Anything that can make a mom's life easier.

Q. Are the typical school uniform colors basically khaki, blue?
Certainly white, khaki and navy are popular, but we're seeing colors like purple and gold and black this year. Schools are getting a little more creative in their color usage. We're also seeing some of the fashion trends kind of creeping in. For example, skinny leg pants are popular, so they want more narrow pants.

Q. Schools are asking for skinny pants?
Not so much the schools, but the parents will. That's what the kids are looking for.

Q. Do you make adult-size uniforms?
No. But we're definitely seeing more large-size, husky-size sales. Kids are getting bigger. Not necessarily heavier, just overall bigger.

Q. What are the smallest uniforms — kindergarten?
Day care. We've seen a growth in toddler uniforms. Last year we launched 2T to 4T uniforms. Some of it is day care, pre-K. The toddler line is doing very well.

Q. When I was setting up this interview I asked if you would be on vacation in August and I was told "In August? Never in August." No summers off in the school uniform business?
No. It would be nice. I told my wife this morning that summer is not a relaxing time for me. I just want it to be over, get through the season. We're on pins and needles this time of year, delivering orders, making sure everything is on time. Probably around Christmas is the slowest time.