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Inka’s Grows by Keeping Manufacturing Jobs Home   (Released April 30, 2010)

(BATON ROUGE) Inka’s Uniforms helps students all across the Gulf Coast get dressed each morning – and the company helps many Louisiana workers sleep better at night, knowing their jobs are secure. When so many companies are sending manufacturing jobs overseas to slash labor costs, and downsizing just to stay afloat, Inka’s is growing by making sure that as many jobs as possible are going to workers not just in the U.S., but locally - right in Louisiana where the company is based.

During a time when news reports endlessly recount the harsh economy and its effect on American businesses, Inka’s is building a brand new 11,000-square-foot flagship store, one of the largest uniform stores in the Gulf Coast region. In June, the new store and company headquarters will open its doors, and offer customers unique services such as the ability to order garments online or by phone and then pick them up at the drive-through window.

Inka Mims, the founder of the company, attributes much of their success to the fact that the company has gone against the grain. “Instead of looking for the cheapest source for manufacturing overseas,” Mims says, “we focused instead on creating the best source of manufacturing at home.” While about three-fourths of Inka’s products sport the “Made in USA” tag, it’s not as apparent that most of those garments – 68 percent of everything the company sells – are made in Eunice, Louisiana, in the heart of cajun country.

Having a local factory is good for local workers, of course, but less apparent is how beneficial it is for Inka’s customers as well. School uniform companies typically do most of their business in the few weeks before school begins; it’s an intense time when students are scrambling to get their wardrobes ready before the first bell ring of the season. If a uniform supplier runs out of size 12 skirts, it can be devastating for students who are required to be dressed according to the school’s specific guidelines. And even more difficult is the situation of a child needing non-standard sizing that normally wouldn’t be found on the shelves at all.

Most uniform companies faced with these situations will begin faxing overseas, in a feverish attempt to get those particular sizes manufactured, shipped, cleared through customs, delivered, and placed into inventory. It’s a process that takes months. At Inka’s, a call is placed to Eunice, just down the highway, and the missing sizes can be in the stores by the next day.

The minimal geography between the stores and the manufacturing operation also allows for tight quality control – something Mims is obsessive about – and the quick implementation of new garment designs. Product development meetings and extensive test marketing become unnecessary when you can just sew a quick mock-up, decide that it looks good, and then have the “cajun ladies” at the factory make up a dozen or so to see how they sell.

Mims eschews corporate structure and bureaucracy, and flies by intuition instead, and having a local factory enables that frame of mind. When ideas can be implemented so quickly and inexpensively, innovation becomes a common occurrence rather than a costly risk that a company might be hesitant to take. It’s easy to call up those ladies and ask them to try changing the placement of a pocket or a zipper, for instance. The manufacturing facility is a separate business entity which makes uniforms only for Inka’s, and the relationships are close, more like family than business associates.

Inka’s is, in fact, a family business. It was Inka’s son Ben, the company’s vice-president, who watched countless mothers unbelt several young children from the car, strap some into strollers, and then carefully guide the group through the parking lot - all to quickly buy a single item or pick up an alteration. With four youngsters of his own, he’s all too aware of how time-consuming the seatbelts, car seats, and stroller-wrangling can be. So he came up with the notion of a drive-through window for school uniforms.

“It seemed like a crazy idea at first,” he recounts, “to have a drive-through window at an apparel store. But after seeing so many moms go through that process of getting their kids out of the car, into the store, and then back to the car again, I knew that we could save them a lot of frustration.” Forget the standard rules of what an apparel company should be like – if moms need a drive-though, then why not?

The $1.5-million facility is the company’s commitment to helping the economy grow – not by sending work to neighboring countries, but by sending it to neighbors. The new store, located at 11626 Sherwood Forest Court in Baton Rouge, opens with a ribbon cutting and other festivities on June 1.

Inka’s is a privately-held corporation formed in 1995 with stores in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas. The company serves schools from Texas to Florida, and recently added medical scrubs and other uniforms to its product line.

Fashion Sense Makes for Non-Uniform School Uniforms   (Released June 26, 2006)

(BATON ROUGE) For the first time in its long history, the University High Lab School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has its students in school uniforms. And unlike most schools, where students don the prescribed garments with some reluctance, U High students are actually excited about dressing. Last year, the black and gold uniforms were optional; they were such a hit among students, parents, and school administrators that they are now standard fare.

The U High Lab School is unique in several ways. As part of the Louisiana State University system, it was established as a training ground for student teachers. It’s a private school with a limited enrollment and a long waiting list. And instead of laying out a strict dress code, like most private schools, U High allows the students to mix and match from among an assortment of garments. A girl’s wardrobe might include black-and-gold plaid skirts, a black skort with a gold monogrammed pawprint, and black, white, or gold tops, for instance, and boys can wear black or khaki pants with knit shirts in several colors.

For uniform supplier Inka Mims, whose husband graduated from U High in 1948, it has been an opportunity to really let her fashion design skills shine forth in an often stodgy industry. “I’ve had so much fun with this school,” the owner of Inka’s S’coolwear tells with an excitement that belies her decades in the uniform business. “We came up with some really cute garments, and that convinced the girls to wear them even though they were optional.” While the boys have been a tougher sell, the U High girls are mad for plaid.

It started with a plaid tennis skort – a hybrid of a skirt and shorts – that has fashionable slits on the sides. And when Mims noticed students wearing their plaid uniform skirts with the waist band folded down for a low-rise look, she removed the band completely, offering a low-rise skirt with a hem line three inches higher – a design that maintains the school uniform look, but graces it with a fashion sensibility.

This has worked well at more traditional private schools as well. Before selling the new skirts at St. Joseph’s Academy, a prestigious girls school in Baton Rouge, Mims approached the Catholic Diocese with the design, as well as several high school principals. They all agreed that the low-rise skirt was acceptable – and much preferred to one several sizes too large with the waist band folded under.

These fashionable and innovative uniform designs give Inka’s S’coolwear an edge over the competitors, who generally come out with similar designs not long afterward. “But even though they copy the design,” Mims says – even by coming to her store and buying one garment of every size – “they still don’t lay right. I can see someone wearing a skort, and even from a distance, I can tell it didn’t come from our store.”

The fabric and functionality has also contributed to make Inka’s uniforms the pick among the students. The unique “UpScale” design of many of her plaid garments lets them “grow” a size simply by making a few snips with scissors. And her poly-cotton plaid garments, made in nearby Eunice, Louisiana, feel much better than the coarser polyester that other companies offer.

Mims’s nearly-fanatical drive to make sure that students are happily dressed doesn’t hurt, either. When the manufacturer of the knit shirts required at St. Joseph’s was unable to provide Adult Small sizes – to any of the stores in the area – Mims obtained the banding that goes around the bottom of the shirt, and got her staff busy cutting down larger sized shirts, then sewing on the new banding. “It was a lot of work,” she recounts, “but we had Small shirts in time for school.”

Mims is still dreaming up what she will offer next for U High. Her store is already stocked with sweatshirts monogrammed with the school logo, plaid tote bags and hair accessories, and even black-and-gold plaid backpacks. To keep the competition at bay, she won’t tell what’s on her mind. But no doubt, it will be evident on the U High campus next school year.

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