Gina Locklear took over her parents’ declining sock mill and saved it by shifting from mass-market white sports socks to wildly colored, fashionable ones.
IN PerNine years ago, when she was 27 and unhappily selling real estate, Gina Locklear went to her parents with a proposition. She wanted to make socks. Not the basic white socks the family had specialized in, but fashionable socks, with organic cotton and dyes.
“I want to get into the sock business,” she told them. “I want to make a sustainable sock.”
Locklear grew up in the business. Her parents, Terry and Regina Locklear, started a mill in Fort Payne, Ala., in 1991. They made white sport socks for Russell Athletic, millions of them, destined for big-box stores and your own feet if you took gym class.
Family: Lives with husband Al Vreeland in Birmingham, Ala., an hour and a half’s drive away, and spends part of each week in Fort Payne.
Brands: Zkano, an online brand started in 2008, and Little River Sock Mill, started in 2013 and sold in stores.
Gina’s younger sister, Emily, recalled the girls going to the mill after school, where they helped their parents sort socks into dozens or played in the bins. Named after the two daughters, Emi-G Knitting bought the Locklears a house, bought Terry a vintage Corvette and paid for the girls’ college educations. Still, the idea of Gina and her parents making organic fashion socks, or any socks at all, seemed totally crazy, given the time and place.
The mid-2000s was a devastating period for Fort Payne. Nestled in the state’s mountainous northeast, the town of 14,000 had for decades billed itself as “the Sock Capital of the World.” The cushioned sock was invented here, and one in every eight pairs of socks sold globally was said to be knitted in Fort Payne.
At the industry’s peak in the 1990s, more than 120 mills employed roughly 7,500 workers. But cheap foreign labor and free-trade agreements made the town a loser in the game of global economics.
The Locklears held on to their mill, but barely. Orders dried up, including those from Russell Athletic, and they cut the workforce to almost nothing. Terry’s goal was to keep the lights on because he knew if he and Regina closed the doors and turned the power off, they’d never start back up.
“We’d just come here and sit,” Terry said. “We would talk, and it was, like, ‘I just don’t know what we’re going to do.’ We still had our knowledge.”
It was during these depths that Gina approached her parents with her idea. While almost everyone else in the sock business was being thrown to the exits, she passionately wanted in. “I was 12 when my parents started making socks,” Gina said. “And the realization that our family business might close made me mad.”
Her parents were skeptical. They knew how hard it was to compete and how much money it would take to start a brand. They didn’t get the whole organic thing. Most of all, they didn’t want their oldest daughter to do something she’d soon regret or tire of.
“But it’s been everything except any of that,” her father said.
Her mother added: “She absolutely loves what she does. She’s on fire.”
When you hear the words textile mill, you may picture a brick building a century old and as big as a city block. You may hear the clack-clack of jittery machinery. But Emi-G Knitting is a modern contained operation in a squat metal building on the outskirts of Fort Payne.
One recent morning, Gina was in her office, working on spring orders. She produces two lines: Zkano, an online brand she started in 2008, and Little River Sock Mill, which was started in 2013 and is sold in stores like Margaret O’Leary in Manhattan.
Zkano’s “crews” and “no shows” are a youthful riot of stripes and colors while the Little River socks are more refined (the fall line was based on Southern quilt patterns). Both cost $13 to $30 a pair.
Going organic (the cotton comes from a farm in Lubbock, Texas, the dyes from North Carolina) has given Gina a marketing niche. Her socks appeal to millennials, who study labels and like a compelling origin story.
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“I’m not sure most customers can detect it, but it’s certainly a bonus that they’re made from organic cotton; it adds a point of difference,” said Billy Reid, the Alabama-based menswear designer, who partnered with Gina to make socks based on his designs.
Last fall, Martha Stewart and the editors of Martha Stewart Living presented Gina with an American Made award, which they give each year to a few artisans and small-business owners to provide a boost of recognition.
“Encouraging the American public to buy American-made matters,” Stewart said. “The more socks she sells, the more people she can employ.”
Gina notices socks everywhere she goes, and in winter wears two pairs, one during daytime, another to bed. Her office décor is entirely hosiery-related: spools of candy-colored yarn on a shelf, mateless samples pinned to corkboards.
When she’s at the mill, her focus is on the knitting machines and whether they are aiding or conspiring against her. The machines are aqua blue and boxy like ovens. Above them, a halo of metalwork holds the yarn being fed into their bellies. Gina watched a machine work, and after a moment, in a Willy Wonka flourish, a plastic tube spit out an orange-striped sock.
“I love that,” she said.
Pointing to a machine that was noticeably different from the others, she said: “It’s the newest sock machine you can get. It’s made in Italy. It’s like a Ferrari.”
She spotted Vance Veal, Emi-G’s plant manager, and waved him over. When her parents laid off all but their most vital workers, they kept him on the payroll. Veal, 48, has worked in sock mills since he was 18. His grandparents, mother and brothers worked in the mills, too.
Since Gina came along with her six-color fashion socks, he has made the machines do things no one at Emi-G thought possible, himself included.
“We didn’t used to make pattern socks,” Veal said. “Gina keeps me on my toes. She’s made me better at what I do.”