Alumni Spotlight: Evan Toporek, a third-generation apparel executive, is CEO of Alternative Apparel
third-generation apparel executive, Evan Toporek, 1993 IE, is the CEO, partner,
and member of the Board of Directors for Alternative Apparel, a leading
lifestyle apparel brand that specializes in casual clothing for young men and
women. At Alternative Apparel, Toporek is responsible for establishing the
company’s long-term business strategy and overseeing the execution of its core
business functions including marketing, global distribution, customer service,
and information systems. Since joining Alternative in 1998, he has led the
company through aggressive revenue earnings and employee growth while
maintaining a focus on his core values: “Treat everyone with respect. Don’t cut
corners. And keep things in perspective.”
Toporek has worked hard to propel the company from a blank tee shirt manufacturer to one of the world’s fastest growing young contemporary lifestyle brands, with a growing roster of retailers in over 120 countries. Under Toporek’s leadership, Alternative has garnered recognition from Inc. magazine as one of the “500 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America,” received a prestigious 2009 Apparel All-Star Award and, most recently, was named one of Georgia’s “20 Fastest-Growing Mid-Market Companies” by Georgia Trend magazine.
ISyE: How did you end up in the fashion industry?
ET: My father and grandfather were in the industry, but I didn’t necessarily see myself following suit. I worked for Andersen Consulting for five years after graduating and learned a great deal. In my heart, though, I was more of an entrepreneur. So I left to buy into Alternative and partner with the founder who had started the brand a year or so earlier. We were introduced by a mutual friend. At the time, 1998, all of the other entrepreneurs were seemingly starting or joining startup “.coms.” I was old school, I guess. I wanted to make and sell something tangible. Something you could try on and get immediate satisfaction. Something accessible.
ISyE: How would you describe your sense of style? How would you describe Alternative Apparel’s sense of style?
ET: I’m casual. I’m not a very corporate person and I don’t dress corporately. I own a suit or two, but reserve those for funerals and really, really special occasions. I’m no fashionista but I appreciate quality, something that fits right, feels good, and looks a little different. I don’t believe cloning is a good thing when it comes to fashion. Alternative is a casual, fashion basics line. I think our greatest product quality is softness. Everything we make is washed and softened so that it feels like you’ve owned it for many years. It’s vintage inspired. We draw inspiration from styles that were cool years ago and bring them back to life.
ISyE: Tell me about Alternative Apparel’s sustainability mission.
ET: Around forty percent of our products fall under a sub brand called Alternative Earth, our eco-friendly line. We broke down the manufacturing process and made small changes that we feel make a big difference in protecting our environment. We use organic cotton, recycled polyester, low impact garment dyes, we re-use water in the washing process, but it still has a great wide color assortment and feels as soft as everything else we sell. Our eco-friendly garments are certified as such and we perform random audits of our factories to guarantee this. In our offices, showrooms, and our store, we use found objects from flea markets and bring them back to life as fixtures and interior decoration. Someone else’s trash is our treasure. These are small things that can make a big difference.
ISyE: How do you apply your industrial engineering skills to your role at Alternative Apparel?
ET: Specifically, I can certainly handle the details of any conversation related to warehousing, supply chain management, and information systems. I’m not using the formulas I learned, but Tech taught me how to solve problems and I use that skill every single day.
ISyE: Do you think your IE degree has contributed to your success?
ET: Without question. Not because of the formulas that I learned, but because of the problem solving skills that became ingrained and second nature to me. Most entrepreneurs live and die by what I call “sticky note” solutions. They might get you through the day or week but you’ll be ripping another sticky note off the pad sooner than later. I think the training I got at Tech has helped me create solutions in all areas of our company, from end to end, that are far longer lasting. And most of them tie back to systems. Tech introduced me to the power of information systems.
ISyE: What prompted you to get a degree in industrial engineering?
ET: It was an engineering degree which I coveted, and a degree in industrial engineering was open ended and was applicable to many roles in many industries. Heck, there are plenty of doctors and lawyers out there with IE degrees. It established the foundation but didn’t pigeon hole me. It got me ready for the real world, but allowed me to defer the decision of choosing what I wanted to do next. I wanted to get out and work and I didn’t want to go to graduate school. I’m not sure there is another degree at any other institution that prepares you better to enter the workforce straight out of college.
ISyE: What advice do you have for students of ISyE?
ET: Try to relate your class work to real life experience. I worked in a warehouse every summer in high school and got to know the business pretty well. I always tried to relate my IE class work back to that business the best I could. Connecting book examples to real world examples helped me grasp the concepts. Take advantage of the Senior Design projects, Co-op, and summer internships to match class work with job work where you can. Also, take a sales job at some point in school. Sell something door to door. Wrapping paper. Tee shirts. Whatever. Sales - it’s the one skill that I don’t think can be learned in a class, but it is absolutely critical in work. Whether you are selling your products to a customer, or selling an idea to a co-worker or a boss, it’s as important as any other skill you can acquire.
ISyE: What is the most important thing you learned while at ISyE?
ET: I learned that there is a science involved in decision making. I learned that you can make smarter decisions with factual evidence when it’s available. I learned how to get to that evidence in school. I use that skill every day. Trusting your gut is important when no information is available, but confirming your gut feel with information gives you a far better chance of doing something right.
ISyE: Is there any one person who has been an inspiration to you?
ET: Not one person in particular. I try to take a little bit of what I like from many people and use it myself. I draw inspiration from my family though. My wife, my parents, my siblings…they all give me far more confidence than I would have on my own. In many ways, my drive has come from wanting to make those I’m closest with proud of me.
ISyE: What is the best advice you have received?
ET: Customer experience is just as important as product differentiation.
ISyE: Can you tell us one interesting thing about yourself, that you don’t mind me sharing with the rest of the world?
ET: I eat a mountain of ice cream every night…every single night. I’m convinced it keeps me thin. Perhaps I should start a new diet craze?
ISyE: What is your favorite flavor?
ET: Edy’s Grand Rocky Road. Definitely.
ISyE: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you are doing?
ET: Something in Sports Management. D-Rad, keep me in mind one day.
For more information about Alternative Apparel, visit their website at www.alternativeapparel.com. Follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/alternativeapparel and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/alternativeapp.