Standing at the waist-high table, leaning forward slightly, Sue Burns tucks a lock of long, straight chestnut-colored hair behind her right ear while peering into the open cherry-red toolbox drawer filled with vibrant brooches, stray earrings, flashy pendants.
She gently fingers the costume jewelry before placing pieces one by one atop a colorful sample of scrap felt. Then she reaches for another piece of scrap, leather this time, and lays jewelry on it as well.
Burns is founder and owner of Baabaazuzu, which designs and produces handcrafted vintage wool clothing and accessories out of a former sawmill on a Leelanau County back road. As her company celebrates its 20th birthday and appears on the verge of exciting new growth, Burns concedes she no longer spends as much time as she once did lovingly creating her products. But today, standing in her headquarters not far from Leland, touching the pieces that’ll one day adorn handbags, mittens, hats, scarves and other items in her lines of up-cycled wool products, she feels as if no time has passed at all.
“I still enjoy it,” Burns says. “I like to jump in here and go at it.”
Burns is jumping in on other fronts as well—expanding not only her product offerings (a new men’s line debuted this past fall and a summer line this spring) but also expanding her multi-million dollar business well beyond Michigan and even beyond the United States. In late 2012, Baabaazuzu was part of a new state program that assists Michigan companies in exporting their goods and services overseas.
“It’s a really good opportunity for us,” Burns says of her partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to promote Baabaazuzu products, first in Canada and possibly in Brazil in 2013. “We do a fair amount of business in Canada now, but we haven’t made a concerted effort there. Brazil—that’s on our wish list because, for us, being the Southern Hemisphere, it would extend our season. We’re hoping.”
Given Canada’s cold climes—just right for wool—and “the uniqueness of [Baabaazuzu’s] products,” Burns’s company is likely to find great success with our neighbors to the north, believes Chris Bosio, international trade manager for the state economic development corporation’s export office. The company is one of five Michigan businesses that took part in the late 2012 effort in Canada.
Like many labors of love, Baabaazuzu got its start at home. To be precise, it started with “a bit of a laundry error” combined with Burns’s penchant for creating clothing for her two daughters, Hillary and Maeve, now 25 and 21 years old, respectively.
Rather than toss the beloved wool sweaters that husband Kevin accidentally shrank in the wash, Burns’s design-focused mind took over. She cut up the sweater remains, pieced the fragments together and crafted jackets with matching hats for her young daughters.
“I suited them up and sent them out the door, not thinking anything of it,” she remembers.
Except plenty of others took notice, inquiring as to where she’d found such lovely clothing for her girls. Well, the outfits came from her, Burns explained. Soon, she was receiving requests for similar fashions.
The business began with a few products—sweaters, jackets and hats for children created using her Sears Kenmore sewing machine stationed on her dining room table. Adults were also soon asking for pieces of their own to wear. The business took off following an HGTV appearance in 1997.
“That was sort of the beginning of our exposure,” Burns says.
But Baabaazuzu—named in part after Burns’s nickname of Zuzu—was still just Sue Burns and Sue Burns alone. “I did everything start to finish,” she says. “Kevin was my first employee. I taught him how to sew.” Today, the company employs 15 to 20 people, mostly full time.
The couple was not new to entrepreneurship, and at one time they’d owned Leland’s Riverside Inn. Eventually they made Baabaazuzu their full-time jobs, and added staff steadily over the years. “We’ve always enjoyed working together, and we have a great staff, too,” Burns says. Many people have worked there for more than 10 years.
Lisa Brookfield is one of those employees, having transitioned from mitten presser to designer to general manager during her 13 years with Baabaazuzu.
“Sue and I have a similar aesthetic. We seem to agree on what’s beautiful, and that helps,” Brookfield says. “Consumers are really looking for added value when they’re making purchases these days—well-made and hand-crafted. They’re wanting it to add to their life. Baabaazuzu makes wearable art.”
An adult-sized vest, followed by Baabaazuzu’s signature mittens, ski caps and stockings were the beginnings of the company’s product line. Today, the line has grown to include more than 40 items, including bags and purses, scarves, jackets and accessories, and Baabaazuzu sells in at least 900 retailers across the country, and even in two stores in Japan.
Within the past year, the Burnses’ oldest daughter, Hillary Voight, has joined the team, taking on a marketing role and building the brand with a frequently updated blog and robust social media presence.
On a breezy-warm summer afternoon, Burns pauses inside the Baabaazuzu warehouse where piles of wool clothing tower on tables near an open garage-sized receiving door.
“This is where it all starts,” she says.
Nearby sits a massive Speed Queen washing machine that can hold up to 40 garments at a time. The age-old 30-minute process used here: felting, which involves taking the vintage, discarded and unsalable wool sweaters and garments and washing them in extremely hot water. The result: shrunken wool fabric that’s very dense and strong.
About 4,000 pounds of wool is processed at the warehouse each month, with pieces bought from salvage companies in St. Louis, Missouri, and on the East Coast. In addition to work done at headquarters, Baabaazuzu contracts with a Manistee manufacturing company to construct and sew pieces, and for the past three years with Grand Traverse Industries, which assists in pressing mittens.
Using as much of the wool as possible has always been important to Sue and Kevin Burns, and today they estimate they re-use about 80 percent of what comes in the door.
“Even the dryer lint is recycled,” Kevin says.
Baabaazuzu also has a longstanding relationship with Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, purchasing unsalable wool clothing donated at the Traverse City store.
“When we started working with them, it helped them get more wool and help create jobs,” says Ruth Blick, marketing director at Goodwill. She is partial to her own Baabaazuzu satchel. “It’s nice to see the artistry they bring to it.”
Working with the company also makes sense for Goodwill’s mission, Blick adds. “It definitely supports the Goodwill programs and our ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’ They take it to the next level: restyle. They do such great, cool things. And to see their business grow—it’s fun. They’re great people.”
It’s early winter, a damp and chilly morning, and Kevin and Sue are venturing to Traverse City to run errands. Later in the evening they’ll officially introduce downtown holiday shoppers to their men’s line at longtime customer Golden Shoes.
Taking a break, the pair walk into an off-the-beaten-path coffee shop. They shed their warm coats and fingerless gloves—Baabaazuzu fingerless gloves, of course—and talk about having returned from Canada just a few days prior.
The trip was a clear success. They’ve secured a couple of reps who will help sell their products in Montreal and Quebec. Though Sue concedes the whirlwind of jetting north, attending numerous meetings, and forever talking up their products is “exhausting.”
Sue and Kevin chose to slow down this year, going only to the largest seven trade shows, in places like New York City and Atlanta. (Last year’s trade show count: 17.) Not every couple could do what Sue and Kevin do. They work side by side, day in and day out, travel extensively and mostly together, but they’ve found ways to make the lifestyle work well for them.
“Since we’ve experienced so much success, that’s what keeps us going,” Sue says. “We also enjoy traveling together. And we try to add a bit of time where we can … mix a little pleasure with our business.”
A few of their favorite spots explored together during business trips: Carmel, Barbados, and the San Juan Islands near Seattle.
Kevin tends toward quiet, is deliberate in what he shares. He’s clearly proud of his wife, of what she’s created, what they’ve built and grown together. Talk turns to recognizing that others have attempted to create their own versions of Baabaazuzu, and Kevin leans forward to tell a story: Two different times individuals have called Baabaazuzu asking if the business would relieve them of their basements full of wool. These people had tried to make items similar to Baabaazuzu, but had failed in their ventures. These smaller operations, these copycats, just can’t make it work because they’re not buying wool in bulk as Baabaazuzu does, Kevin says. Also, too many of these individuals try to make up-cycled wool products, typically mittens, whose left and right sides match exactly in color and style—the complete opposite of what’s done at Baabaazuzu.
“Ours coordinate, but they don’t match,” Sue explains. “We’re known for our combination of color, texture and pattern.”
Baabaazuzu’s felting process also sets them apart from others. “We call it Midwest chic,” Kevin says, smiling at Sue.
It’s a style that’s not necessarily “trending,” either. The Burnses are most concerned with designing a product they know their loyal customers will like, that will make sense for their lifestyle and individual fashion sensibility.
“Our customers become attached to their product,” Sue says. So much so that it’s common to receive a phone call from someone seeking a repair to a beloved mitten—the palm or the thumb have worn down, could a new patch be sewn in, they ask.
Sue and Kevin both understand—they, too, have their tried-and-true pieces. Readying to leave the coffee shop, to continue their afternoon in Traverse City, Kevin talks about his favorite messenger bag. Sue has a few favorite coordinating pieces: “my gold, black and gray mittens with a headband” and “my fuchsia and brown hat.”
It’s in this moment, hearing them talk not only as business owners but as users and devotees themselves of what they create, that it becomes all the more clear: Baabaazuzu has lasted so many years beyond its laundry room start-up because the passionate individuals behind the business both live in their products and keep looking ahead, keep wondering where their ideas and designs will take them—and their customers—next. Visit them online at baabaazuzu.com.