Sauce Headwear walks line between form and function

Sauce Headwear was founded by Shayla Swanson, a former member of the Canadian National Nordic Ski Team. She designs beanies for active, outdoorsy folks that aren’t too hot or too itchy - and incorporate an element of fun.
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Shrink and pink is a thing of the past. Women’s specific products are now fashion-forward and functional, like the cute headwear from Sauce (www.sauceheadwear.com).

Though Sauce offers designs for men, the women’s styles are a bit more fun and eye-catching. Shayla Swanson (pictured right with husband Matthew Parks) recently added the Tulip (MSRP $37) winter "toque" to her line of performance beanies. Though she’s been designing and making hats since 2002 to support her racing, she officially founded the company in 2010 and her products are now sold at more than 100 retail locations in North America.

Though her company is currently based in Bozeman, Mont., it was founded in Canada, where they use the word toque for beanie. Keeping the French name represents a nod to the company’s history.

Headwear, including toques, had its best year in 2010, according to figures from the Leisure Trends Group's 2010 Topline Report, but those figures declined a bit in 2011 for specialty outdoor retailers, down 2.7 percent to 3.4 million units sold. Though headwear sales were slow in specialty outdoor stores, they were up 1.1 percent across all channels, including internet, chain and specialty stores.

Swanson has been a competitive Nordic skier for most of her life. “Since I could walk, I was a racer,” Swanson said.

Though she claims she didn’t take it as seriously as some of her teammates on the Canadian National Team, she was on track to make the Canadian Olympic Team. But in 2010, she barely missed making the team and decided it was time to pursue another goal – to turn her part-time hat making into a full-time business.

That’s when the company was born. It wasn’t called Sauce initially, rather Swanson named it SOS headwear, which stood for "Shayla on Skis." When she started taking the business more seriously, she thought she needed a more intriguing – and more trademarkable – name. SOS sounded like "sauce" so it was a natural step, Swanson said. Plus, it had a double meaning.

“Sauce is something you use to enhance flavor,” Swanson said, as she wore her company’s newest hat, the Tulip. Her fun hats enhanced the flavor of function, she said. And, Swanson cautioned, don’t let the cute designs fool you as they have been tested extensively during Nordic races.

Swanson's business, run by a team of three folks, is doing well, she said, but said she'd rather not release her revenues.

As it is in business, starting and running one isn’t without its challenges. “It’s a nonstop challenge,” Swanson said. “I learn something every day.”

Surprisingly, though Swanson has been a competitive athlete her whole life, she was somewhat perplexed by competition in a business environment, and determining her niche in the market. Plus, she said, she had some trouble sourcing her products since she’s committed to selling products manufactured in North America. 

Despite all of the challenges she’s still working through, she enjoys doing business with organizations and nonprofits like Girls on the Run, a running program for elementary-school aged girls. Organizations get a discount from Sauce Headwear when they order Sauce products bearing logos, Swanson said, and since she started the business in 2010, close to 100 organizations have ordered custom items from her.

“We have fun and functional products,” Swanson said. “So many winter hats are too hot or too itchy, but ours aren’t and they’re fun.”

--Ana Trujillo

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