By Katie Perkowski
For Travis Robinson, owner of local men’s clothier Small Batch Apparel, starting a clothing business was not something he set out to do. Rather, it was the result of a couple of interests just coming together.
Robinson, a 2001 marketing graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, was a member of a fraternity during college. But he wasn’t all that familiar with the style of clothing often associated with frats – the southern style – and epitomized in brands such as Polo, Vineyard Vines and Southern Proper.
Then, after graduation and while traveling through the South for a job with his fraternity, he started noticing the southern-style clothing and the popular brands associated with it. “I just thought it was the best thing since sliced bread,” he said.
Robinson also thought it would be cool to some day start his own boutique featuring items with a similar style but with more of a “Kentucky brand.”
“I just always kind of had that thought in the back of my mind,” he said.
Then, about three years ago while at Keeneland Race Course, he decided, “I just need to do this.” He met with some people from a software company, got the cost estimates for creating a trademark and marketing logo, and then launched his company.
Now, clothing and accessories from Small Batch Apparel, originally run under the name Cash Robinson until Robinson realized Small Batch was a better fit, are sold at a kiosk in the Lexington Fayette Mall, at the Keeneland Shop and on the company’s website, smallbatchapparel.com.
The store carries a variety of polo lines, bow ties, ties, T-shirts, hats, sunglass retainers and koozies. The store produces polos in limited quantities, “much like small batch bourbon,” Robinson said.
The purpose of the clothing business, as its website describes, is to capture the charm of the racetrack and to “celebrate the time-honored traditions of the tracks and others throughout the world through our apparel.”
Jolene Dawkins, manager of the gift shop at Keeneland Race Course, seems to agree with that assessment.
“Small Batch Apparel has been here at the Keeneland Shop for over a year now,” she said. “It is a natural fit and compatible with the Keeneland brand. This year, we expect a rise in popularity as Small Batch has expanded, and we are excited to see how each Kentucky-inspired item – from the cigar and bourbon bow ties to the Kentucky tees and polos – will capture the horse racing audience once again.”
Like any business, the coming together of Small Batch Apparel was not without some setbacks, however.
In February, Robinson and his family lost most of their belongings — including products for Small Batch — in a house fire. Robinson said he grabbed all of his family members a pair of shoes and his cell phone before getting out of the house, and that was it.
“When something like that happens, you look for anything and everything (positive),” he said.
Those positives included the fact that he and his family all got out of the house safely and that most of the spring Small Batch items hadn’t been ordered yet.
The process of getting the business back to normal, Robinson said, is ongoing, but the company was able to deliver its first clothing order to Keeneland the second week of the spring race meet in April. The kiosk at the mall opened before Easter.
Robinson and his wife, Kristen, along with their two children, live in Cincinnati, and he commutes to Lexington regularly. The store is based out of Louisville, Robinson’s hometown. He hopes to expand Small Batch Apparel to Louisville, and is talking with representatives of Mall St. Matthews about opening a store there.
Although commuting between Cincinnati and Lexington is sometimes difficult, he said every time he drives into Lexington it feels like he’s coming home. Eventually, he and his family hope to move back to Kentucky.
“Our whole hope is that if we can get this business going, it’ll be an excuse to come home,” he said.
Robinson said for anyone who is interested in starting a business, his advice is to stay focused, to believe in that business and to be passionate about it.
“And at the end of the day, you cross your fingers and toes and pray like hell,” he said.